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Drugs and Cultural Survival in the Golden Triangle

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Revised February, 2011

Nations, countries, are artificial, boundaries more wishful thinking on the part of moneyed power-mongers than dividing, restricting realities; one must learn of important regional neighbors to understand any specific place. China without knowledge of Mongolia or Russia would be a confusing picture which Confucianism certainly can’t explain; examining Spain without acknowledging Islamic impact would be like looking at a Hollywood-movie wild-west town false-front. Many think the USA its own thing, dominating Canada and Mexico but hardly influenced by them, but that’s less than silly.

Unfortunately, there’s little morality in big business or international politics. Governments protect business and wealth, often little more than feigning concern with public welfare; education is especially poorly managed. Governments seldom encourage indigenous self-sufficiency, close-to-nature and/or obdurately traditional; only occasionally are governments far-sighted. Power doesn’t like to share, so certain essential vitality doesn’t come to it. And indeed, the meek remain when power is gone (although always, new replacement powers come along).

With Dutch government financial backing, writer Guy Horton says he’s documented slave labor, systematic rape, conscription of child soldiers, massacres and deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical services, along the Myanmar side of the Thai frontier and most especially in Shan and Karen States. He presented evidence meeting the standards of international law in a 600-page report, “Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma” (2005). “Typically,” Horton said, “the army will move into a village, confiscate anything of value, slaughter the animals, and destroy the cooking pots and looms. The village is burned and usually mined. The inhabitants are relocated to a new site, usually with inadequate food and water, where they’re forced into labor schemes such as road-building. In the long run, many just can’t survive.” Horton also ran across numerous Burmese army defectors. International reaction remains lame.

Sanctions against Iraq before the second U.S. invasion caused as much death as Saddam Hussein and both recent US/Iraq wars - deaths mostly of babies, at that. Israel, perhaps more hypocritical for being a state more based on religion, gladly offers Myanmar dangerous weapons while bemoaning Palestinian barbarity. Thailand has used its weapons successfully only on its own people (excepting Thai airmen of WWI fighting in France; some served in Korea, and over 10,000 in Vietnam, but Thailand’s been a laudably peaceable neighbor - whilst in the few clashes it’s had, not militarily dazzling), yet because media is owned by businessmen doing business with other businessmen who’re often in government, need to purchase ever larger quantities of ever more powerful and of weapons isn’t questioned (also, now one doesn’t need an external enemy; there are always ‘terrorists’). International Law has become less meaningful since the USA became the sole ‘Superpower’ (bully) - in the mode of Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, soon to be espoused by China. The world’s largest, and perhaps shakiest, democracy, India refuses to impose sanctions on Myanmar; China, with few pretensions to morality, is a major Myanmar trading partner; so are Thailand, Korea and Singapore. Japanese invested heavily until they found funds brought in had to stay, but their government still gives aid. Sanctions in Iraq didn’t work, and Myanmar is considered ‘isolated’ (like North Korea), but without the considerable (and indefensible) support from other countries (and mega-corps), the (literal) rape of Myanmar by its rulers could not continue. But for over a generation, Myanmar’s military regime has inflicted over 10,000 violent deaths annually.

The supposed cultural hegemony which Thailand advertises and Myanmar’s Burmese warlords try to ‘promote’ begs acknowledgement of refugees, overtly racist acts common at almost all levels, and Islamic discontent. While many Muslims and tribal people are well adjusted and even well integrated, there are substantial numbers who are not. The problem seems to rest primarily on insidious greed and economic colonialism: self-reliant/self-sufficient farmers (or herders, or hunter-gatherers for that matter) just don’t pay much tax, or much provide for, or pander to, power! Something artificial and destructive is being imposed – in the name of progress. The volatile situation in Thailand’s south, where Yawi-speaking people of close cultural similarity to their Malay neighbors have been treated like second-class citizens and are now subject to separatist or government-inspired violence, gets major (albeit misguided) attention, while a potentially more dangerous circumstance festers to the north. Both give possible justification for indulgence in giant military purchases (big toys for big boys).

When Britain annexed the Shan States in 1887, colonialists pushed opium production, producing it under license in Kokang, Loimaw and the Wa states (where it’d been grown for local consumption). About 40 tons per year were made in the late 1940s. Then arrival of Kuomintang (KMT) troops beaten by Communists caused increased production. A famous quote by KMT General Tuan Shi-Wen goes: “To fight [communists] you must have an army and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium.” A CIA website says leading producers of opium are hill-tribe people of Southeast Asia who “live under very primitive conditions with no electricity and no running water. They are very poor - opium is their currency, and it is sold or traded for basic necessities like food, clothing, and utensils. Opium is also used locally as a substitute for modern medicines because few medical supplies are available in these remote areas.” Well, that’s changed – methamphetamines, once ya-ma horse medicine, then ya-ba crazy medicine, are now “ya kai”, medicine you sell (or perhaps “hard-working pills”, as in kaiyan: industrious, assiduous), among people north of the Thai border.

In 1962 the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ of General Ne Win ruined private business outside the black market (which expanded); manufactured goods remained available only from trade of opium and heroin for Thai products. Daw AungSan SuuKyi returned in 1988; rallies against despotism erupted; the junta ordered demonstrators fired on, killing thousands. In reasonably fair elections (1990), the National League for Democracy won 82% of seats in the national assembly - support for Daw SuuKyi was overwhelming, except within the military and in Shan State, which voted for Shans. SuuKyi’s father, independence hero Aung San, persuaded independent ethnic leaders to accept his negotiation for terms ending British colonial rule by promising choice for secession, after ten years, to the Shan, Karen and Kachin. He was assassinated just before independence, and his promises became void. SuuKyi is English educated; her husband (now deceased) was English, her children are in England. This English influence worries Myanmar’s generals, who suspect English complicity in the assassination. As with many things in Myanmar, the military’s intentions in holding that election remain hard to comprehend, but it seems they failed to take Daw SuuKyi’s great charisma into account.

Infrastructure is substandard, with regular, wide-spread power-shortages (outages), and most gasoline purchased on the black market (from the military). The currency worthless not only out-side the country but many places in it as well. Than Shwe (pronounced “shoo-ee”), Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, which took over government as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Committee) 16 years before making this outrageous proclamation, says, “The Tatmadaw {armed forces, pronounced tah-mah-doe} will systematically hand over state power to the public, the original owner.” Sure. More likely, Burma will implode, as Eastern European communist regimes did, but the populace is cowed, demoralized, terrified.

Way underdeveloped, but frequently charming and picturesque, like a place somehow out of another time, Burma is potentially rich. The hospitality industry barely achieves a low standard, education and healthcare are abysmal, but Burmese (as opposed to Chin, Shan, Karen, etc.) culture thrives, magnificently free of commercial globalization.

This will change though, as deforestation is proceeding faster even than in the Amazon. Thai jungles are gone; landslides cover roads, houses, people… rainfall and river levels are down, cement has become regarded as a positive aesthetic, and as things get hotter, the potential for virulent disease spreads. SLORC acknowledged over 400,000 HIV-positive people in Myanmar in 1996 - more realistically it’s over a million and possibly 4% of population (in 2003 over 2% of military recruits were). The highest rates of HIV infection in both China and India are along their Myanmar borders.

Burma has about 135 ethnic groups (over twice as many as China). Besides Myanmars or Burmans, there are Kachin, Karenni (Kayah or Kayan), Karen, Chin, Arakanese, Mon and Shan, for which States have been named, related tribes, tribes of Tibetan or Mongoloid origin, including Mizo, Lahu, and Palaung, and the indigenous Naga and Wa. Most have their own armies, largely for protection from the Burmese Tatmadaw. Other armed forces include descendent remnants of the KMT and Burmese Communist Party, an ‘All-Burma Students Democratic Front’, totally mercantile drug-trade protection organizations and armed bandits (in the last few decades, several hundred groups). The total number of rebel armies at one time once was 26; most accepted cease-fire with the government, in hopes of development-help or other economic gains, but there remain about 125,000 non-governmental armed, trained and organized soldiers (some merely boys); figures for insurgent fighters are lower as they exclude commercial armies. The Shan, largest of Burma’s ethnic minorities, once comprised a third of the country’s population (now about 48 million). 10% of Shan men may be HIV positive; many Shan (and Karen) have fled to Thailand. With little else available to them, they’re reliant on traditional herbal understandings, and often have but unreliable access to even that form of help. The potential for survival of Shan culture, and that of other minority cultures in Myanmar, is becoming as if-y as in/with next-door Thailand, under globalization.

The military has doubled over 20 years, to 350,000 soldiers, despite no imminent external threat. In this time, almost half of Myanmar government monies have gone to the violent, terrorizing Tatmadaw, but moral is low, with little civilian support outside families dependent on army money. Still, conflicting politics, lack of geographic commonalty, historic animosities, communication difficulties, religious differences, and incompatible financial support bases make rebel unification, or victory, unlikely. In addition to Buddhist, Moslem and Christian rivalries, there are animistic and charismatic cults, and feuding clans. The Karen and Mon are anti-narcotic, but sometimes provoke each other. Internal strife led to the fall (after almost 40 years) of the Karen headquarters at Mannerplaw (not far from the Thai town Mae Sam Laep, on the Salween River) - Buddhist soldiers were dissatisfied with Christian leadership.

China sold SLORC F-7 fighter-bombers and two frigates (to be fitted with surface-to-surface missiles), in return asking for a naval base, or at least refueling rights for submarine and aircraft carriers, in the Bay of Bengal, on Coco Island in the Indian Ocean and at Zedetkyi Kyun (St Matthew’s Island) off Tenasserim (close to the Straits of Malacca). They got the refueling rights. Growing influence of large oil and gas companies, some of which China is buying into if not trying to buy outright (Unocal), could add to Chinese political pressure in the area. SLORC spends more on ‘defense’ than any other country in the Asia-Pacific region; its air force has helicopters, fighters and ground attack aircraft, mostly from China. In 2003 North Korean technicians installed surface-to-surface missiles on Burma Navy vessels; eighty 75mm howitzers (mountain guns) came from India. From Russia came eight combat aircraft (and its Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) contracted to construct a nuclear reactor, for which North Korea is also supplying assistance). China gives “friendship prices” for arms, and overlooks payment deadlines. Myanmar exports gas, gems, timber, agricultural produce and other natural resources, yet can’t get along without drug money. Trade sanctions from the West exacerbate this dependency: Tatmadaw units in tribal areas operate under a self-support policy, and so rely on drug trade. Opium has spread to places which prior to 1962 had had little or none: Karenni (Kayah), Kachin and Chin States, plus Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe divisions of Burma Proper. But amphetamines are now the bigger earner.

