'I had two choices, the first was to escape to Thailand, the other was to run here,' says 20-year-old Sandimar, one of two young monks standing outside a temple in Panghsang, the 'capital' of Myanmar's eastern Wa state, which officially does not exist. As part of the Golden Triangle, the isolated region, within one of the world's most reclusive nations, was once a huge opium producer. Now it is undergoing a series of transformations that is causing friction between the mainland and Myanmar and could trigger a civil war between the Wa forces and the brutal clique that rules from Naypyidaw. Sandimar and Sai Sai fled from Yangon after September's 'saffron revolution' was violently suppressed by the authorities. Sandimar says he was among the crowds of monks filling the streets when the uprising started. On the night of September 28 he faced the consequences; his temple was surrounded and attacked by hundreds of heavily armed soldiers. 'They came at 4am, they pointed their guns at us and told us not to move,' he says. 'Those who didn't follow the instructions from the soldiers were beaten. More than 100 monks were arrested at my temple.' The two monks were among many forced at gunpoint onto a bus and taken to a school in the suburb of Insein. 'When we arrived I believed they had arrested all the monks in Yangon, there were thousands of them,' Sai Sai says. Together with about 800 other monks they were locked in a room. Here they were forced to stay without access to washing facilities. 'We received food once a day but we were never allowed to leave the room,' he says, even to use a toilet. The smell in the room became unbearable. The Buddhist clergy is widely respected by the Myanmese. According to Sandimar, many of the soldiers were obviously not comfortable with the situation. 'But others were extremely brutal. They didn't care if we were monks or not.' He says the guards made the monks disrobe and dress in civilian clothes. 'They told us this made it easier for them to harass us.' 'All we could do was pray,' says Sai Sai, 'but if the guards heard our voices they threatened to kill us.' He claims to have seen more than 100 monks taken aside by the guards and beaten up. 'It was strange; they only hit them in the head and told them the treatment was a special present.' Their nightmare lasted a week. Then they were released with 70 other monks and told to leave the city. The journey to the Wa mountains took Sandimar and Sai Sai four days. 'We are safe in Wa state, the regime has no influence here,' says Sandimar. That the rugged Wa mountains would become a sanctuary for monks and activists was by no means guaranteed, however, because this is an area in flux. WA STATE - AN ILL-DEFINED area in the east of Myanmar, bordering China's Yunnan province to the north and Thailand to the south - is controlled by the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), the most heavily armed narcotics-traffickers in the world, according to the US State Department. Although Naypyidaw's generals have little influence in the region, a long-held ceasefire - and the fact the UWSA and the Myanmar military occasionally join forces to do battle with insurgent group the Shan State Army - has led to the perception that the UWSA has become a firm ally of the Yangon regime. Jiao Wei, a 46-year-old colonel responsible for the organisation's publicity and in charge of the Wa's television station, is quick to dispel that notion. 'We have not criticised the regime publicly but in our hearts everybody here is angry about what happened [during last year's crackdown]. We don't support what the Burmese [Myanmese] government has done but we are independent of them, so we have no influence. But we hope they can do a better job for their population,' he says. The area has never been fully tamed. British colonisers failed to conquer the almost impenetrable mountains and Myanmar's rulers have been similarly thwarted. Shortly after Burma (as Myanmar was then called) won independence, a tribal leader was asked by prime minister U Nu whether the Wa wanted education, good food, clothes, good housing and hospitals. 'We are very wild people, so we don't appreciate these things. We live just by ourselves,' was the answer. Living in isolation and numbering, on the western, Myanmar side of the border, only half a million people (an estimated 400,000 more live in Yunnan), the Wa remain one of Myanmar's most mysterious and least-documented ethnic groups. During the first British expeditions to the area, in the late 1800s, the Wa were labelled simply as naked, dirty, dark-skinned, poor and barbaric. Their tradition of hunting for human heads, which persisted until the 1970s, added to their ferocious reputation. The heads were used as totems in the villages to secure good harvests and to protect against disease. The only foreigners Myanmar allows to enter the region are aid workers and only Chinese are allowed to pass through the official border crossing with the mainland. Even representatives of the Myanmar regime need permission from the Wa authorities before they can visit what is known in Naypyidaw as Special Region 2. An illegal border crossing, about 200 metres upstream from the official point of entry and manned by remarkably casual soldiers, is the only option for foreign journalists or observers who wish to enter the area. 