Among the main groups involved in opium growing and heroin processing in the frontiers of Myanmar have been 1) the army of the Shan drug lord Khun Sa; 2) the Shan United Army (SUA); 3) the Kuomingtang (KMT, remnants of the nationalist Chinese force that battled Mao's Communists); 4) the Wa (a tribe of former headhunters); and 5) the eastern Shan State army (a group of Kokang Chinese).

Many of these groups want independence from Myanmar and say that they are only in the drug trade as a mean of supporting their insurgent forces. Most of the these groups also have strong ties with members of their ethnic group on the Chinese side of the border, where some drugs flow on their way to Hong Kong and finally North America and Europe.

The Myanmar military regime has peace treaties with groups that supply heroin to America. The treaties with the Wa and the Kokang Chinese allows the groups to continue harvesting opium at least for several more years. Many oversees officials believe these treaties let the Myanmar military regime generals in on profits from the drug trade.

Many of the key operators in the heroin trade are structured like criminal gangs with an obsession for secrecy. They have their own heavily armed private armies and have legitimate businesses which they use as cover for the illicit transaction. One of Khun Sa's major lieutenants, Lin Chien-Pang for example, ran a karaoke club in Bangkok.

In the mid-1990s the Myanmar drug trade was largely controlled by Wa, Shan and Kokang warlords. In the late 1990s and 2000s it was controlled by the Wa.

Ethnic Insurgencies and Illegal Drugs in Myanmar

For decades rebel armies, most notably the Wa State Army and the various manifestations of the Shan State Army, have financed their fight against Myanmar’s military junta by trafficking drugs. Gary Lewis of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime told The Guardian in 2010, "Minority groups that feel under threat from the central government are using drug trafficking to sustain themselves and keep control of their territories.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The standoff between ethnic groups and the central government in the rugged and isolated northern hills of Myanmar is an anomaly in modern Asia, a throwback to much more unstable times. The Wa and Kachin have large, well-equipped armies and administrations akin to the small kingdoms that existed in Asia before European colonial powers introduced the concept of the nation-state. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 30, 2009]

Khun Sa

For many years much of the drug trade in the Golden Triangle was controlled by Khun Sa, a Shan war lord who liked to dress in military fatigues, raise rabbits and smoke cheroots. The son of wealthy Chinese tea trader and an ethic Shan mother, he lived in his well fortified headquarters in Ho Mong village in the East Shan State in Myanmar about nine miles from the Thai border town of Mae Hong Son. Treks from Mae Hong Son often included glimpses of Khun Sa's fortified mansion. [Source: Ron Moreau, Newsweek, and Philip Shenon, the New York Times]

Also known as Chang Chi-Fu or Sao Mong Kwan, Khun Sa was born in Loi Maw of Mongyai in eastern Myanmar Dubbed the "Opium King” of the Golden Triangle, he was also the leader of the Shan United Army and the Mong Tai Army. For a while he was based in Thailand. The Thai army attacked his camp and drove him back to Myanmar, where he set up his own private fiefdom in East Shan State. Khun Sa was portrayed by actor Ric Young in the 2007 film, American Gangster.

Khun-Sa's real name is Chiang Chifu. He adopted the pseudonym Khun Sa, meaning "Prince Prosperous". In his youth he trained with the Kuomintang, which had fled into the border regions of Burma from Yunnan upon its defeat in the Chinese Civil War. He got involved in the drug trade at an early age by working with Chinese Kuomingtan soldiers that lived in the eastern Shan State. In 1969, when he was 36, he was imprisoned in Mandalay for drug trafficking and stayed there for five years until his friends broke him out. He fled to Thailand and organized a drug network an army. In the 1990s, he controlled an army of 3000 men that watched over 600 tons of opium produced in Myanmar and 60 tons produced in Thailand.

Bert Lintner , who met Khun Sa twice, wrote on Asia Online: “Khun Sa was probably one of the most colorful and controversial figures on the Myanmar drug scene. Despite being indicted on drug trafficking charges by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn, New York, in January 1990, he continued to live comfortably at his then headquarters at Homong near the Thai border opposite Mae Hong Son...By then he was officially the most wanted man in the world, indicted by the United States and referred to by then-US ambassador to Thailand William Brown as "the worst enemy the world has" [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007; Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review]

In 1994, it was estimated that Khun Sa and the United Wa State Army controlled 75 percent of the heroin originating in the Golden Triangle. A Panthay Chinese Muslim from Burma, Ma Zhengwen, assisted Khun Sa in selling his heroin in north Thailand. In 1996, Khun Sa retired and the United Wa State Army took over many of the areas he controlled.

According to Wikipedia: “Over the two decades of his unrivalled dominance of the Shan state, from 1974 to 1994, the share of New York street heroin coming from the Golden Triangle—the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—rose from 5 percent to 80 percent. It was 90 percent pure, "the best in the business", according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Khun Sa, the DEA thought, had most of that trade. [Source: Wikipedia]

Khun Sa's Early Life

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: Khun Sa was born in 1934 in a small village in Northern Shan State to an ethnic Shan mother and a Chinese father. He grew up as an orphan as his father died when he was only three. His mother remarried the local tax collector of the small town of Mong Tawm, but two years later she died as well. While his three stepbrothers went to missionary schools and were given the Christian names Oscar, Billy and Morgan, the young Khun Sa was raised by his Chinese grandfather amid the poppy fields of Loi Maw mountain in northern Shan state. His only formal education consisted of a few years as a temple boy in a Buddhist monastery. During one of our interviews, I noticed that all his correspondence had to be read to him and that his replies were dictated. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band. He gained his first military experience in skirmishes with the Kuomintang, or nationalist Chinese forces, who had set up bases in Loi Maw in the early 1950s. He eventually went on to form his own army of a few hundred men. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the "Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye", a militia and home guard unit under the Myanmar army loyal to Gen Ne Win's Burmese government. Ka Kwe Ye received money, uniforms and weapons from the Burmese government in return for fighting the Shan rebels.