The USA plays typically hypocritical games in the region: it tries to keep Taiwan defended while pumping investment into China, its main currency supporter, with whom it has a trade deficit of over $100 billion a year. China has shored up the dollar with bond purchases of over a trillion dollars. It utilized American policies and trade to grow, while acquiring US-made jet engines for warplanes it sold to Myanmar. Peasant uprisings in China take ever more violent turns, with rural communities becoming less credulous and submissive, and abandoning hope of economic trickledown… Burmese know their government doesn’t help them (for them, government always has always been oppressive, but many accept a necessity for unresponsive authority), while Thais, Chinese and even Americans (yes, Mexicans and Canadians, surely) are learning how dangerously - even to their small lives - power corrupts…

Opium was used in early Siam, not only medicinally, but to calm war elephants and make them more handle-able in battle. In the same year that the British started cutting teak (1826), a British merchant tried to sell opium imported to Bangkok illegally (from India, via Singapore), but wasn’t successful.

Chinese working in Southeast Asia are documented smoking opium in Java as early as the 1620s; in 1702 Siam got laws rewarding help confiscating opium. King Rama I prohibited both consumption and trade in it. But in 1855, emboldened by success in China and advances into Burma and the Malay peninsula, Britain forced the Bowring Treaty on Siam; as mentioned above; this gave British subjects exemption from Thai legal and made opium a legal commodity (supposedly, anyway), with no import duty. In reality opium was made legal only for un-naturalized ethnic Chinese. An opium tax soon brought in over 15% of tax revenues. In 1906 an Opium Department was established, so the government could distribute, sell and supervise opium dens. In the dens, not only opium, but tea, was served. Thais preferred betel (which Rama VI began to discourage about 1930, while also encouraging a change to more modern clothing).

In 1824 tea plants in India had first been noticed by Westerners, growing in frontier hills between Burma and Assam state; but in the 1830s, tea still came only from China. Indian (or Ceylon) tea has come to dominate the world market, but back then tea was still a Chinese thing; the British still needed to learn the process by which it’s cured, to produce it for themselves and their trading partners. After many botched attempts, they succeeded in the 1860s, and began to produce tea in Assam and Darjeeling, northeastern India. But to finance their taste for tea, the British long found only opium, to provide them with a trade balance. Homegrown opium, eaten rather than smoked, had long supplied most Chinese needs; the British changed this by introducing tobacco, soon often smoked with opium. Britain accounted for over 80% of the opium smuggling trade – ‘necessary’ to meet its demand for tea; eventually they resorted to force to continue bringing opium from India to China (the “Opium Wars”).

In 1793, British ambassador Lord Macartney collected shoots of tea plants and took them Bengal, with samples of soil where they’d grown; Macartney achieved little towards friendly relations, or trust, between China and Britain – and subsequent embassies weren’t as well treated. Opium smuggling became totally out of control, and relations between Britain and China became unstable (when not openly hostile).

By the mid-1830s opium had become the most traded single commodity in the world. In early 1800s Siam, its popularity was largely due to Chinese laborers come to work constructing canals across the central plains. Soon there were many working on boats and docks, as laborers, craftsmen, rice millers, tobacco growers and shop-workers. Siam’s Chinese population became the largest in Southeast Asia, reaching 440,000 in 1821 (and constituting half of Bangkok by 1880), and with the Chinese came opium. In 1811 King Rama II banned its sale and consumption; in 1839 Rama III ordered the death penalty for major traffickers. But legislative efforts failed, especially as British merchant captains, even before Bowring, were largely immune to prosecution; if a British captain was arrested, the British embassy pressed for his release, and soon the captain could smuggle in another cargo. In 1852, King Mongkut (Rama IV) bowed to British pressure and established a royal opium franchise, leased to a wealthy Chinese.

Pressed for revenues to finance public works, European colonial governments in Asia established opium farms, then leased them to Chinese merchants. By 1900, each Southeast Asian state, from Burma to the Philippines, had either an opium monopoly or an officially licensed franchise. In 1905-1906, opium sales provided 16% of taxes for French Indochina, 16% for the Netherlands Indies, 20% for Siam, and a whopping 53% for British Malaya. In 1930, Southeast Asia had 6,441 government opium dens, serving tons of opium to 542,100 registered smokers, but it didn’t become a significant opium producer until the 1950s. Poppy cultivation spread in the highlands during the decades before World War II, but the region remained a minor producer – mostly due to state monopoly fears of lowered prices.

In 1892, the Thai government for 16% of its revenues from opium taxes; that rose to over 20% in 1908, and from 1912 to 1919, then dropped back. In 1927, opium shops were made state owned. A 1938 Opium Act ordered severe penalties for smuggling or illicit dealing, but in 1939 permits were given to hill-tribe people in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Nan provinces, to grow opium for the government. After WWII, imports from India and Turkey resumed; in 1959 opium was again made completely illegal.

That under 1% of the population (57,500 opium smokers were counted in 1939, 71,200 in 1941… realistically, there may have been 2 or 3 times that) supplied 15 to even 24% of revenues, especially as many of those taxed were rickshaw pullers and very low-wage laborers, may defy credulity, but one must note that cash, and tax, were then of smaller general significance. Corveé labor, import duties, the benefits of land control, spoils of war and perhaps other matters (including bribes) may have had greater significance.

When Britain finally abandoned the Asian drug trade in 1907, opium was as entrenched as coffee, tea and alcohol. China's harvest of over 35,000 tons supplied 13.5 million addicts, 27% of its adult males, and represented about 85% of world production. A League of Nations eradication campaign in 1925 got governments to restrict imports and close opium dens, but smugglers serviced the continued demand. Thailand and Indochina couldn’t close their mountainous borders to caravan trade from Yunnan; with 50 % of the region's smokers and 70% of its dens, Bangkok and Saigon were premier markets.

Much as the British encouraged opium growing, their rivals the French did also, although quite a bit later. The cost of running Indochina (which the French started to take only as late as 1858, then absorbing under total suzerainty in 1893) soon got out of hand; French colonial administrators started encouraging growing of opium to raise taxes (and line their own pockets) in the early 1900s. Later, they needed even more funding for increasing numbers of troops. When they officially outlawed it in the early 50s, their intelligence service, the Deuxieme, took over wholesaling the product, and soon used it to repay the Corsican Mafia for helping the Resistance in WWII (much as parts of the US government made arrangements with Italian mobsters). As in Burma, after the 1949 Communist success in China, opium was used to finance anti-Chinese activity in Indochina; as it also proved useful for suppressing results of anger and discontent, before long heroin was readily accessible in most large Western cities, and even, it can be well said, significant in Western affairs.

The Chinese Communists, vehemently anti-opium (although it’s said Chao En-lai/Zhao Enlai, Communist Chian’s first Premier, had been an opium smoker), waged a successful anti-opium campaign from the time of their victory; by the mid-50s, there was little cultivation in mainland China. The last growers were Wa in Ximeng Wa Autonomous County, Simao District, Yunnan. Even they stopped in the early 1960s. The Communist Party of Burma also suppressed opium; they encouraged crop substitutions in northern Shan State and further south along the Chinese border, including in Kokang and the Wa hills, which nevertheless remained the region’s main producers. Having lost China’s support in 1968, the CPB took over Shan State’s Wa and Kokang regions, and in 1982 began to officially tax opium farming. In 1989, Kokang and Wa CPB troops, dissatisfied with their predominantly ethnic Burmese leadership, mutinied. The new leadership entered the drug trade.

In 1961 the Nationalist Chinese KMT’s “Lost Army” moved into Thailand, many to take up residence at Doi MaeSalong in Chiangrai, where Muslims of Chinese descent already lived. The KMT planted round pears (‘sali’), plums and tea, but also continued in the opium business they’d entered into while in Shan State, Burma.

Northern Thailand was still sparsely populated and undeveloped into the early 1970s, by which time drug money had become the dominant force and the area called the “Golden Triangle”. Communist activity kept the United States interested even after the Vietnam War; such interest increased proportional to American consumption of drugs produced in Tai Yai hills. Communist insurgency in the north wasn’t strong, in part due to drug-producing KMT army remnants, but in the early 60s, Thailand’s northern border had “unknown areas”.

In 1982 powerful drug-lord Khun Sa was pushed out, and by 1990, a Royal Foundation directed by the King’s Mother, Princess Mother Sangwan Sri Nakarin, or colloquially, Mae Fa Luang &/or Somdet Ya, took great interest in the north, and did much to successfully contain, if not end, illicit drug production in Thailand. But drug lords in Shan State (including Khun Sa) increased output. ChiangRai was still a small town and in many ways decades out of date (though not so much as KengTung (KyaingTawng), capital of Myanmar’s Shan State, remains today). The wife of a USA Drug Enforcement Agency agent’s was murdered in an attempt at intimidation &/or retribution, in ChiangRai in the late 80s.

As late as 1984, in Huai Krai, 15 km south of Mae Sai on Highway1, an Opium Warlord was even issuing his own paper currency. The various groups (Communists, drug armies and KMT) gave up their weapons during amnesty programs of the late 1980s, and the area became amenable for tourism. Although the KMT armed forces dispersed in the mid-1980s, networks established by the Shan State KMT still operate; whether army and police officers in Thailand and Laos are still in the trade may be open to question, but of course it is denied, and dangerous to investigate. That active members of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw army, and other Burmese officials, are still actively engaged in it, is much less open to question; it is widely accepted that many still are.

For years the largest insurgent force in Southeast Asia was the Khun Sa’s Mong T’ai Army (MTA). Zao Khunsa (the “Prince of Prosperity” referred to in media usually as Khun Sa, originally Chan Cheefu or Zhang Qifu, hereditary Loimaw headman) made America’s “Most Wanted” list, ’though he was never in America: a Brooklyn, New York court indicted him on heroin trafficking (narcotics racketeering) charges. He died in 2007, while living in an Inya Lake villa in Yangon (Rangoon)…

Brief background: Lo Hsing-han/Law Sit Han, a major warlord/drug-lord, started in the early 1960s as a gofer, assisting poppy-growing Kokang royalty. Lo got command of a ‘KKY’ junta-sanctioned militia, and worked with KMT General Li Mi (of the KMT), sending opium to Thailand. In ’93, General Khin Nyunt (long head of Burmese Intelligence but now under house arrest) assured him safe-smuggling of heroin from Kokang to the Thai border at Tachilek.