'The Wa hills are a strange place. Opium grows very well but rice doesn't grow at all,' says Jiao Wei. In 2001, Myanmar was the world's largest producer of opium. The UWSA dominated the industry and also produced large quantities of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that has spread like an epidemic in Thailand. Under pressure from China, the United States and the United Nations, the UWSA's supreme commander, Bao Youxiang, promised the Wa state would be free of opium by 2005. And according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, that's what happened. 'The US always says we are terrorists. That's a mistake. We stopped producing and selling drugs in 2005. We hope the world can agree that the Wa hills have become a good place and that the situation is not like before,' argues Jiao Wei. He says he is disappointed the drug ban has not had more support from the international community. 'We have asked our farmers to grow rice, tea and rubber, but it doesn't give enough revenue. They don't have enough food and need help,' he says. 'Most [farmers] are against the ban. The poverty creates tensions; we feel a growing pressure from our population.' Poverty here is at a level that is hard to describe. One hour's drive west of Panghsang is Maw Hai: about 50 shacks made of corrugated iron, bamboo and other wood, with cattle and pigs walking freely in the surrounding mud. A gang of obviously malnourished children comes running. 'It used to be opium everywhere,' says village leader Ai Nap, pointing to the fields surrounding the village. He explains that they lived in extreme poverty before the ban but now the situation is worse. 'Before the ban we did at least have some income to buy food and necessary medicines. Today, we don't have enough to eat. The rice only lasts for five or six months of the year,' he says. Of the 146 people living in the village, many are children. 'Last year many children died; this year has been a bit better,' says Ai Nap. And this is as good as it gets in the Wa villages. The further they are from the road and Panghsang, according to observers, the worse the conditions are. Maw Hai at least has electricity and the World Food Programme has established a water supply and sends rice. Ai Nap also says they are close enough to Panghsang to send the children to hospital when they get sick. 'But when they return from the hospital they die,' he says. It is easy to criticise the Wa's leadership, who live a life of luxury in Panghsang - a town built on narcotics where most businesses, hotels and restaurants are Chinese owned - while their people starve, but the UWSA did warn the international community in good time that alternative sources of farming and income would be necessary if the ban was to be sustained. For the most part, this humanitarian disaster in the making is devoid of international aid workers. The few in evidence are reluctant to speak to journalists, fearing critical reports could upset the Naypyidaw regime, which, in turn, could hinder their operations. Myanmese aid workers are more helpful. An employee of one of the UN's two offices in Panghsang says aid workers are not always welcome in the villages. 'There have been some incidents and misunderstandings. Many believe we are coming to monitor that they are not growing opium, then it's difficult to be accepted,' he says. The suspicion that several people in or connected to the UWSA are still active in the drug industry is also a deterrent to outside help. Despite Jiao Wei's assurances, there is little doubt large quantities of opium and methamphetamine continue to be channelled through the Wa hills. Proof is found in the shape of a young man who says he has just lost 4 million yuan (HK$4.4 million) on a deal. The drugs he supplied weren't of high enough quality and now the buyer wants his money back, money that has already been invested in new stock. He has had to sell up his legal import-export business and is, at best, facing years of instalment payments. Although trading in illegal drugs is still possible, a source connected to the drug industry argues the ban has made it harder. Increased controls in China have also constricted supply. The source remembers the days when truckloads of opium left Panghsang for Yunnan. A few days later the trucks returned with hard currency. 'To make a deal today you need both power and money. Money alone makes you vulnerable, as you have no power to protect you. Power is not enough as you don't have money to be in the market,' he says. When a deal happens, it is usually big and the risk is high. A 20-year-old woman, who runs a hotel in the border town of Mong La, says her mother could not be saved after Chinese police searched her family's Yunnan property two years ago. The quantities of heroin discovered were so large that no attempts to bribe the police succeeded and she was executed. The young woman's husband escaped the death penalty but is serving life in prison; she remains wealthy but must now look after her two-year-old daughter on her own. 