YANGON, Myanmar

Mountains and hills around this country’s second largest border trading zone on the banks of the Moei River bordering Myanmar and Thailand have quickly disappeared.

Machines cleared land to build roads and overhead power line as part of urban expansion.

Myawaddy New City project was implemented on 543 acres of land with a joint venture that involves the Chit Linn Myaing company owned by Border Guard Force (BGF), a powerful ethnic armed group operating under the command of the military in the region, since it was approved by the regional government in late 2018.

Locals and real estate agents said land plots in government-back project are hardly sold despite its good location and fair prices.

“The land prices there are pretty low although it is just next to Myawaddy and the highest land price is just about 35 million kyats ($22,200) per acre. Businesses and investors, however, have not much interest in it,” said a Myawaddy-based real estate agent who asked not to be named because she is worried that speaking could affect her business.

“They are instead interested in buying land along the Moei River regardless if it is urban land or just farmland,” she told Anadolu Agency.

She recently arranged a purchase of two acres of farmland along the river with about 3.5 billion kyats per acre ($2,220,000) — about 100 times higher than land prices for the Myawaddy New City project.

“The buyer is a Chinese businessman,” she said, and he has already purchased more than 10 acres of farmland along the Moei River.

She said Chinese businesses or individuals have been purchasing farmland along the river for years.

“People are speculating on property and it is driving up land prices,” she said.

Kayin state was riddled by a decade-long armed conflict between the military and ethnic rebel groups until a cease-fire agreement was signed in 2012.

But the area, especially Myawaddy, has been attracting businesses and investment in recent years because of its strategic location on a planned economic corridor aimed at connecting two port cities in Myanmar and Vietnam.

Sadly, Myawaddy has become a paradise for controversial business for armed groups as the government and military worries a crackdown could jeopardize ongoing peace talks.

According to local lawmakers, there are at least 17 casinos along the Moei River, jointly operated by armed groups and Chinese investors.

“All casinos are illegal, untaxed and ungoverned by authority. Armed groups operated casinos in cooperation with foreign investors, mainly Chinese,” said Sein Bo, lower house lawmaker from Myawaddy township.

He said only illegal businesses such as casinos and online gambling could afford soaring land prices in Myawaddy.

“Soaring land prices definitely relate to the growing gambling businesses here,” he told Anadolu Agency.

He said the town has seen an influx of Chinese, from other parts of the country, as well as from neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos, due to growing illegal businesses, including casino and online gambling.

Although official data shows there are only 5,800 foreign nationals in Myawaddy township, Sein Bo said the number could be much higher.

“There are influx of Chinese investment and workers, and there is believed to have tens of thousands of Chinese in the town,” he said.

An officer at the Special Investigation unit under the Home Affairs Ministry told Anadolu Agency that a cross-river trade gate operating online gambling, that was under control of the BGF, has at least 5,000 Chinese workers.

“Along the bank of Moei River, there are several such trade gates. So the actual number of Chinese could be at least 10,000,” he said.

BGF, which was rebranded as a fraction of the military in 2010, is the most powerful armed group in the region, and is allowed to develop significant economic interests and licit and illicit businesses in exchange for loyalty.

United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recently published reports focusing on the shift of Chinese crime networks from Cambodia and Laos to Kayin state.

It highlighted the Shwekokko New City project being developed by a joint venture between BGF’s Chit Linn Myaing company and Hong Kong-based Yatai International Holdings Group, on nearly 30,000 acres near a village where BGF is headquartered.

USIP said investors behind the $15 billion urban project have links to criminal networks or actors involved in illicit activities, and are bringing criminal activities to the heart of Myanmar’s peace process.

Myanmar government formed a tribunal in June to investigate irregularities surrounding the Shwe Kokko project, and ordered the company to stop project implementation.

But during a visit to Shwe Kokko late last month, Anadolu Agency witnessed construction. Earlier this month, a new hotel, that was built without official permission, was opened in Shwe Kokko.

Col. Saw Min Min Oo from BGF, who is also managing director of Chit Linn Myaing, however, said construction was just for maintenance of unfinished work.

He said the project was approved by the Myanmar Investment Commission, and he was confident it would be given a green light after the tribunal investigated allegations.

“What we are doing is nothing different from businesses that others are doing,” he said.

“So why always us,” he said.

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