Tachilek has the only airport in Burma within walking distance of another country; flights from Rangoon or Mandalay bring Burmese officers with parcels of bank notes to carry over the Mai Sai bridge, Tachilek’s link to international banking. Mae Sai, Thailand’s northernmost point, is an ultimate in proverbial border towns; the area’s Shan, Tatmadaw, Wa and Thai soldiers have frequently clashed; all of these and more rake untaxed income from dodgy dealings, but who should judge? Golden Triangle drug barons are hardly less moral than Europeans who “settled” the American West, the CIA or many Americans working prisons… Now frequently used for Thai-visa extension purposes, the border was only opened to tourists in fall, 1994. Although non-Thai visitors weren’t allowed beyond the town itself, I went to take a look. It seemed poor but light-hearted; I saw kids playing on stilts, and small roadside gambling hovels. There were antiques and handicrafts, but nothing distantly approximating what was available in Mae Sot (on the western border Salween River). The only well-organized business I noticed was the Mae Sai gem market. Burmese currency, kyat, was not then, nor is now, used in Tachilek; just Thai baht. Tachilek reportedly had as many as 14 heroin refineries in the past; now it has a Tatmadaw base and a busy market with a plethora of cheap Chinese goods, some jungle products and carved teak, and pirated CDs and DVDs. On my first visit, I was amazed to see a man in fatigue jacket which instead of a name above the pocket, said “It takes balls to rule the world.” Of many postcards I sent out from there, none arrived.

Lo (or Law) Hsing-han has moved to Yangon to live with a son doing active business with Singaporians, but still owns poppy fields in the Tang-yang area. In 1973, while leading the largest opium militia and a coalition of most Shan rebel groups, he sent a proposal to the US government inviting American experts to help with poppy eradication by buying the current crop for US$12 million. A Thai helicopter came to take Lo for negotiations, but once away from his army, he was arrested, deported to Burma and sentenced to death - later commuted to eight years in jail. The DEA suppressed the proposals.

KhunSa, similarly captured by Rangoon authorities (in 1969) was freed in ’73, after supporters kidnapped two Russian doctors and got Thai General Kriangsak Chomanan (soon prime minister) to negotiate his release. He revived the proposals, and invited members of a US Congressional committee on narcotics to visit his base at Ban HinTaek, ChiangRai. US officials visited, but President Carter’s administration instead started an $80 million gift program (over 14 years), to the junta.

For a decade Khun Sa had about 4000 armed men: the SUA (Shan United Army). The DEA planted tracking devices up the asses of opium caravan mules, but the Burmese, given precise coordinates, intercepted nary a convoy. In January 1982, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanan had Thai troops attack KhunSa at HinTaek (which subsequently became Ban Thoed Thai); after three days, the SUA scattered. KhunSa and remnant troops drove some KMT and Lahu soldiers out of borderland Doi Lang, and temporarily settled there, but a Chinese officer (who later become SUA chief of staff) proposed something better: setting up headquarters at HoMong, across the border from sparsely populated MaeHongSon, and practically inaccessible from anywhere else. A road from Thailand was put in; troops rallied back. Shan State heroin lords (despite his denials, including KhunSa) increased their output. In ChiangRai, in the late ’80s still a small town and in many ways decades out of date (though not so much as KengTung remains today), the wife of a US DEA agent was murdered in an attempt at intimidation &/or retribution. By 1990, a Royal Foundation directed by the King’s Mother was successfully containing drug production in northern Thailand.

In 1985, 10,000 soldiers of the Shan United Revolutionary Army under Col. YawdSerk joined to form the Mong T’ai Army (MTA), which in 1993 had its first sustained, concentrated attack from the Tatmadaw. The situation looked dangerous; KhunSa adopted an even more fervently nationalist posture. On December 13, 1993, he declared an independent Shan State. More soldiers joined; the MTA grew to 25,000. In 1994 HoMong grew to 20,000 and even had facilities for overseas phone calls (Christopher Cox of the Boston Herald says 10,000, but also says Chiang Saen means “trumpeting elephant” and that “Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Manchu empire”). Surely well over a hundred journalists, photographers, NGO staffers and adventurers traveled to the Thai/Myanmar border to see KhunSa, as did I.

Khun Sa offered to eradicate Shan opium/heroin supply in return for security and stability for his people, who were violently threatened by the Burmese. The price would have been a tiny fraction of American tax dollars spent on surveillance, interdiction, incarceration, rehabilitation, hospitalization, etc. “Persuade the government of Burma to return to the legal constitution of Burma, because the drug trade can only flourish in a state of anarchy”, he asked. Thirty years later, the anarchy, and drug trade, still flourish. Shans request for help with crop substitution, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure met little response, but captivated my interest; I decided to see what I could do to help.

My Trip to HoMong


After attracting KhunSa aide Khernsai Jaiyen’s attention through newspaper letters-to-the-editor supportive of Khun Sa’s independence posturing, and a trip to Khun Sa’s office in MaeHongSon (I just flew up, then asked a motorcycle taxi driver to take me there, using my not-yet very good Bangkok Thai), I received an invitation to visit Ho Mong, and even a piece of paper to serve as provisional passport.

MaeHongSon wasn’t yet a vast urban wasteland of excess cement. Most houses were of wood, and many quite beautiful. There were five 5-star hotels without customers, and many two dollar a night backpacker guest-houses (much more convivial and entertaining places than expensive hotels). Interesting regional delicacies like deep-fried bird were common, and standard fare available along a short row of places oriented to backpackers. There was an upstairs dance-hall, dime (B10) a dance; my next-door neighbor at the guest-house I found to be of the taxi-dancers! The pace of life was slow, modern vulgarity had begun encroaching, but much serene magnificence truly charmed. Vegetation was thick, mornings cool, almost cold, and nowhere did anything feel intimidating, except perhaps the 5-star hotels. No one seemed shy about Khun Sa having an office there, at all, but neither were they going to discuss the trucks with huge teak trunks loaded on, standing along the road outside of that office, despite official logging ban.

I met Kernsai there, at the office, and was told where to catch a ride early in the morning. I did so, and after an hour and a half trip, found myself at a small Chinese village of low brick houses. There I mounted a mule bred for the difficult job of traversing rugged mountainous terrain. The mule’s caretaker led us along a mountain stream for a couple hours, crossing it, back and forth, many, many times. Along the first few miles of the path were impressive water-works, earth constructed runnels carrying water from a creek to fields lower down. It was nice and easy, breezy and beautiful for a while, then for a second I thought the horse was going out from under me, down a cliff-side. We quickly descended 8 or 10 feet while progressing on perhaps hardly a yard. The creek fell to 60 feet below us sometimes; the trail was seldom level. It was often so steep that the mules used long holes a foot or more deep, sometimes 40 or more in close rows, doing a kind of high-step.

We frequently went up, way up high slopes, the porter-guide-muleteer after a while pulling in front to help the mule, and my spine going almost parallel with that of my mount. When the slopes became too extreme we began using switchbacks, some 10 or 15 yards long, others reversing quite quickly. The horse sweated profusely, horseflies buzzing about its eyes. I tried with little success to swat them away with my quart (crop). We saw no-one for over five hours, until after resting on a level area we reached after topping three previous ridges. They were gorgeous to look back upon, but we were soon engulfed again in trees. We then encountered two men bearing ancient long-barrel rifles, and acting as if they were hunting. An hour later we met another man, at a very refreshing small waterfall.

Parties of international journalists, whom we saw evidence of in their trash leavings (Tablerone chocolate boxes given free on international flights, cigarette packs, pop cans), were said to have done the route in eight hours. I’d hoped to do it in less, and did, but to little advantage. My guide hobbled the horse outside a small dusty village, then left me in a room that resembled a small barracks, outside of which were tunnels into a hillside. I was exhausted and not unhappy to rest while waiting for a vehicle. I fell asleep, and someone woke me, offering to share smoke of some #4. I wanted to see it, but politely declined to partake. He took out a small vial of white powder and a cigarette, unrolled the cigarette and mixed in powder, rolled it back up, partook, then nodded off. Shortly after, I was directed to a pickup, which took me to the headquarters of KhunSa’s administration, where I was given a room at the VIP quarters. I’ve no idea how things would have gone had I been narcoticized.

A treaty had just been negotiated with some Lisu tribal elders, and I was invited to the celebratory dance at KhunSa’s residence. I was fed first, and had time to pour ladles of cold water over myself in my room’s private bath (equipped with an electric light), and to put on decent clothes. I was soon holding hands between two beautifully bedecked Lisu maidens, with green-uniformed but unarmed soldiers to either side, dancing in a circle that soon included KhunSa. He sang out enjoyable verses of voluble song, but I understood nary a word. I forgot my tired feet and legs, and tried my best to follow along in dance with my fellows. KhunSa made what was clearly a jest; people laughed. A European crew (Belgian?) went about with TV cameras and bright lights, recording the event.

My host Khernsai Jaiyen, the aid to Khun Sa most quoted in English-language newspapers, used his self-taught English fluently. I found his manner friendly and intelligent. He introduced me to several other English speakers, including two gentlemen of Shan descent purportedly based with the UN in New York. We were served candy and “whiskey” (which should really be called rum), after the dancing stopped. My new friends and I considered visiting HoMong’s karaoke lounge, but chose instead to visit the drinking stall of a woman who had a bit of English. There we had Carlsberg beer, tasty Shan/T’ai food, and a pretty good time. The electricity in HoMong, however, went off at ten, and I had to prepare for bed by candlelight.

Early in the next day’s dawning I was shown around a bit after breakfasting with the UN guys, at a charming outdoor market. I was saw a lake, schools, a church, garment factory, printing department, pharmacies, a new neighborhood and road construction. Half a year after his declaration of independence, KhunSa’s efforts in HoMong showed results: he’d established mushroom and silkworm farms, pineapple plantations, textile and garment production, a hydroelectric dam, a jewelry factory and a gem emporium. In the pleasant main market and well-stocked stores, dry-goods were mostly Thai, and only Thai money was used. Schools and medical facilities were readily in evidence, and two small hotels. There were no door-locks, nor need of, as there was virtually no crime. Rugged terrain, logistics insufficiencies (especially in transportation), and strained political relationships limit economic potential, but the Mong T’ai capitol HoMong (a mile or so from Mong Mai, more readily identifiable on maps, ‘though sometimes as Mong Mau - about 50 kilometers due north of MaeHongSon City, but over twice that far in actuality, due to the mountains) had thousands of new pre-formed reed-mat houses creating dozens of neighborhoods along the main road through a long mountain valley. Women mostly wore modern clothing; men and boys uniforms.

Kernsai explained that KhunSa wanted me to become his “Propaganda Minister” for which I would be given room and board; would I care to review his troops with him in the morning? I didn’t think so. Unfortunately it quickly seemed I had little time left… I chose to walk back, rather than wait for another rough ride on a mule. Walking took the same amount of time, and brought me closer to things. I still had a guide; he could hardly believe how slow I was, and at one point reached into an almost invisible hole in the ground and pulled out a colorful bird. This he put in a pocket for a while, then took out and flung into the air. It flew off making joyful noises, and I knew the difficult walk had been the right choice. But it left me tired immensely, and with sores on my feet still visible two months later. Arriving just before dark at the little brick town where I could catch a ride, I made it to MaeHonSon in time to be informed at the airline office that I should report for standby very early in the morning. I was very lucky I did so, as fog kept subsequent flights from leaving for the next 2 days.