In 1966, Khun Sa was deputzied by the Burmese government as head of a village defense force against the BCP (Burmese Communist Party), which at the time was at full strength and heavily involved in opium cultivation. Khun Sa cleverly used government backing to consolidate his power and beef up the strength of his militia. When Khun Sa had expanded his army to 800 men, he stopped cooperating with the Burmese government, took control of large area in Shan and Wa states and expanded into opium production. Khun Sa’s militia eventually grew into the Shan United Army (SUA), also known a sthe Shan State Army. [Source: Wikipedia. Lonely Planet]

Khun Sa Takes Control of the Golden Triangle Drug Trade

In 1967 Khun Sa clashed with the Kuomintang (KMT) remnants in Shan State after the KMT attempted to “embargo” the SUA opium trade by blocking their jungle smuggling routes. Khun Sa started what became known as the Opium War of 1967, which resulted in his defeat, demoralizing him and his forces. In 1969, the Rangoon government captured him. He was freed in 1973 when his second-in-command abducted two Russian doctors and demanded his release. By 1976 he had returned to opium smuggling, and set up a base inside northern Thailand in the village of Ban Hin Taek. He renamed his group the Shan United Army and began ostensibly fighting for Shan autonomy against the Burmese government. [Source: Wikipedia, Lonely Planet]

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: Khun Sa, then 33, decided to challenge the supremacy of much more senior Kuomintang opium warlords. In May 1967, he set out from the hills of northern Shan state with a large contingent of soldiers and a massive 16-ton opium convoy, destined for Ban Khwan, a small Laotian lumber village across the Mekong River from Chiang Saen in Thailand. More traders joined his convoy, and by the time it reached the city of Kengtung in eastern Shan state, its single-file column of 500 men and 300 mules stretched along the ridge for more than a mile. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

“The convoy crossed the Mekong and the Kuomintang rushed to intercept it. Fierce fighting raged for several days, but the outcome of the battle is still somewhat obscure. At that time, General Ouane Rattikone, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Lao Army, ran several heroin refineries in the nearby Ban HoueySai area, and sent the Lao air force to bomb the battle site. Officially, he cheated both Khun Sa and the Kuomintang, and made off with the opium. Other sources told this correspondent that the opium had already been sold, and Khun Sa subsequently made his first significant investment in Thailand. On attempting to contact the Shan rebels, perhaps to switch sides, in 1969 he was arrested and imprisoned in Mandalay. He was charged with high treason for attempting to contact the rebels, not for drug trafficking, for which at the time he had informal government permission to engage in. *

“In April 1973, his men who had gone underground in the jungle kidnapped two Soviet doctors who were working at the hospital in the Shan state capital of Taunggyi. An entire division of Myanmar government troops was mobilized to rescue the doctors. The operation was unsuccessful and it was not until August 1974 that the foreign hostages were supposedly unconditionally released through Thailand. By strange coincidence, Khun Sa was released from prison shortly afterwards. It was later revealed that Thai northern army commander General Kriangsak Chomanan had helped to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Khun Sa later slipped away to northern Thailand. *

In October 1981 a 39-man unit of Thai Rangers and Burmese guerrillas attempted to assassinate Khun Sa at the insistence of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The attempt failed, however. In January 1982 a Thai Ranger squad from Pak Thong Chai, together with units from the Border Patrol Police and the Royal Thai Army, was used to force Khun Sa to move his headquarters from Ban Hin Taek across the border into Myanmar, where he initially directed his empire from a fortified network of underground tunnels. The Thai raid lead to the break up of the opium and heroin production operation in the Mae Salong-Ban Tin Taek area of Thailand.

In 1985, Khun Sa joined forces with the Tai Revolutionary Council of Moh Heng and several other Shan armies to for, the Muang Tai Army (MTA) led by the Shan State Restoration Council. In the early 1990s the MTA reached a peak strength of 25,000 soldiers, by far the largest ethnic armed group in Myanmar. Through that alliance Khun Sa both gained control of the whole Thai-Burma border area from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sai and became one of the principal figures in opium smuggling in the Golden Triangle. [Source: Wikipedia]

Khun Sa and His Drug Empire

In 1975 Khun Sa’s SUA increased it influence in the Golden Triangle region. As the Burmese government broke the KMT’s control over the Golden Triangle opium market the SUA stepped in to fill the void.Kun Sa established a new headquarters at Ban Hin Taek in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. By that time the U.S. had pulled out of Indochina so there was no competition from CIA-backed traffickers. Khun Sa largely severed relationships with intermediaries, buying up opium directly from hill tribe and Shan farmers and transporting it to heroin labs in Myanmar, Laos and Yunnan in China, where the final product was turned over to ethnic Chinese (usually Tae Jiu or Chiao Zhou) syndicates which controlled access to world markets through Thailand, Yunnan and Hong Kong.