'Most people I know come from families like that,' says the source, adding: 'Even if you are rich you have lost a lot. Many here are extremely wealthy but because of their fear of getting killed or arrested, they never leave the Wa hills. Instead they bring here what they like from the rest of the world.' Most of the food in Panghsang is imported from China. The cars, for the most part Land Rovers and Japanese pick-ups, have been smuggled in from Thailand. There is a throbbing nightlife and the women offering their services in a number of brothels are mainly Chinese. The nightclub Babe could be in New York or London. An advanced laser system illuminates the dance floor. Two DJs brought in from China are playing hip hop. Cheryl, 20, says the youth of Panghsang are looking to the United States when it comes to music and culture. 'I love black hip hop and the NBL is my life. I don't know why - maybe we look to black American culture because we are so much darker than the Chinese,' she says. Cheryl has a university degree from Kunming, Yunnan's capital, and runs a fashion store in Panghsang. As the daughter of a high-ranking officer she has little to fear economically, but she grew up in poverty. She remembers her childhood in Ying Pan, a village three hours' drive from Panghsang, when the mountains where covered with opium poppies. With her aunt she used to go to the fields during the harvest season to gather opium, which she sold at the local market for pocket money. In the 1990s her father became rich and today she lives in a huge wooden mansion in the centre of Panghsang. 'I have been very lucky and I do my best to help the people in my home village. When I go home [to Ying Pan] I always take clothes and presents for the children. They always come to visit because our house is the only one in the village that has a TV,' she says. Cheryl claims the local authorities are doing a good job in helping the population but admits there is a huge wealth gap. 'In the Wa state a few are extremely rich, everybody else is extremely poor.' In Maw Hai there are not rich and poor so much as young and old; there appear to be no teenagers here. The mystery is solved in Panghsang. At the entrance of the military academy a group of soldiers surrounds us. Many of them are girls and many are very young. Nika, 18, says he was forced to join the army. 'Every family with more than one child must give a child to the army, that's the law here,' he says. A boy in a uniform that is far too big for him says he is only 12. Another soldier explains that you can be recruited from the age of 10. The soldiers earn between 30 yuan and 40 yuan a month. The fear of an attack from Naypyidaw is, according to observers, the reason why the Wa leadership is maintaining its army. Even though the ceasefire has held for almost 20 years, the relationship between Myanmar's generals and the UWSA is not without complications. 'Nobody here trusts the Burmese,' says Jiao Wei. A recent request to move Wa settlements away from the Thai-Myanmar border has inflamed tensions, for instance, and there are worries about Chinese influence. 'The Burmese authorities don't want more Chinese in Wa state but most of the economy comes from China, so we welcome them,' says Jiao Wei. He says Naypyidaw has no business in telling them what to do. 'If they attack we will retaliate, but we will not fire the first bullet,' he says. With that he declares the interview over and cracks open a bottle of whisky containing pulverised tiger bone. 'This will keep you healthy,' he toasts. sandimar, meanwhile, hopes the Wa state continues to offer safe haven. He says about 300 monks, most of whom are originally from the Wa hills, have arrived from Yangon, along with a large group of student activists, among them 23-year-old Aung. A long scar on his forehead bears witness to the treatment he received. 'I had never seen this kind of brutality,' he says, and explains that he was arrested when soldiers attacked a demonstration he was taking part in. He tried to escape but was surrounded. Forced to lay on the ground, he was repeatedly beaten with sticks and rifle butts. 'They hit me in the back and the head several times. Then they asked me to stand up, only to strike me down again. I was bleeding all over the place. Then they put the barrel of a gun in my mouth. I was sure they would kill me.' Aung was released after a week and, like Sandimar and Sai Sai, travelled directly to Wa state. He is aware he has swapped one military regime for another; the UWSA is by no means a democratic institution. 'At least the Wa leaders care somehow about their population. They don't conspire to kill you,' he says. 'If you really want to confront the Wa leadership you may get into trouble but ... you can discuss and talk about whatever you like. They appreciate well-informed critique.' Whether the Wa leaders will remain so open-minded if the pressure from the opium ban builds or if Naypyidaw acts on its irritation about China's involvement in the region remains to be seen. For now the Wa have gone beyond their Conradian image as headhunters to become the unlikely protectors of Myanmar's saffron revolutionaries and a major player in the global crackdown on narcotics.