I’d gone to offer some ideas for alternate income sourcing and possibly support in crop-substitution programs, and remain hopeful of helping provide viable substitutes for dependency on drug production for people in Shan State, through use of solar and wind power, and 12-volt pumping systems. I also had ideas for Angora rabbits… and it interests me to use this situation as a case example helpful in elucidating many problems in present political and economic frameworks and realities. Too much is ignored or wishfully swept temporarily out of sight, only to fester until erupting into danger to society at large. The absence of much available information on this situation is but one symptom of the problem; organized crime and drug-use epidemics are others. As important, of course, are general human rights, respect for nature and tradition, and awareness of history and resultant responsibilities. My hopes of encouraging profitable handicrafts production have come to little; dreams of promoting wind-energy utilization and water-storage have come to even less. There clearly needs to be a total paradigm shift of people in general, before we lose our heritage, and future.

When well entrenched and popular, the MTA had heavy artillery, surface-to-air heat-seeking Stinger missiles, and SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles (made in USA). Traditionally Shan, Kachin, Pa-0, Palaung and Lahu accept cultural pluralism as a fact of life, despite occasional necessity for violence. Farmers not protected by a local army then, as now, ran high risk of being press-ganged into work as porters &/or land-mine detectors for the Tatmadaw, without pay, even in food, and forced into situations of extreme danger without protective gear, acting against the interests of their own people. Thousands of porters have died and thousands more become severely mutilated while engaged in this work, supposedly for the good of their nation.

The main enemy was soon to change, though, from KhunSa to neighbors not far from his original base-town of Lashio: the ‘wild’, or ‘red’ Wa. Some of these Wa can still remember ancestors who were headhunters, living inaccessibly in small villages surrounded by impenetrably thick thorn strands. For two decades most Wa were Communist Party supporters; then they became capitalistic poppy cultivators and now protect the manufacture of amphetamines. The Wa fought against Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army until his surrender, and now are avowed supporters of the junta, while using Chinese money and acting under the orders of Chinese advisers. They want back lands Shans ‘civilized’ 850 years ago… Perhaps tens of thousands of the recently displaced 150,000 to 200,000 Wa were born in China; many Lahu people were evicted to make way for them, but as the government in Yangoon is interested in becoming less isolated (and making money doing more legitimate forms of business), this may not result in a new refugee crisis.

The Wa long kept Burma separate from China; the rugged Wa ‘states’, located in the far northeast of Shan State, are the poorest territory in Burma; indeed, Wa farmers are among the world’s poorest peoples. Wa have fought lowlanders for centuries, vigorously. China had no problem absorbing all of Yunnan, even with its many tribal peoples. Many Chinese passed on through into Shan State, but the Wa Hills remained frontier. Until just recently, there were few roads in the area (none paved), no educational system and no medical clinics. Only 10% had electricity. After Aung San’s assassination, the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) revolted; its most successful recruiting was among the traditionally warlike Wa. In March, 1989 the BCP collapsed; the leaders fled to China. The United Wa State Party (UWSP) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) requisitioned BCP uniforms, arms, ammunition and soldiers, and merged with a smaller non-communist Wa army, soon having 20,000 troops with additional militia. They quickly struck a cease-fire deal with the junta, so kept all weapons and, free to run its region as a semi-autonomous state, expanded trade in heroin – remember, the Wa hills were once legal opium-growing territory. Starting in 1993, they added methamphetamines.

About that time, tea cultivation began to offer a realistic alternative source of income (to opium). Two principal varieties of tea have become common: the small-leaved China plant (C. sinensis sinensis) and the large-leaved Assam plant (C. sinensis assamica). Science indicates that tea production originated in Southeast Asia, in the mountains where China, Burma and Laos meet. Tea seems to have been first used in Yunnan, especially in its southern districts (Pu’er Prefecture and Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture – to Thais, Sipsongpanna). Its natural habitat is in the fan-shaped area between the Naga, Manipur and Lushai hills of the Assam–Burma frontier (to the west), through China and the Himalayan foothills of upper Burma and Thailand east to Chekiang Province and south into Vietnam and mountains of upper Cambodia. The three main varieties of the tea plant - Chinese, Assam and Cambodian - occur in their most distinct forms at the extremes of this fan-shaped area. Teas are classified by region of origin, by size of processed leaf, and, most importantly, by manufacturing processes, which produce fermented (black), unfermented (green), and semi-fermented (oolong or pouchong). Many hybrids between varieties are commonly found in most tea fields.

In the late 1980s, experts from Taiwan helped the ex-KMT upgrade to high-quality hybrids of Camellia sinesis, from which they produced the much more expensive Oolong (‘black dragon’) teas valued by connoisseurs. Oolong refers to a processing technique by which tea leaves are only slightly oxidized (green tea isn’t oxidized; black tea is fully oxidized). Live top leaves are collected on clear mornings, along with buds yet to blossom. These are steamed, "withering" the leaves, oxidizing them slightly. After the brief withering stage, the leaves are lightly rolled by hand, until red and fragrant. Machines are increasingly used, to roll the leaves into small balls, and dry them completely.

Research in the early 1990s found polyphenol antioxidants, beneficial to human health, in tea; they help lower blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. Tea also contains antibacterial agents, can relieve cold and flu symptoms, stimulate the cardio-vascular system, and even help fight cancer.

Thai ice-tea, cha-yen, made from strongly-brewed red tea, anise, coloring, sugar and milk, is much less traditional than nam bai-toei – usually drunken cool, without ice. While in China hot tea is drunk to cool one, in hotter climes this isn’t much done, and tea, except for weak Chinese tea for breakfast on cold days and in Chinese restaurants, didn’t become popular in Thailand until betel was actively discouraged and ice became commonly available.

At the turn to the 21st Century, the Wa attained a new significance in the local picture. Many relocated to areas just north of the Myanmar border, where they produce mass quantities of amphetamines for export to Thailand and elsewhere. Perhaps as many as 200,000 of these Wa are currently in the limbo of displaced people; tens of thousands of these were born in China. Many Lahu people have been evicted to make way for them, but as the government in Yangoon is interested in becoming less isolated, this may not result in a new refugee crisis.

This situation began to develop when dreams of an independent Shan State were shattered by a mutiny in June 1995 (at least for the time; it keeps, quixotically, or chauvinistic in the sense of being hopeless, popping up again). The MTA’s officer-training school’s second in command, KanYot [GunYod or Kan Ywet], incensed at despotism and racial discrimination by those with Chinese blood, revolted. He and 200 soldiers left. 1500 MTA soldiers went to negotiate with the mutineers, hardly 10% returned. Rumors of KhunSa’s ill-health were becoming believed (there were so many, so absurd rumors before, such as the killing of a barber for a bad hair-cut, that they often weren’t taken seriously); weariness was showing in his face. When the Wa launched their winter ’95 offensive against the Shan, desertions caused outpost after outpost to fall; some claim the central headquarters would have also, within days, if surrender hadn’t brought in the Tatmadaw - but that’s conjecture.

KhunSa’s surrender caught most observers by surprise, and it’s clear not all weapons were turned over - Stinger and SAM-7 missiles believed to be there weren’t. KhunSa called a session of Shan parliament to make a surprise announcement of immediate retirement; it seems he also betrayed those who hadn’t betrayed him to revenge those who had, demonstrating the correctness of their suspicions (and meanwhile destroying the Shan cause). KhunSa moved to Yangon New Years Day 1996, renounced his Shan name and took a Burmese one. According to the ‘New Light of Myanmar’, 1,894 recruits and 138 heavy arms were handed over to the Tatmadaw on 12 January 1996, and on 14 January, 9,749 MTA soldiers surrendered with 6,004 heavy and small weapons, 197 HoMong-made launchers, 13,452 (or 24,452) grenades, 10,346 (or 18,346) mines and 7,407 (or 17,027) heavy arms rounds. 9,749 MTA soldiers surrendered, or maybe ‘over’ 4000 surrendered, in return for 50,000 sacks of rice. KhunSa was given a commercial bus concession from Rangoon to Shan State, a casino at Myawaddy (near the old Karen National Union headquarters at Mannerplaw, which has become a notorious ‘ya-ba’ transit point) and more; the junta steadfastly refuses a US offer of $2 million for his extradition. The USWA took over many of the border strongholds: “They have real capabilities and a growing infrastructure,” Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.) quoted a diplomat. “This has the appearance of an emerging state.” In Mong Yawn valley north of ChiangMai’s Mae Ai district, the Wa have built roads, dams, an electricity-generating plant, underground fuel tanks, military compounds, schools, a hospital and modern town, employing 6,000 Thai laborers - with the only money they have, drug money.

A settlement built in 2000 by southern Wa boss Wei HseuhKang (Wei Xuegang, first part of KMT intellignence, then with Khun Sa until 1995 when he joined the small Wa National Council, later merged with the United Wa State Army), about 6 km from the border opposite Chiang Rai Province, reportedly has shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (ones Khun Sa got from Cambodia and mujahadeen?). Plans to enlarge Mong Yawn - population around 10,000 early in 2004 - to about 120,000, involve a shifting Wa southward: part of a mysterious plan for ending opium cultivation by forced depopulation instead of crop substitution. Perhaps it’s really about allowing (un-assimilatable) Wa from Yunnan to move into evacuated old Wa areas. Settlers on both sides of the Thai border are planting hundreds of thousands of fruit trees, as well as beans, corn and coffee, but Mong Yawn can’t support even another 50,000 people through just agriculture and livestock breeding.
“The Burmese are playing with fire,” S.H.A.N. quotes a Western analyst. “By diversifying their forces and territory, the Wa are gaining strength and influence.” Many Wa leaders are actually ethnic Chinese; north of the Wa “states” is Kokang state (all these are parts of Shan State), where most people are ethnic Chinese. The enmity between the Burmese government and Wa has resulted in a mini-arms race, and it’s doubtful the ethnic minorities will ever feel, or be, secure without having their own military capability. The UWSA has become one of the world’s largest drug-trafficking organizations, well able to procure powerful munitions. The US Justice Department indicted eight senior Wa officials in January 2005 (in absentia), on narcotics charges, but is really little threat to them. By forcing impoverished people to migrate, the UWSA has greatly increased its influence in Shan State, particularly in areas new to it where the Shan State Army (S.S.A., successor to the MTA) also operates – mostly along the Thai border.