Khun Sa controlled his drug empire for over 30 years and reportedly earned billions of dollars in the drug trade. It is believed that he controlled about half of the heroin and opium that came of Myanmar, which in turn counted for about 60 percent of the heroin sold on the streets in the United States. In many ways his power was greatly exaggerated and overestimated. He was primary involved in the lower rungs of drug trade. The biggest profits were made by the Chinese syndicates.

U.S. drug officials said that Khun Sa organized farmers to grow opium and ran or franchised 15 to 20 heroin refining laboratories along the Thai-Myanmar border. He reportedly made cash payments of $26,000 to Thai border police to make sure his heroin shipments got across the Thai border without being seized. He then distributed the drug using a sophisticated commercial network.

Khun Sa always maintained that he was freedom fighter not a drug dealer. He said he supported his army with revenues earned by taxing opium traders who moved through his territory. Khun Sa reportedly detested addicts. Anyone in his operation that became addicted to drugs was forced detox in his his "drug treatment center"—a 10-foot-deep hole where junkies enduring cold turky and stayed until they had kicked.

Khun Sa controlled a large amount of territory in the Eastern Shan State of eastern Myanmar near the Thai border. After Khun Sa's arrival Ho Mong grew from a sleepy village into a bustling town with satellite dishes at many homes. Much of the money he earned from the drug trade went to maintaining a 10,000-man army and a mini-state with its own education system and hospitals. He even went as far as proclaiming himself president of the Eastern Shan State.

Khun Sa occasionally granted interviews to journalists who trekked eight hours with a mule train from the Thai border to his headquarters. In 1988, Khun Sa was interviewed by Australian journalist Stephen Rice, who had crossed the border from Thailand into Burma illegally. Khun Sa told Rice he was willing to sell his entire heroin crop to the Australian Government for about $40 million a year for the next eight years, a move that would have virtually stopped the heroin trade into both Australia and the United States overnight. The Australian Government rejected the offer, with on Australia senator declaring: “The Australian Government is simply not in the business of paying criminals to refrain from criminal activity.” In 1989, Khun Sa was charged by a New York court for trying to import 1,000 tons of heroin. By then he had proposed the U.S. buy his entire opium production.

Khun Sa's Army

Khun Sa commanded a force of 10,000-to-20,000 Shan fighters in the Mong Tai army, a private militia which was regarded as the last major revolutionary army to operate in Myanmar. It possessed modern weapons such as surface-to-air missiles, which even the Myanmar army didn't have. Many of the Mong Tai soldiers were in their teens. Thousands of Burmese soldiers were tied up fighting the Mong Tai army and the conflict depleted the government's supply of weapons.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “His so-called "Shan United Army", SUA, was supposed to be fighting for Shan independence from Myanmar, but was, in reality, little more than a narco-army escorting opium convoys and protecting heroin refineries. In 1982, the Thai army decided to turn against him, and Khun Sa and the SUA were driven out of Ban Hin Taek. But they soon established a new base, this time inside Myanmar, at Homong, where new refineries were set up to process raw opium into heroin. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

Most of Khun Sa's key aides were relatives. Important players in Khun Sa's operation included Chang Su-chan (also known as "General Thunder"), Military Operations Chief; Yang Wan-Hsuan, Security and Intelligence Chief; and Chang Ping-Yun, Comptroller General and overseer of the refining operations.

Khun Sa battled Thai forces on the Thai-Burma border and fought the Burmese army in the Shan states. He maintained that he was fighting a war of liberation for the Shan people and drug trafficking was simple a way for him to raise money to buy weapons and pay his soldiers. One Burmese colonel told the New York Times, "We were fighting him for years. We were not gaining much ground because he was well-equipped, well dug-in and the terrain was terrible. We were sacrificing too many casualties."

Khun Sa's Jungle Hideout

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “By no stretch of the imagination could Homong have been described as a "jungle hideout" - a common phrase used by the press in the 1980s and early 1990s. On the contrary, it was - and still is - a bustling town boasting well-stocked shops, spacious market places, a well laid-out grid of roads with street lights. More than 10,000 inhabitants lived in wooden and concrete houses amid fruit trees, manicured hedges and gardens adorned with bougainvillea and marigolds. Huge signs indicated where you could have your travel permits to Thailand across the border issued. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

“There were schools, a Buddhist monastery, a well-equipped hospital with an operating theater and X-ray machines—all maintained by qualified doctors from mainland China— video halls, karaoke bars, two hotels, a disco and even a small park complete with pathways, benches and a Chinese-style pavilion. Overseas calls could be placed from two commercially run telephone booths. *

“Local artifacts, historical paintings and photographs were on display in a "cultural museum", and a hydroelectric power station was being constructed, but never fully finished, to replace the diesel-powered generators then providing Homong with electricity. Other unusual construction projects included an 18-hole golf course intended for the many Thai, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Hong Kong, Malaysian, South Korean and Japanese businessmen who were then flocking to buy precious stones at Khun Sa's gem center, also located in Homong. As a young man, Khun Sa was an avid golfer, and over the years he was known to have made several influential friends on golf greens. *

“At that time, he was supposed to be the most wanted man in the world, but, in reality, he was pursued by no one. He lived in a one-storey concrete building surrounded by a well-tended garden featuring orchids, Norfolk pines and strawberry fields. But his house was also ringed by bunkers housing 50-caliber, anti-aircraft machine-guns and swarms of heavily armed soldiers. "You never know," he once told me during an interview. "I have an army, so I'm free. Look at poor [Myanmar opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi. She's got no army so she's under house arrest." *