Complicating the picture are new roads and infrastructure arrangements to make a “growth quadrangle” expanding the “Golden Triangle” of Burma, Thailand and Laos, to include Yunnan, China. This big area has many people with common ethnic backgrounds: Shans, Dai/Zhouang, Laotians, Lawa and Yi/Lolo hill-tribes. The proposals mean to boost tourism, encourage economic imperialism, and facilitate repressive political control. “The formation of the Golden Rectangle is inevitable because of the geo-economic advance of China toward the south,” Thai political scientist Sukhumbhand Paribatra told the Bangkok Post. “One has to be very careful, because this advance will be linked to the region’s powerful local Chinese communities.” Kunming officials have expressed hope that Bangladesh and China will work together: “Yunnan is China’s southwest province... and we want to develop a framework to enhance economic cooperation between China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India,” Shi Minghui, deputy director general of the Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan, was quoted as saying. China’s relations with Bangladesh bear major politico-economic implications; China has begun using the Bay of Bengal for military purposes, and wants to access it overland to increase commerce from land-locked Yunnan. Meanwhile, overcrowded Bangladesh poses a refugee problem - regular flooding dislocates its citizens, but more refugees come in - particularly Rohingya, Islamic people from Myanmar’s Arakan State - than leave. That that could change surely concerns Indian authorities.

Myanmar’s SPDC (a newer acronym for what once was SLORC) has initiated more “War on Drugs,” banning opium. Over a quarter of Kokang’s population left; rigid enforcement keeps half the remaining poor, with food security only six months a year. Some must work fields nearly naked, and try eating tree bark, as in North Korea. Throughout Shan State, 350,000 households, about two million people, are losing their primary source of earnings, indeed, 70 percent of cash income, because opium is now prohibited. People are withdrawing children from school and passing up health services, selling off livestock, land and daughters. “The reversed sequencing of first forcing farmers out of poppy cultivation before ensuring other income opportunities is a grave mistake,” warned Martin Jelsma of the Trans¬national Institute (TNI, an international network of activist-scholars based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands). “Aggressive drug control efforts against farmers and small-scale opium traders, and forced eradication opera¬tions in particular, will have a negative impact on prospects for peace and democracy in both countries.” Alternative livelihood programs should have been in place before eradication, as reductions in income will result in malnutrition and poor health. But about a hundred drug refineries remain, and a fully successful ban seems unlikely. Raids on refineries carried out in a “War on Drugs” target only smaller players. Control of all aspects of the huge business is now in the hands of a few major players, most prominent among them, the USWA.

Most refineries have been relocated to ‘safer’ UWSA areas. One being run by a local Lahu militia in western Mongton was raided on March 30, 2003 - a clear example of a small player being ousted out. The refinery set up by Kya Nu, leader of a militia group numbering only about 30-40 men was in Mongjawd. After the raid, Kya Nu was arrested and jailed; his militia was disbanded and the raid publicized by the SPDC as an example of UWSA cooperation in drug eradication efforts. The reality is that the UWSA has simply monopolized the drug trade in Mongjawd – it’s since set up new refineries in the same area. The SPDC junta and its military remain involved in all aspects of the drug trade, and condones such involvement as a means of subsidizing army costs at field level.

Roads now link Mae Sai with Jinghong, Yunnan, and thus Kunming, through Sipsongpanna (the “twelve kingdoms” or 12,000 rice fields legendary birthplace of the T’ai race). Soon there should be easy passage through Laos, and someday maybe even northern Burma; so far most roads in Northern Burma and Laos are barely passable for 4-wheel drive vehicles, but serious commercialization of the region appears imminent.

Burma’s northernmost state, Kachin, bordering Tibet in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the world’s most mineral-rich areas, with gold and high-quality jade. Opium production was substandard, and is no longer attempted. Kachin State remains poor and sparsely populated, with some rugged sub-Himalayan areas labeled ‘uninhabited.’ Still, teak and other hardwoods flow from those mountainous areas through Thailand to Japan, alarming rainforest preservationists. Thai prime-minister Taksin Shinawatra (pronounced Sin-awat or Chin-awat) spoke of developing ski resorts there, with flights from Chiang Mai.

Along the north-south Thai-Burma border, some Karen and Mon remain insurgent, with just a bit of international media attention and a little outside aid, but the possibility of their cultural survival seems as much in question as that of the Shan and small hill-tribes. An extremely controversial natural-gas pipeline (Yadana, Kanchanaburi, Unocal) was put in to supply a questionable Thai electricity-generating factory, disrupting much; Baptist and other fundamental Christian Church organizations, non-governmental relief organizations and global mega-corp business interests (Big Pharma, carbonated beverages, electronics) also have on-going, questionable, impact. Perhaps in all as disruptively exploitative are the many international tourists who go to “undeveloped” hill-tribe villages to photograph “long-necked women” (from the small Padaung tribe, perhaps one born under a full moon, whatever, one with many brass rings covering the neck and depressing the collar-bone). Such tourism seldom benefits the ethnic people, especially financially. What little they might gain they are certain to soon lose. Exploitation and manipulation by the rich and influential in the area involves little governmental interference. Now many long-neck villages (human zoos) are reachable by car, and advertised.

For over 20 years refineries in Shan State produced half the world’s supply of heroin, the area’s primary hard currency earner. It traveled through China and/or Thailand, as documented by Alfred McCoy in “The Politics of Heroin” (1972, Harper & Row), often in the care of ChiuChau (TehChiu) dialect speakers whose ancestors came from Swatow, the port of Kwantung in SE China. The TehChiu, a dominant part of Thai politics, are scattered around the world and suspected of extensive ‘Triad’ (secret society) involvement. Ethnic Yunnanese Muslim Panthays, called by the Thai “Haw”, are also blamed (but poorly identified, except as expatriate Yunnanese), and one runs across mention of new “triads” like 14K, competing strongly with the legendary Chinese secret societies.

However supplied, illegal heroin remains available virtually worldwide, flowing not only from the Golden Triangle, but equally from Afghanistan (and especially the Pakistani border area). It also comes from Laos, Lebanon, Columbia, Mexico, Sudan, and recently, southern ex-Soviet states (“-istans”). It’s questionable why American law enforcement thought capture of KhunSa might have any impact on narcotic availability or price, and why crop substitution or eradication is even necessary, as there is important medical utility, and legal narcotic production in India, Iran, Turkey, and Tasmania, Australia. Poppy seeds are used as food, on buns and bagels. In Burma they’re widely used for one of the country’s delicacies, Bein Mon (pancake made of rice flour, palm sugar, coconut chips and peanuts, garnished with poppy seeds), and are traded openly. With use of a bit of intelligent imagination, alternative income sources could be found: ganja/cannabis seeds also have great value, and are easily transported, but are irrationally suppressed. Drugs burned in public displays are suspected of adulteration by addition of food poppy, gum, sap and pods emptied of seeds; no-one can investigate thoroughly. Lashio officials were quoted as saying that as soon as foreign guests and reporters left, national security officials doused the fire and retrieved residue for the next round of bonfires - it’s all a farce, all about control.

In the 1970s, Burma produced 250 to 400 tons of opium per year. 350 tons in 1985 rose to 1,280 tons in 1988; in ‘89, it was 2,000 tons, maybe more. For the ‘90s, US State Department figures show between 2,000 and 2,500 tons a year, and for year 2000 were about 1,200. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put Burma’s 2003-2004 output at 370 tons, down from 2002’s 800 plus, due to bad weather. In peak year 1993, Laos produced 210 tons of opium. In response to Rangoon officials’ claim that opium output had dropped in 2001 to 865 tons from 1,065 tons in 2000, noted Shan scholar Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe commented that official figures were “arbitrary.” Opium production in Burma may not have been as much as many ‘experts’ have stated – quotes may often have been double or more of actual production. In the ’70s, production may have averaged as little as 200 metric tons per year, and only 250 in the ’80s; it is hard to be authoritatively accurate about that. But by 1997, production began to decrease. By 2007, Laos produced only 10 metric tons, and production in Myanmar was down to about 20% of peak. Meanwhile, Afghani production, already high (well over 2000 metric tons) trebled, and extensive production began in Latin America. And, as production decreased in Shan State, it increased (although hardly correspondingly) in Kachin State – as also has use. And where opium farming ceased, the poverty of hundreds of thousands of ex-opium farming families increased.

Population, and especially AIDS, statistics vary a lot, and government, like bureaucracy, is more self-protecting than altruistic. S.H.A.N. reports Dai officials in Yunnan’s Dehong Autonomous Prefecture, opposite northern Shan State, questioning the annual output figures given by the UN and US, which have been shrinking each year. “What we are seeing here in Mongmao (Ruili) is a rise not only in trafficking but also addictions,” it quotes a drug enforcement source who posits more than 3,000 users in Ruili’s Zegang neighborhood alone, at least 10% of them female. “If there is really a drop in the production then the logical question is from where are we getting all the dope?” Chinese authorities are also displeased by Myanmar’s failure to hand over 24 of 34 drug fugitives who took refuge there.

Specialists from the USA have provided satellite and other intelligence about opium convoys, yet narcotics seizures have never reached 1%. During the period of most intensive US aid, ’85-‘88 - opium fields were sprayed with 2.4-D herbicide, from planes given by the USA - but estimated opium yield doubled. US aid was typically ineffective in achieving what it was purportedly intended to do. KhunSa’s surrender didn’t lower heroin production, but the SPDC claimed it incinerated 625 kilos of opium, 759 kilos of heroin and 3 million methamphetamine pills, 2000 kilos (over 2 tons) of drugs, on June 26, 2005: Yangon’s 19th propagandistic destruction of narcotics (in one they bulldozed bottles of ‘Krakindaeng’ Thai energy drink).

“The junta’s token attempts at crop substitution, often with international assistance, have also failed miserably, due to poor planning, coercive implementation and complete disregard for the welfare of local populations. Under the so-called “New Destiny” project launched in April 2002, farmers in many townships have been forced to plant a new strain of rice from China, which has failed in each locality,” according to S.H.A.N. Opium takes only three months and is a cash crop. Nothing else yet compares, as “ya-ba” doesn’t require farmers. Constant terror, atrocities and warfare make opium cultivation still the only choice for many.

Early last century, Shan were selling opium to the Yunnanese, who transported it down the Yangtze and sold it to the French. The Shan were then divided into 34 small principalities, but had no concept of rigid border demarcation. Warlords demanded to receive ‘taxation’ on all that passed by (as KhunSa said is all he did), and thus discouraged much farming of food for market. Trade was ruined to the point where salt became expensive and goiter a widespread problem. Without the drug business, the consumer economy of Burma might grind to a halt, as much of the little for sale is funded through it. Shan people wish to enter the modern world with the respect and the dignity merited by capable and industrious people, which they are, but commerce in narcotics hasn’t helped much, except insofar as it kept at bay, for awhile, Burmese military madness. The Myanmar government has, unintentionally or not, limited big business concerns that eventually may present an even more disruptive danger to Burma’s various peoples and cultures. Modern infrastructure can be doubly dangerous in this area, tending as it does to bring governmental repression and corporate exploitation. A direct relationship clearly exists between poverty and the narcotics problem, but KhunSa’s aide Khernsai Jaiyen expressed no interest in the parallels with problems in South America, or in contacts there, when I asked. Shan State may never be able to have more impact on the world beyond it than it had through narcotics, and it’s unclear how much outside people should feel obliged to become involved in internal Shan State affairs. But with drug addiction a problem of increasing magnitude, especially due to AIDS, it can easily seem to be a problem of either influencing the situation, or being influenced by it.

The emerging situation


The once-famous drug-lords dead and gone, most refineries in the eastern Shan area are now controlled by Wei HseuhKang (or Xuekang), an ethnic Chinese from Yunnan wanted by both Thai and US law enforcement. In 2003 he moved from Monghsat to a northern area of Tangyan, given to him in 2001 by then SPDC Secretary-1 KhinNyunt (a supposed master-spy elevated to Prime Minister then put under house arrest, who proposed turning HoMong into a tourist attraction - an idea sure to be revived). Wei’s refineries in MongTon and Monghsat are run by other Yunnan Chinese, Chao Ching and Li Hsen. With Pao Yuqiang, these people briefly had a thriving metropolis at Möng La, opposite Daluo in Yunnan.

Wei’s brothers Wei HsuehLong and Wei HsuehYing (also Yunnanese) fled to the Wa States when Communists took over China, and were connected to the KMT-CIA spy network along the Burma-China border until the 1970s. Wei HsuehKang served as KhunSa’s treasurer at Ban HinTaek (now Thoed Thai) just south of the Thai-Burmese border in ChiangRai. After 1989, the Wei brothers linked up with Wa president Bao Youxiang’s United Wa State Army (UWSA), but remained little known until a New York court indicted them, and other senior Wa leaders, on charges of smuggling heroin and amphetamine to the US. Xiao Minliang, Vice Chairman to Bao Youxiang, Ai Lone, Chief of Staff of the United Wa State Army, Zhao Wenxing, deputy Chief of Staff, Li Chengwu, a Kokang-Chinese hard-liner against Yangon serving as Bao’s military adviser, Vice-chairman Bo Lakham, who knows little Burmese but headed the Wa delegation to two sessions of the National Convention, are reported by S.H.A.N. as top cadre. These people are worrisome to both Yangon and Beijing, as they speak of themselves as a government. Wa’s don’t want to be Chinese anymore than they want to be Burmese, or under either’s authority. Important Chinese business communities in Mandalay and Yangon are growing rapidly; both Than Shwe and USWA are dependent on Chinese arms, and neither can stay isolated and intransigent much longer. At any rate, by 1993, the UWSA had moved heavily into the less complex methamphetamines production, less complex and more profitable.

In rural Shan State, people use “ya-ba” openly, to stay up to help at a ceremony or temple festival, or for extra “energy” in the fields; there’s little social stigma for those who use it, much as, traditionally, with opium. In the past few years, it’s become common for polite hosts in Shan State to offer meth to visitors, with the traditional tea. This isn’t weird: varieties of drugs are accepted everywhere, and natural kinds are used pleasantly and successfully, within appropriate social context. Amphetamines are dangerous, but are known to have been used in moderation (doctors in the USA prescribed them freely when I was young, and many people took no more than their doctor recommended).

Nasu Lahu-na (my wife) remembers when most people along the border were engaged in the drug trade: there were many rivalries, there was much pride, gossip and back-stabbing. She says people would burn with urges for revenge, and report rivals to police… Once somebody caught their favorite enemy out alone on a jungle path, cut his head off and hung it up. Nasu’s father forbade her to go out there, but she couldn’t resist, and snuck a look. There was easy money to be made, but it wasn’t, isn’t, a good trade. The Thai Ministry of Health estimated 2,650,000 meth addicts in 2001 (4.3% of population total and 91% of the total addict population); mornings going to work I’d see herds of thin post-adolescents with brightly colored hair loitering in filling-station lots, after discos closed at 7 a.m. Even today, entertainment places for Thai youth close well after tourist-oriented ones, no explanation offered.

Around Kengtung, farm hands sometimes now get paid in meth pills instead of money. In 1994, a group of Thai dealers approached Khun Sa, but he spoke against meth: ‘Heroin is okay’, he reasoned, ‘our main customers are across the ocean. But, with ya-ba, we only have Thais for customers. If we start producing it, we’ll come face to face with Thailand. That’ll make our position more difficult.’ His uncle Khun Hseng (Chang Ping-yuan) was won over, though, and soon yaba produced in HoMong was of top quality. Drug producers in Shan State tried expanding into Extasy, but their chemists haven’t made a popular product (maybe good chemists don’t want to live in back woods). Wa and Kokang leaders could abandon heroin by establishing meth labs, and then not need to worry about weather. Labs can be moved, and food farming gives a stabler economic base. Opium is making a temporary disappearing act (locally), but other drugs substitute (‘date rape’ drugs have certainly made a name for themselves). The ya-ba market was lucrative until Taksin’s Drug Wars, but customers remain in the Bangkok area, and India, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Korea.

Amphetamines go to many of Myanmar’s armaments suppliers and other enablers. The Thai “War on Drugs” which started in 2003 with the murder - in just a couple of months - of thousands of possible small-timers (with minimal subsequent investigation, at best), made Shan State traffickers avoid the northern Thai border, and sell only to long-term, well-trusted Thai contacts. Thai newspapers still regularly report busts, but trafficking drugs into China has become preferable to down through Lashio and Mandalay to Moulmein, Kanchanaburi and Bangkok (though that still happens too). Beijing replaced paramilitary police with five regular army regiments, to patrol the northern Shan-China border; corruption among border officials was contributing to the problem, especially at Zegao and Ruili, opposite Muse (on the ‘Burma Road’). Many fewer Chinese officials currently enjoy the high-life in the gambling town of MongLa (on the border), than did just a few years ago. Taksin’s ‘War on Drugs’ forced drug operators to reroute their products, but a Chinese attitude that it’s better to die than be poor, means many replacement traffickers will be available. The 25 March, 2005 Bangkok Post reported 1.14 million addicts in China, equally divided between heroin and methamphetamine (quoting Yang Fengrui, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, as saying, “the situation has begun to deteriorate.”). The Wa have become a Chinese ally, and much of Shan State is becoming Wa State.

One report claims that as many as 300,000 Wa were relocated, to areas just north of the Thai/Myanmar border, to cut off support for the SSA-South. Many who’d recently come from Yunnan were replaced by Han Chinese. Certainly, many Shans and Lahu were evicted to make space for arriving Wa, and as a result suffer increased poverty. The Wa region along the Chinese border has passed several deadlines to become drug-free; but what are viable alternatives to drug production? What can be done towards sustainable community-based development and strengthening civil society to enable farmers to participate in decision-making processes about their future?

An Akha displaced from just south of Mong Hsat by Wa newcomers asserted that Chinese were easily distinguishable from Wa: “There were some Chinese with them (the Wa settlers). They set up shops and sold various food items. They also made whiskey to sell from corn. I also saw some Chinese soldiers and officers with the Wa Army. They wore Wa uniforms, but they were whiter-skinned than the Wa, so it was easy to tell them apart. They spoke no language other than Chinese.” A report from the Mong Karn, east of Mong Hsat, mentions that among 300 new Wa households moving into Mong Karn village, were 30 Chinese households. New Chinese are particularly concentrated at Ban Hoong, south of Mong Hsat. There, about 1000 Chinese are helping conduct Wei Hsiao Kang’s military and economic affairs.

The Wa area on the Chinese border is now pressured to become drug-free, but how are poor ex-cultivators to replace their lost income? What crop substitution projects and possibilities are there? Will there be reliable markets for the substitute crops? What can be done towards sustainable community-based development and strengthening civil society to enable farmers to participate in decision-making processes about their future?

Rubber, tea and oranges are now grown extensively in the area, and gem and zinc mining are expanding, as is cigarette production. Expanded road infrastructure and consequent growth in trucking has led to Chinese marrying love-for-hire, and more cultivation of corn, sesame, soybeans, peanuts, fruit and cabbages. Success in alternatives depends largely on China. Thailand doesn’t impose tariffs on import of fruits grown under the UWSA control, to help the Wa renounce so much that is counter-productive in their way of life, but farmers remain with little voice in decision-making processes affecting their livelihoods. Both opium prices and wages rose at least 50% between 2003 and 2005; seasoned observers expect little else to change, but even right on the border, in April 2006, both opium and amphetamines are hard to find.

The Shan Human Rights Foundation estimated Shan refugees denied refugee status, but arrived in Thailand from 1996 to 2002, at over 230,000. Sunai Phasuk, a Thai academic and consultant for Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “These people are not just fleeing war, but also forced labor, executions, mass relocations and systematic rape;” and Thailand is “violating international law” for denying basic humanitarian assistance to the Shan. An HRW report documents the murder, rape, enslavement and brutal displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the Tatmadaw’s long-running assault on Karen insurgents: 650,000 made homeless in eastern Burma alone. It’s pointless to discuss who suffers more, Karen or Shan; Mon I met in Rangoon, and Burmese in Pagan, also told stories of murder and mayhem by “governmental authorities.”

The UN World Food Program has supplied rice and cereal grains to Wa and Kokang ex-poppy farmers, particularly in Kokang, Panghsang and Lashio and to some of the other many needy in the potentially wealthy country. A million ‘Internally Displaced Persons’, 42% in eastern areas, are on the run from “scorched earth” policies that Human Rights Watch calls ethnic cleansing… 140,000+ are in refugee camps along the western Thai border, many for over 20 years now. Political reform and better economic management are more needed than charity; Burma lacks intelligent logistics, not rice.

Yangon isn’t the capital anymore, and neither is there really a junta now. Than Shwe has become “father of the country”, and wants control of the Chinese border, for which purpose divisions among the frequently-feuding Wa would come in handy. China’s stake in the relocation program is unclear, but it has provided much towards the huge costs of Wa relocations to the southern border of Shan State. Chinese authorities may want tribal people who show no propensity towards assimilation as Chinese to relocate from Yunnan to a place where they may serve some political purpose. Wa leaders want to use their areas in the north for resettling Wa villagers from China… but the world, it seems, is more interested in profits and oil.