Khun Sa's Friends and Rivals

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “The stream of high-powered visitors to his not-so-secret headquarters never ceased to amaze observers.Among them was Lady Brockett, an American model turned British socialite, and her husband, Lord Brockett, who used to party with Britain's Prince Charles. Khun Sa even presented the lady with a pair of ruby-studded shoes, which he had designed himself. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

“Despite all the anti-drug bravado from the U.S., Khun Sa also had influential American friends, including James "Bo" Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam War hero who used to spend much of his time searching for American prisoners of war and those missing in action in Indochina. Gritz's trips to Homong were allegedly financed by Texas oil tycoon Ross Perot, once a US presidential candidate. *

Another American acquaintance was Shirley D Sac, a New York gem dealer and socialite who at one stage said she was going to sponsor a Shan human rights foundation. In Thailand, Khun Sa's representatives enjoyed a close and cordial relationship with that country's intelligence services, and, on the Myanmar side, his organization maintained an official trade office in Taunggyi. *

“The head of the eastern command of the Myanmar army at that time was General Maung Aye, now the second-highest ranking officer in the ruling junta. Not a single shot was fired between Khun Sa's army and Myanmar government forces while Maung Aye was in command. Perhaps those high-level contacts inside the Myanmar army influenced his decision to give it all up in January 1996, when he surrendered and disbanded his private army. He moved to Yangon with four young Shan women, who served as his mistresses in his retirement. In return, his three daughters and five sons were allowed to enter into business in Myanmar. His favorite son now runs a hotel with a casino near the border town of Tachilek, while one of his daughters is well established in business in Mandalay. Many ethnic Shan nationalists, who had joined his organization believing that he was a devout Shan patriot, were devastated by his decision to lay down arms. *

On Khun Sa’s adversaries, Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lo Hsing-han was the designated "king" of the Golden Triangle. Following his capture and arrest in 1973 - also for treason, not drug trafficking, which he likewise as a government-approved KKY commander was permitted to engage in, Khun Sa filled the gap and rose to drug dealing prominence. The SUA and KMT periodically fought each other over control of the opium and heroin trade. In 1967, a SUA caravan with 16 tons of opium tried to avoid paying a KMT tax by crossing into Laos, where SUA and KMT forces battled one another and Lao warplanes and paratroopers were called in. Cease-fires were worked out between Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army, the Wa National Organization and the Shan State Army. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

Khun Sa was indicted in the U.S. on drug charges and the U.S. offered a reward of $2 million for information leading to his arrest and conviction in a U.S. court. After he "surrendered" (See Below) the Myanmar ambassador to Thailand said that Khun Sa would not be extradited. Instead he would be dealt with under Myanmar law.

Attack on Khun Sa’s Stronghold and the End of His Drug Empire

Khun Sa's reign came to an end in January 1996 when a battalion of Burmese soldiers advanced on his stronghold in eastern Myanmar. He had no escape routes. Rival drug lords and Wa fighters held the territory to the east. To the north was China and to the south was Thailand, both of which wanted nothing to do with the drug lord. Also by this time the Myanmar government had reached a peace agreement with ,many of Myanmar’s insurgency movements which allowed the Myanmar military regime to concentrate their efforts on Khun Sa.

Myanmar’s military regime had begun moving on Khun Sa because they believed he had become too powerful and was too serious about establishing an independent Shan state. They were also outraged when soldiers from Khun Sa' army terrorized the border town of Tachilek in March, 1995. The raid was filmed by television crews on the Thai side of the border.

Khun Sa' problem began in earnest in 1994 when Thailand, under pressure from the U.S., shut down the drug lord’s smuggling routes around his main camps near Homong and Doilang. Thai soldiers were posted along roads, logging trails and even footpaths. Perhaps the biggest blow to Khun Sa was when 11 of his closest aides were arrested by Thai police in a U.S.-lead operation called Operation Tiger Trap. Khun Sa's lieutenants were thrown in jail and awaited possible extradition to the U.S. on drug charges. "These guys were his brokers, his brain trust," a U.S. official told Newsweek. "They handled the money, made the deals to keep the business going."

In April 1995, the Burmese army carried heavy mortars and recoilless rifles on a three-day trek through the jungle and attacked Khun Sa's army, which simply melted away into the countryside and forests. After the attack, however, two thirds of his soldiers mutinied. Saying Khun Sa was more interested in the opium trade than independence for the Shan. Many of them joined a rival faction headed by two former Khun Sa generals.

In November, 1995, Khun Sa sent a tape-recorded message to the Burmese generals, saying that he was going to retire from commander of the Moi Tang army as a result of the mutiny and become a chicken farmer.

Khun Sa's Surrender

In May, 1996, Khun Sa formally surrendered to the Burmese generals. He welcomed the leader of the Burmese army with Scotch and his representatives and those of the Myanmar government exchanged gifts, posed for photographs and addressed each other with polite honorifics. Khun Sa told Lt. General Kyaw Ba before a television camera, "If I have done anything wrong in my life, please forgive me." The general said, "We must forgive him because he surrendered and has given us no problems."

A ceremony was later held in which 4,000 Mong Tai soldiers formally surrendered and a cache of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles was turned over to the Myanmar government. Eventually 12,000 of Khun Sa's soldiers surrendered and gave up 7,5000 weapons.

It is believed that Khun Sa "surrendered" to the Myanmar government to keep the Wa army from overrunning his Doilang Mountain operation on the Thai border and taking over his smuggling routes into Thailand. Burmese officials said in January 1996 that Khun Sa did not want to face drug smuggling charges in the U.S. Khun Sa left the Shan States for Rangoon, but he was never arrested by the government. Burmese officials refused to extradite him, and he lived the rest of his life in the Rangoon area with significant investments in Yangon, Mandalay and Taunggyi.

Even though the Burmese generals had vowed to try Khun Sa if they ever caught him, they essentially let him go. At first they took him into custody and disbanded his 10,000 man army It is believed that Khun Sa cut a deal with the Burmese generals to surrender in return for a promise of amnesty. It is also believed that Khun Sa was able to continue his drug business in return for ending his insurgency movement. A State department official told the New York Times the surrender appeared to be "the result of a successfully concluded peace agreement between the Burmese government and the representatives of Khun Sa." A member of Khun Sa's army told Reuters that Khun Sa "paid millions to a general to guarantee his peaceful retirement after his surrender."

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Remnants of his 20,000-strong army refused to honor the agreement with the government and went underground as the newly formed Shan State Army (South). They are still fighting for their ideals in the hills around Homong, now a government-controlled town and still a bustling center for the local drug trade. Khun Sa's surrender and new deal with the Myanmar government was interpreted differently by one unexpected quarter. Barry Broman, the Yangon CIA station chief in the 1990s, said in an interview with the Asia Times newspaper edition on June 3, 1997, that "on their own, the Burmese [Myanmar] effected the capture of Khun Sa. They made a major dent in the drug trade and we gave them no credit." In reality, Khun Sa was never "captured"; he gave himself up in exchange for a lucrative deal for himself and his family. And there was never any "dent" made in the narcotics trade he promoted. If Khun Sa's surrender proved anything, it was that the networks that controlled the trade were able to survive even without their so-called "kingpins" [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

Khun Sa's Retirement

After the surrender in 1996 Khun Sa disappeared. For the most part it is believed he lived quietly in Yangon in a compound with body guards and spent much of time spoiling his grandchildren and tending his beloved angora rabbits. It was said he was in poor health, suffering froma number of ailments. All requests to extradite were refused.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: Khun Sa died on 26 October 2007 in Yangon at the age of 73. The cause of death was not known, though he had suffered from diabetes, partial paralysis and high blood pressure. He is buried at Yayway Cemetery, North Okkalapa, Yangon Division, Burma. The fact that he spent the last years of his life incommunicado inside a compound protected by Myanmar's secret intelligence service gives some indication as to how important the country's ruling junta considered it after his surrender in January 1996 to keep him isolated and quiet. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

Drug Trade After Khun Sa's Retirement

Before his surrender Khun Sa, said that with him out of the picture "there will be more opium. When I am no longer here, what will be left for the people if not opium." Much of the trade from Khun sa’s drug empire is believed to have been taken over by other drug lords the same way the cocaine trade in Columbia was passed from the Medellin to the Cali cartels in the 1990s. "If Khun Sa goes out of business, "a U.N. drug officer told Newsweek, "which I doubt, two or three smaller operators quickly will rise up to take his place."

Khun Sa is believed to have kept his drug business going on a pared-down scale after his retirement, sharing his profits with some members of Myanmar military regime. He also ran a bus service and a commercial passenger airline sometimes called "Air Opium."

The price of black-market heroin shot up after Khun Sa was arrested and peace agreement was made with ethnic insurgents in opium growing border areas. After Khun Sa surrendered Burma's opium harvests jumped by 9 percent to 2,560 tons in 1996.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Nowadays, it's the United Wa State Army's Wei Xuegang who controls the bulk of the illicit trade. The bottom line is that the drug trade could never flourish without those networks and official complicity in Myanmar, Thailand and elsewhere. Khun Sa may be gone, but that makes little difference. It is business as usual in the Golden Triangle, only with a new cast of characters. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007]

Lo Hsing Han: Myanmar Heroin King

Lo Hsing Han, the Yangon-based heroin king and business tycoon, died on July 6th 2013, aged about 80. On his life, The Economist reported: “Men in his line of work rarely reach old age. They die in a hail of bullets from police sharpshooters or a rival gang, and are buried fast in shallow jungle graves. Not Lo Hsing Han. At his funeral a cavalcade of cars, some carrying his portrait garlanded with flowers, processed through the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s principal city, to his high-walled villa, right by the 16th tee of the city golf club. Crowds of villagers attended from his native region, in the Golden Triangle of Myanmar’s north-east. They rubbed shoulders with former generals, two cabinet ministers and the cream of Yangon society. [Source: The Economist, July 27, 2013]

Mr Lo was a respected businessman. He was also a pillar of the economy. Wherever you looked in Myanmar, he and the sprawling Asia World conglomerate he had founded were involved in some project, often with Chinese partners. The deep-water port at Kyaukpyu; a $33m highway from Arakan state to the Chinese border; an oil and gas pipeline; the Traders luxury hotel. He ran the main bus company, and was building the Myitsone dam. Though he seldom appeared, and seldom spoke when he did, he could throw a party: in 2006 he organised the wedding of the daughter of the then leader of Myanmar’s junta, in which guests appeared draped in diamonds and drunk on cascades of champagne. His wealth was so vast, by repute, that no one could guess it. Small wonder, when exports of his main product equalled in 1998 all Myanmar’s legitimate exports put together.