Meanwhile, displaced populations bring to the generally porous border a huge increase in dangerous disease: pneumonia, dysentery, hepatitis, malaria, dengue, smallpox, TB, typhoid, typhus, cholera, yaws, polio, yellow fever, blackwater fever, influenza, scabies, meningitis, leprosy and even humans infected with anthrax! One with anthrax was a Chinese “Wa” leader - hospitalized in Tachilek. Despite Thai law, tea pickers and other laborers daily cross the border, and traders and even big businessmen do regular, though often officially unsanctioned, cross-border commerce. The environment is being ruined, individuals lose integrity through involvement in drugs, others lose all sense of propriety through systematic rape (certainly not helpful for containing HIV), cultures crumble - all for the sake of egotism among the small-minded wealthy and powerful. Ideals may seem anachronistic, and political involvement suspect; one becomes tempted to turn ones back to quietly just tend ones own garden, but meanwhile immune deficiency offers germs and viruses chance to rapidly develop new forms... The most popular of Taksin’s populist policies, his 30 baht health scheme, has resulted in long hospital queues for pain-killers and antibiotics. The rampant, almost indiscriminant usage of antibiotics exacerbates the potential plague menace, and not just because doctors haven’t time to seriously investigate complaints or suggest behavior modifications: germs not only gain immunity to poisons, but both pain-killers and antibiotics weaken immune systems.

If not Lo, or Khun Sa, or Wei, then surely someone else; so why does the DEA offer a tip-off reward, especially knowing it not enough to compensate for the danger elicited by providing it? Fear may or may not keep the starving from crime, but a whole society cannot be intimidated. Someone will come forward to assert self-respect, and regardless of how it provokes those seen as oppressors. People will always seek some chemical comfort from intoxicants, be it nicotine, alcohol, caffeine or something illegal. Should public welfare gain precedence over profits for dictators and global mega-corporations, the Shan, Wa and others could grow useful and beneficial hemp of non-intoxicating varieties; this might well help things in general. Instead of us allowing China to dominate world trade, a resurgence of valuable products could be quickly fostered. Surely China would get in on the act too, but innovations could more easily occur elsewhere first. The benefits from lowering dependence on drugs alone should be enough for governments to get behind this idea, if public welfare is indeed of concern to them, and not just power of a most temporary kind.

Burma has never known good governance, and drug trade and genocide in Shan State won’t stop without it. The government of China doesn’t care about genocide or cultural extinction(s); it’s become focused (like the West) on exploitation and profit. Many Chinese, though, recognize massive errors in their governance. Of Southeast Asian countries, the best-governed is semi-feudal Malaysia, where ethnic Malays get two votes while ethnic Chinese citizens only one. Modern, autocratic Singapore doesn’t mind if neighbors to the north receive drug flow; newly autocratic USA has lost moral legitimacy through inequitable “free trade” pacts, gross over-consumption, pollution, refusal to deal with global warming, and, of course, gross failure in regard to ‘terrorism’ and Iraq (illegal, inept invasion after mass-murder of innocents first through supplying Saddam Hussein then through ill-conceived sanctions). Mainland countries east of India and south of China can hardly pretend to honest, transparent governance, and are coming increasingly under the sway of Chinese… North America will fall further and faster if it doesn’t clean up its act by taking real interest in justice, human rights, environmental preservation, good governance and corporate restraint, instead of media manipulation, crowd-control weaponry, and ‘regime change’ - which should be the business only of the UN and local populations. Is there even an ‘international community’ to respond to genocide anymore? Why are there so few people like Guy Horton, documenting problems and making varieties of important information (such as the boom in “crowd control” weaponry) readily accessible, in organized fashion, through the news media or on the Net?

Nowadays druggies and some of the young set like to go to Laos to stay with poor people and try drugs, but anyone with even a shred of pretension to integrity will notice the negative effect doing that has on local communities visited. Unconstructive over-indulgence gets a stamp of approval from people of enviable position; greed and avarice are rewarded while dignity mislaid. Dope, while natural remains fairly innocent, but commercialized becomes a tool of exploitative greed, used against the already oppressed. Mess with it, and sooner or later, and more likely sooner, you will be, and feel, betrayed. One doesn’t really get to choose to join a mafia, or other secret organization; one must already be in place, before one even knows it… It’s not only other people who often aren’t what they seem, but sometimes also even you own self can suddenly seem quite different, changed or revealed… Remember, you can’t buy respect, or trust, or love.

In 1994 a U.S. grand jury indicted a member of Thailand's parliament as a major marijuana supplier, alleging he smuggled 40 to 49 tons of potent marijuana (“Thai stick”) to the U.S. West Coast, using container ships to carry it from Thailand. The indictment charged parliament member Thanong Siripreechapong (alias Por Ped – Little Duck - Yodmuangcharoen, a.k.a. ''Thai Tony'' to certain US government agents, particularly ion Customs and the DEA) with heading a sophisticated 14-year-long pot-smuggling operation (1973 to 1987); some say the DEA was more concerned with his involvement in heroin. Thanong was accused in a sealed federal indictment handed down in 1991; the U.S. government seized Thanong's Beverly Hills home and a Mercedes-Benz on the grounds that they were purchased with the illegal profits of his narcotics business. But Thanong, a former Chart Thai MP from Nakhon Phanom, pled not guilty. Judge Vaughn Walker sentenced him to time served (nearly four years of pre-trial detention) then sent him home to Thailand the same day. Apparently the accusations involved fabrication by the informer, false statements by the case agent, and the commission of crimes by both, during the course of the investigation and prosecution. It appears that significant information provided to the grand jury was false, and most likely deliberately fabricated.

Be that as it may, Thai stick, which had become popular in Europe and Australia and the US East Coast as well as in California and elsewhere, disappeared. A rumor was spread that Thanong had been a gofer for a US Army supply sergeant when a young lad, and that the pot came from Isaan, but I’ve no way to validate or repudiate any of that. Nor do I know how popular, or widespread, marijuana use has ever been in Thailand – seems to me it’s use has been mostly with the backer set, in Pai, MaeHongSon, and at islands where full-moon raves are held. It doesn’t seem popular with locals, although I understand that the seed was a traditional ingredient in a popular kind of kwiteao noodle soup. At the ChiangMai Night Bazaar, hemp products have long been available, but mostly they’re from China, I’m pretty sure.

Soon after Thanon’s release, ChiangRai seemed to be awash in cash and partying for a week. Suddenly Big C was selling something called “Little Duck Munchies”, which soon completely disappeared. Poh Pet certainly could have gotten elected back to parliament from ChiangRai, but pleaded poor health. Also, on December 15, 2003, just after a meeting with close aides of Chonburi’s infamous Somchai Khunpluem (Kamnan Poh), Thanong was allegedly being beaten up, and then fetched a pistol from his car and shot one of the aides, Wallop Supapornpasuphat, four times.

Another member of parliament, M.P. Mongkol Suthanamanee from Chiang Rai, was refused a U.S. visa because he is believed to be part of the drug network headed by fellow northern M.P. Narong Wongwan. Narong, named Prime Minister designate of Thailand in March, 1992, lost the nomination when it was publicly revealed that the U.S. refused him a visa because of his involvement in the drug trading. This also happened to Vatana Asavahame, deputy leader of Chart Thai Party. But, as with Narong, Thanong and Mongkok before him, the Thai authorities see no reason to even investigate Vatana further. Vatana Puea Pandin party chairman in 2008, is believed to be in hiding in Cambodia

The rivalry between elements of the Thai police and military involved in the drug trade, at least in the 50s, and involvement by Laotian government officials into the 1970s have been dealt with elsewhere (particularly in Alfred McCoy’s excellent and admirable work, “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia”). Involvement by officials in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Columbia, Panama, Mexico and elsewhere have also been convincingly documented - leaving quite open an interesting question of the extent of nefarious influences resultant from the suppression of natural substances long an important part of all cultures everywhere. That depression is disease (as in dis-ease) is unquestionable; that headaches from difficult situations are but chemical imbalances to be addressed only by the medical profession with the help of BigPharma mega-corps definitely questionable. Hemp, narcotics and stimulants have their value, and although some control of them is necessary, it’s been taken too far, and perhaps for less than questionable reasons. True concern for justice and public welfare must oppose the current legal format for addressing the issue of drugs.

Into the 70's, in rural Thailand, many households had a small ganja field; bai kratom (Mitragyna speciosa, probably an alkaloid), pretty poppies and opium were common, and older people still used betel… Then big money took over the world, promoting ‘heroin chic’, expensive alcohol, corporate control… When Taksin started his first drug war, a billion methamphetamine pills were sold annually in Thailand; over 3 million people took them (perhaps only 300,000 were drug dependent). But the drugs war is also a race war. Border minorities were targeted for brutal police action; there was torture, and the number of dead vastly exceeded the body counts quoted. Thailand's poorest suffered, also people threatening to the powerful: over 400,000 people 'surrendered' themselves for treatment, some of whom surely had little or no involvement, but ended up on corporate-management style target lists police still can’t ignore. With marketing and market expansion dominant forces of control, stimulants have utility, and can still be purchased - expensively - in the country’s urban center; meanwhile arts and entertainment are losing out to golf and fine dining. Self-congratulation’s far more satisfying than facing truth, values that generated society, as well as society’s future, become seen as irrelevant.

A task force of salaried scientists and engineers, in politicos dreams, will surely overcome all problems! Some believe development of a sophisticated form of slavery may be necessary for a world at peace. I don’t.

Above the ThoedThai market, towards Burma, is the “Khun Sa Old Camp” (Ban Pak Khun Sa), with a life-size statue of him on horseback. Going up a narrow pot-holed road from the market, one passes an old-style Shan “San Jao” pavilion with three tiers topped by a small royal umbrella, placed in the middle of a small lake (with dam to the lower side). A small two-tier alter with a Buddha image visible inside is next to it. Neither structure is fancy, but the panoramic picture does have a certain grace. Just a bit further up is the old encampment, and Khun Tip, who lives there (tel. 085-7077921), a charming, tiny young woman happy to show visitors around (no suggested guide price, up to you if you wish to tip Tip – but definitely the polite thing to do!).

The “museum” has been there 20 years or so, and mostly involves the original buildings, with lots of snapshots of KhunSa and his army, and some mural paintings. These include interesting depictions relevant to Shan culture and its royalty (one photo I liked was of a kinaree dancer with two people in a “Toh” deer costume, with mask). There’s a “Horng Rap Kaek” parlor with a Madame Toussard-like model of KhunSa sitting at table, arranged like 30 years ago. Close by are three bedrooms and a prayer room with benches and a minimalist altar. All walls are unfinished cement.