His success came from making a product superior to other people’s: in his case, No. 4 grade China white. It was marketed in plastic bags with the brand-name “Double UO Globe” and the words “100 percent pure” in Chinese characters. And pure it was, unlike the dirty brown variety from Afghanistan. It could be injected, not merely smoked, and the effects were longer-lasting. He oversaw every stage in heroin-making, from paying farmers who grew poppies on the hilly plots of the Triangle to the transport of raw gum, in huge sacks, on the backs of hundreds of mules treading narrow jungle paths to the markets and refineries on the border with Thailand, to shipment overseas. It was Mr Lo who, in the 1960s and 1970s, shipped to Vietnam the heroin that ravaged 10 percent of America’s forces. Not that he turned a hair. There was a saying among the ethnic Chinese in Shan state, like him: commerce was commerce.

He had not traded opium from the start, though. Born poor in Kokang district, he had toyed around with video parlours and liquor stores. He had also become a troop commander for the local prince. When the Burmese army threw out all the princes, he changed sides, and in the anarchy of Shan state in the 1960s he became captain of a militia of 3,000 men. His job now was to fight both Shan nationalist and communist guerrillas, funding himself with Yangon’s full permission by taxing the opium convoys. (In the mountains, opium was the only currency.) Soon his soldiers, in proper uniforms and with AK47s, protected most of the trade. Once deep in, exchanging his sacks in Thailand for gold bars and fancy furniture, he never looked back.

Or only once. In 1973, when the militias began to be disbanded, he joined the rebel Shan State Army, disappearing deep into the jungle. (To the end of his life he thought of himself as a Shan separatist, growling Mandarin with a heavy Kokang accent.) He got cocky, too, offering to sell the whole Burmese crop to the United States for $12m; on his way to discuss the deal he was arrested in Thailand, deported, accused by the junta of treason and sentenced to death. It was all smoothed over, as things tended to be when the top brass were on his payroll and whisky flowed. He suffered only house arrest, and was released in 1980 to rebuild his empire. By 1991 two dozen new Lo refineries dotted the northern hills.

Once more the junta thought it could make use of him. He was resourceful, and seemed to know everyone in the ethnic chaos of Shan state. After 1989 the generals let him carry goods to the Thai border unimpeded if he acted as an emissary to the Shan, Wa and Kokang rebel armies. Soon enough, peace deals emerged. He was very useful, said the intelligence chiefs. Myanmar’s faltering economy needed him, too. In the early 1990s, on payment of a “whitening tax” into Myanmar’s near-empty treasury, Mr Lo was allowed to repatriate the funds he had stowed offshore. In 1992 he founded Asia World, running it with his son Steven Law, who had been educated in America, as managing director. His wealth, and a fistful of government contracts, made him the tycoon to see when foreign investors came round. By 1998 more than half Singapore’s investments in Myanmar, worth $1.3 billion, were made with Asia World.

Two years earlier, Mr Lo and his son had been blacklisted for drug-trafficking by the United States. In 2008 Americans were forbidden to trade with them. This was water off a duck’s back. Asia World went from strength to strength. It was convenient, to say the least, that Mr Lo ran a port, a highway to China, and even a plastic-bag company. But scepticism was waved aside. In new democratising Myanmar, the generals’ saviour remained a man of influence and honour. In Yangon a splendid tombstone was designed for him.

Olive Yang: the Drug Lord Known as Miss Hairy Legs

Olive Yang—also known as Yang Kyin Hsiu, nicknamed Miss Hairy Legs—was the half-sister of Sao Edward Yang Kyein Tsai, the saopha (chief) of Kokang, a state in post-independent Burma from 1949 to 1959. She was born in 1927 and received an education at Lashio's Guardian Angel's Convent School. Described as a "bisexual warlady by the historian Thant Myint-U, she developed a tough reputation while still at convent school, where she was rumored to carry a revolver in her handbag. At the age of 19, she organized ethnic Kokang forces, nicknamed the Olive's Boys, an army of over a thousand soldiers and consolidated control of opium trade routes from the highlands to lowlands. She dominated Kokang's opium trade from the end of World War II to the early 1960s. In the 1950s, after the Nationalist defeat and their subsequent expulsion from mainland China, she partnered with the Kuomintang to establish opium trade routes along the Golden Triangle. [Source: Wikipedia,Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps, Macmillan, 2008, pp. 298–299. +]

From 1948 to 1950, she was married to Twan Sao Wen, the son of Tamaing's chieftain, and had a son, Duan Jipu, in 1950. Her son is a teacher in Chiang Mai, Thailand. From the 1950s to the mid-1960s, she was the commander of the Kokang Kakweye (People's Defense Forces). She was a prominent figure in opium trafficking and gold trading. She was arrested in 1962, along with her brother Jimmy, a member of parliament in Yangon, by Burmese authorities, to remove them from power and place Kokang territory under Burmese administration. She was imprisoned at Insein Prison and released in 1968. +

Yang was known to be a bisexual who carried on affairs with film actresses and singers, including Wa Wa Win Shwe. In the late 1980s, she was recruited by Khin Nyunt to help broker ceasefires in Burma with ethnic rebel groups. After her release, she reportedly spent her final years as a nun. Today she lives on University Avenue Road in Yangon.

Wa and Illegal Drugs

Most of the opium and heroin and amphetamines produced in Myanmar is now controlled the Wa, a fiercely independent Myanmar ethic group. The Wa traditionally have grown opium in their homeland near the Chinese border. The also processed opium grown by other people in the Golden Triangle area. The Kokang Chinese who occupy an area near Wa territory are also heavily involved in the drug trade.

The Wa have also played a big role in heroin production. Their share of the opium and heroin market increased dramatically in 1990s when they signed a peace treaty with the Myanmar military government. After that they began moving into territory controlled by the drug lord Khun Sa.

In 1996, before Khun Sa retired, Wa farmers produced about 80 percent of opium raised in Myanmar but sold much of their crop to Khun Sa. Later they opened their own laboratories (with chemicals supplied from China) developed their smuggling routes and contacts and were able to muscle in on Khun Sa's drug trading activities, which played a part in his retirement.

Increasingly the Wa have moved from opium and heroin into amphetamines, which is easier to make and more profitable than opium or heroin and is more popular in Asia and arguably has more negative social consequences.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “In recent years the Wa have been concerned about their international image, especially in light of an indictment of eight Wa leaders by a United States court four years ago that described the Wa army as “a criminal narcotics trafficking organization.” Under pressure from China, the Wa forbade farmers in their territory to cultivate opium.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 30, 2009]

Leaders of the Wa Drug Operation

In the 1990s the Wa drug operation was believed to be under the control of three brothers—Wei Hsueh-Kang, Wei Hsueh-yin and Wei Hsuehlong—who cut their teeth in the drug business working as spies for the Kuomintang and as lieutenants for Khun Sa. At that time they controlled most of the poppy cultivation in Myanmar, and had large refining complexes along the Myanmar-China border. [Source: U.S. News and World Report, October 3, 1994]

The Wei brothers helped Khun Sa set up relationships with drug buyers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. When the Kuomintang left Wa territory the Wei brothers returned to their homeland and set up their own drug empire there. When Khun Sa “retired” they moved into his territory.

The Wei brothers financed the United Wa State Army, which is believed to have between 20,000 and 35,000 soldiers. The United States has reportedly offered $2 million for the capture of Wei Huseuh Kang

Big Brother P, an ethnic Chinese entrepreneur and one the largest opium traffickers in Mae Sai, a town along the Burmese border, told Time, “I know all the top police officers here. They come to my house for dinner.”

Wa Drug Operation

Those that entered Wa-controlled areas in the 1990s saw opium grown quite openly with women with babies on their backs tending the crop. At that time large numbers of Wa were uprooted and moved from near the Chinese border to near the Thai border.

The movement of the Wa from near the Chinese border to the Thai border helped their drug operations immensely by providing new places to grow opium and produce amphetamines and providing more smuggling routes into Thailand. See United Wa State Army, Myanmar Government and the Shan State Army, Myanmar

The United Wa State Army pledged to end opium production in 2005, a promise believed to have been made to the Chinese government rather the Myanmar government in return for a stake in money made from Chinese tourists and gamblers. At that time the Wa were more interested in amphetamines than opium and heroin.

Wa Drug Operation Economics

Money made from drugs in Wa territory has been used to build roads, a hydroelectric power station, hospitals, schools and irrigation system and has helped launch and prop up many legitimate businesses and established a booming economy. Sometimes the opium harvest have been low due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities tried to crack down on the drug production along China’s border.

Wa boom towns have new schools, hospitals, restaurants and shops with lots of goods, bamboo “casinos” and karaokes with girls imported from China. The capital of the Wa state, Pangkhan, even has streetlights like those found in cities on its dirt main road and an eight-lane bowling alley.

One of the biggest drug boom towns near the Thai border in Myanmar is Mong Yawn, a major stronghold for the United Wa State Army. When Khun Sa dominated the area the town was in a buffer zone between Thai and Myanmar armies and a major gateway way for heroin and opium on its way from Myanmar to Thailand.

The money from the drug trade doesn’t trickle down to the opium farmers though. Most of the farmers only earn $200 or so a year and suffer from a number of health problems. Diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are rampant. Curable disease like pink eye causes blindness. Villages have becoming addicted using opium to treat their illnesses.

Wa Move South

In the late 2000s many Wa were forced to move south. Reuters reported: Up to 120,000 are thought to have moved from their homelands 500 km (310 miles) to the north. Eight years on, their tea and macadamia nut plantations -- not to mention drug labs and opium fields -- are bearing fruit.The Wa are in no mood to move. Ironically, the pretext for moving entire Wa villages was opium eradication. The junta just wanted the Wa to squeeze the remnants of Khun Sa's Shan army and end its decades-long struggle for self-rule. [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

"Most were herded into trucks to travel south, but many were forced to walk through the mountains taking over two months. Some died en route," the LNDO said in its report on the Wa migration. Unused to the new terrain and diseases, especially malaria, up to 4,000 people are thought to have died in the first year. "They tried to cure themselves with magic and traditional medicines," one tribesman was quoted as saying. "They offered chickens, pigs, dogs and buffalo to the spirits, but they did not get better."

Wa, the Chinese and Myanmar’s Illegal Drugs

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss, who visited Wa area in Myanmar, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new -- albeit dirt -- roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China. Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars -- they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.” |||

Thailand and the Wa Drug Operation

The United Wa State Army has foot soldiers patrolling the Thai border region. When you enter this part of Myanmar you deal with them not Myanmar authorities. The soldiers have fought with the Thai army and been linked to the killing of villagers. They sometimes wander into Thai territory.