It isn’t a large encampment, although it was the base for about 1000 soldiers (aged from about 9 to 60). There’s a helicopter pad below, but KhunSa never had his own. As we wandered around, Tip showed me a “refinery” where poppy-flower tar was boiled (intoxicating those who stirred the brew), a “haw pak” dorm area with graffiti, and a huge piece of a Thai artillery shell dated 21 Feb 1982 (in Thai; and I’ll note here that Khun Tip doesn’t speak English). Up above on a hilltop is something which looks like a Jack & Jill well, but is actually the entrance to a “jail” used mostly for attempted deserters. The hole leads to a dark room of about 10 foot per side.

Khun Tip told me there had been about 14 different opium warlords in the area, between 1965 and 1990. Interesting, as Tachilek reportedly had 14 heroin refineries.

The 3rd and 5th Kuomintang (KMT) armies, eventually renamed "Chinese Irregular Forces" (CIF) and permitted to remain on Thai territory, working with the CIA, were the parties most responsible for turning the “Golden Triangle” into a notorious drug-producing area. After the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, many KMT forces refused to surrender, and fled. From the 93rd Division of the KMT 26th Army, many eventually settled at Möng Hsat, north of Fang and TaTon, in ChiangMai Province, and Santikiri (now Doi MaeSalong), in ChiangRai. Another group which fled was General Mi Li’s 8th Army. Altogether, there were about 12,000 soldiers who found sanctuary originally in Burma. Their leaders traded opium for arms from the CIA, and by 1953 they had several Shan State bases: in East Thanlwin, Mong Tong, Muse and Kyukok. On the first day of 1961, 5000 Burmese troops, with 20,000 from China, attacked the KMT headquarters at Mong Pa Liao, near Keng Tung, and chased about 10,000 KMT into Laos, where they settled in Nam Tha. Others fled into Thailand. Soon after, almost half of the defeated soldiers who went to Laos were flown to Taiwan. Most of the remainder were then cut off from support from there; some deserted. Soon three rival groups coalesced: the 5th Regiment (93 Division, 26th Army, under General Duan Xiwen, or Tuan Shi-sien), with 1800 men at Santikiri (Doi Mae Salong); the 3rd Regiment (also 93 Division, 26th Army, under General Ly, Li or Lee Wenhuan, or Wen-huan), with 1400 men at Tham Ngob and Pieng Luang, near ChiangMai’s border with Shan State; and General Ma Ching Kuo’s 1st Independent Unit with about 400 “intelligence operatives” (soldiers who still received some support from Taiwan). Soon skilled chemists were brought from Hong Kong and Taiwan; the “Golden Triangle” was soon the largest opium-producing area in the world. The first heroin refinery was established in the mid-1960s, near Ban HouayXai, Laos, across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, ChiangRai; as well-documented by Alfred McCoy, Laotian Army General Ouane Tattikone was also heavily involved in the trade, as was General Vang Pao’s Hmong army. Subsistence Lahu, Wa, Lisu, Hmong, Palaung and Akha farmers grew the poppies, but earned just a pittance for months of laborious work; some ethnic Chinese peasants from Kokang and other areas in the hills east of Kutkai and Hsenwi in northeastern Shan State also grew them, and other Chinese worked in transport. For most of these people, both personal and cultural survival was at stake; for the Akha and Hmong, cultural survival remains a pressing issue. In the late 1980s, Burma's opium cultivation more than doubled; then it decreased more than 80% from 1998 to 2006.
Supposedly non-involved in narcotics business were the Burmese Communist Party, most of whom later became the United Wa State Army (of about 25000 troops), and also the Shan State Army–South (with about 10,000). How their troops have been supported is open to question, but that the Wa have had extensive involvement with amphetamine production is not.

Other candidates for patrons of the heroin refineries (from about 1980 to 1995) include:
1. Kokang district royalty, especially Olive and Jimmy Yang; this group seems to have led to the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), with about 1,500 to 2,000 men under brothers Peng Jiasheng (or Chia-Sheng) and Peng Jiafu. It purportedly produced the best opium in Southeast Asia, and may still. Yang Mao-Liang and Liu Go-Shi are also cited as leaders.
2. Lo Hsing-han/Law Sit Han, his Lashio Ka Kwe Ye (or KKY) “defense” militia, with his international businessman son Htun Myint Naing or Steven Law (of Asia World Company; that opium business seems to have been later locally run by Liu Guoxi and Luo Xinghan).
3. The heirs to Gen, Sao Gnar Kham and U Ba Thein, who controlled Huay Krai, ChiangRai, in the early 80s.
4. some Karenni or Kayan (Kayah State was formerly Karenni State (home of the Red Karen)… Kayan are Padaung, who have a mostly disarmed cease-fire army, the Palaung State Liberation Army (PSLA), and a subsequently formed Revolutionary Padaung State Liberation Front (PSLF).
5. small ethnic bands like the Lahu, Pa-O, Palaung, Intha and Bisu
6. KKY militia from Tang-yan, Hsenwi (Theinni), Hsipaw (Thibaw), Mong Mit (Momeik) and Yawnghwe (Nyaungshwe).
7. Chang Kai-cheng, or Thawee Sakulthanapanich, of Mae Sai, and a few Thai politicians and uniformed services officers
8. The14K Triad; and most likely also TeoChiew, Hakka and Jeen Haw (Panthay, Hui) Triad Secret Societies (notably, Yunnanese Ma Hseuh-fu, a hotelier and tea merchant in Bangkok in the 1960s, and whoever took over from him).
9. The Eastern Shan State Army (ESSA), a.k.a. Mongla army or The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, in the hills north of Kengtung, with ex-Communist Party of Burma Lin Mingxian (Lin Ming-Shing or Sai Lin, son-in-law of Kokang druglord Peng Jiasheng) and Zhang Zhiming (Kyi Myint), two former Red Guards from Yunnan, and their 3,500 to 4,000 men. Their town of Möng La, opposite Daluo in Yunnan, became one of the most important drug-running centers in the country, with thriving casinos and even expensive Eastern European prostitutes, until largely shut down due to Chinese government displeasure with some of its people losing so much money there. ESSA apparently works closely with Pao Yu-Chiang, Li Tzu-Ju and Wei Hsueh-Kang of the United Wa State Army.

Some of those can be documented, others are but semi-educated guesses. Burma’s had over 25 insurgent armies, with maybe that many at a single time: several Shan armies including the Shan United Army (SUA), the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), the Shan State Army South (SSA-S), the Mong Tai Army (MTA), the Shan State National Army (SSNA, which broke away from the MTA) and Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) led by Moh Heng joined Khun Sa's Shan (or Shanland) United Army (SUA) ) in April 1985, becoming the Mong Tai Army (MTA), headquartered at HoMong, just north of Maehongson. When Khun Sa surrendered on 7 January 1996, a faction of former SURA fighters led by Colonel Yawd Serk resurrected the SURA. This is now the Shan State Army - South (SSA-S), to distinguish it from the original SSA, a cease-fire group known as the Shan State Army - North (SSA-N).

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) sponsors the National Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K); I’ve also found mention of U Mahtu Naw and the Kachin Defense Army (KDA); the Kachins are a coalition of people with at least six distinct and mutually incomprehensible languages.

Others at least sometimes involved in opium trade include:
PSLA – the Palaung State Liberation Army
KDA – the Kachin Defense Army (a.k.a. Kachin Independence Army, KIA)
USWA – the United Wa State Army
NDAA – the National Democratic Alliance Army
SNPLO – Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization
PNO – Pa-O National Organization
And the 3 revolutionary groups in Karenni State:
KNLP – the Kayan New Land Party
KNPLF – Karenni National People’s Liberation Front
KNPP – Karenni National Progressive Party

Due to its illegality and desperate competition for its great potential profits, how the heroin trafficking business has worked remains shrouded in much mystery. After most Turkish production ended, more and more was produced elsewhere. Was some that which was couriered by Nepalese royalty from the Golden Triangle? More likely, most was local, or from Pakistan and Afghanistan, but who knows? Lots of it has been carried by secret service operatives, by active members of uniformed services, and even by diplomatic pouch. Many say most left Bangkok by air. Opium isn’t grown in Cambodia, but Burmese-made heroin also leaves through Phnom Penh's airport, and the ports of Sihanoukville and Koh Khong. From Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, lots got loaded onto yachts or other, larger vessels, then shifted from one vessel to another and perhaps even another, maybe even ship to cigarette boat. Some, surely, went overland through China, by river, to Hong Kong and Macao. Much went in small lots, hidden inside things or intestines; much more went in wholesale quantity, assisted by bribes - and here one must suspect Triad involvement. Many small-level couriers were Nigerian; they often carried it home, where it was passed on to other couriers. Some traveled from Laos to Russia, to be sold and used there, or passed on to Western Europe. It reached most well-populated places, even South America (which now produces some of its own). It is easy to expect that much more was well-protected by syndicates, than was ever transported by all small operators combined, but also to expect that that will never be demonstrated. Certainly the extent of risk for small operators must be considered to have been the greater!

Over 20 years ago I was befriended by an Englishman I quickly grew to know somewhat well. He was an HIV positive addict engaged in similar handicraft trade as I also was then deeply involved in. For his supply back home, he sent many first-class letters, with about a gram enclosed each, to a variety of addresses. At that time, I also had a friend in Ohio who was a regular user. She never traveled, nor did she know anyone in Asia. She died of an overdose in a fast-food franchise restroom. I never knew anything of her source. Due to the nature of the dependency usage tends to involve, though, and that heroin is perishable, with a limited shelf-life, one must recognize that most distribution has involved regular channels. Only very few can have relied on methods at all similar to those of my English friend, with whom, almost needless to say, contact failed to last.

Around the turn of the millennium, 4 or 5 Western tourists were found dead of heroin overdoses, in various ChiangRai guest-houses, on the same day. Not long after, urine testing became common in border villages, and only a few very old people, with money from descendents working in Taiwan, or perhaps stashed drug money or money from amphetamine sales in Bangkok, were still smoking opium. The smell of smoked amphetamine resembles that of burning plastic; young locals became more interested in other consumer fashions, and before long, the influx of drug-seeking backpackers fell off. Certainly, as amphetamines are made all over, the allure of easy money from transporting it cannot have rivaled that of narcotics!

Cultural survival for tribal groups in Burma and Laos remains problematic, with few signs of hope on the horizon. The importance of cultural diversity, like the importance of ecological diversity, seems lost on far too many, but remains nevertheless real. Much as those who fail to learn from history will repeat mistakes, those who refuse to learn from the experience of others will also.

Joel Barlow

The author is an American living in the Golden Triangle. The article is reporduced form http://www.chiangrailanna.com/, http://www.chianghaimag.blogspot.com/, http://www.mythorelics.blogspot.com/.

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