Firefights have broken out between Thai soldiers and drug runners and Wa soldiers. In April 2001, a large fight occurred after a Thai soldiers intercepted a drug caravan with six million amphetamines pills, escorted by 30 gunmen. Another clash left two Wa soldiers dead and resulted in the capture of 16 kilograms of heroin, amphetamines tablets and five AK-47s.

Thai soldiers reportedly have shoot to kill orders and occasionally make incursions into Myanmar territory to close laboratories and root out United Wa State Army strongholds. The Thais do much of their dirty work through the Shan State Army. See Ethnic Insurgencies, Myanmar.

Wa, Drug and Myanmar Generals

The Myanmar military regime and United Wa State Army are close and believed to be working together in the drug trade. The Wa is believed to have made deals with the generals, some of whom have investments in the drug trade. At one point it was said the Myanmar generals have authorized the Myanmar army to attack Thai army positions in Thailand to protect Wa drug laboratories in Myanmar.

The commander of the UWSA, Pao Yu-Chang, was born near the Chinese border, and his chief aid, Li Zuru, was born in China's Yunnan province, where he served as a member of Mao's Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Both men have used their connections in China to set up drug smuggling routes between Myanmar and China. The Wa are believed to have excellent connection within the Chinese Communist party as well as with Chinese police and local administration officials. Chao Nyi-Lai, another important military-political Wa leader who was elected to his position, and Pao Yu-Chiang may be trying to break the dependence of the Wa people on opium.

The Myanmar military regime generals have allowed the Was to pretty much do as they please in running their "nation" in return for recognition of the Myanmar government and Wa support in the fight against Khun Sa and later the Shan State Army. The Myanmar generals allowed the Wa to use regime-controlled roads to move on Khun Sa. It is believed that Khun Sa "surrendered" to the Myanmar government to keep the Wa army from overrunning his Doilang Mountain operation on the Thai border and take over his smuggling routes into Thailand.

Wa Move from Heroin to Amphetamines

Reuters reported: The Wa proved as adaptable to their new surroundings as to the changes in taste of Asia's drug users. When Washington labelled the UWSA a narcotics-trafficking organisation in 2003 with a $2 million bounty on the head of its leader, Wei Hsueh-Kang, the Wa had already begun a switch from opium and heroin to chemicals. [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

Records of official seizures compiled by the United Nations suggest that in 2006 Myanmar was the source of half of Asia's methamphetamine, or yaba, as it is known in Thailand. Most of the drug labs are under Wa control, experts believe."Methamphetamine production is booming on the Thai border," said Bertil Lintner, a leading expert on Myanmar's opium trade and ethnic conflicts. "The factories have been there for a long time, but have become more secure since the Wa took the area."

The question now is whether Yangon's generals allow the Wa to pump out the pills without paying the price. "The Wa are the strongest private army in Burma, but if they're not willing to fight the Shan any more, what's the point in letting them stay on the Thai border?" Lintner said.

United Wa State Army

The United Wa State Army is one of the world’s largest and most powerful drug militias. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly the United Wa State Army has 20,000 troops and is heavily armed with surface-to-air missiles. They have traditionally been based in Pang Hsang, Myanmar. The group is also considered the region's largest drug-dealing organization.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is probably Myanmar’s largest non-state armed group, with troop numbers often estimated at 20,000. It has operated under a ceasefire with the government since 1989, and is based in two main areas in northeastern and southern Shan state. The UWSA has three regiments along the Thai border with over 100,000 villagers living in their territory.

Some analysts estimate the UWSA is made up of 30,000 full and part-time fighters. UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang operates out of the UWSA headquarters in Panghsang in Shan State in northern Myanmar. The US State Department has called the UWSA the world's largest drug-trafficking army.


History of the United Wa State Army

The UWSA was formed in 1989 out of the break-up of the Communist Party of Burma, in which the ethnic Wa made up the largest armed faction. Shortly afterwards the newly created group entered into a cease-fire agreement with the military government of Burma in return for limited self-rule in their autonomous region in northern Shan State. [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003]

When the Communist Party of Burma disintegrated in 1989 the Wa threw the communists out of their territory and many Wa guerrillas who fought for the communists were recruited to from the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA took over the drug trade controlled by the Communists and set about strengthening their army and expanding the opium-growing areas under their control.

Myanmar signed a cease-fire with the Wa in 1990 that gave the Wa a large amount of autonomy and allowed them to govern their own territory in northeastern Shan state in return for ending their fight against the government. The Wa turned this territory into one of Asia's largest opium, heroin and methamphetamine production bases. Splitting up drug money is also believed to be have been part of the deal. The Myanmar government ceded control of Wa territory, called Special Region No. 2, to the Wa. This area produces a fifth of the region’s opium.

Since the surrender of Khun Sa and the disappearance of his Mong Tai Army from its Thai-Burmese border area in early 1996, the Wa army has been carrying out forced relocation of people living in the UWSA-controlled area in the north to areas opposite Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

See Khun Sa

United Wa State Army and Drugs

Wei Hsueh-Kang is a notorious drug baron who commands a faction of the Wa army. In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency put most-wanted pictures of Wei Hsueh Kang in Thailand's entertainment venues.

In 2003 The Nation reported: UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang Bao said that his military is not engaged in illicit drug production or distribution and only makes some money from opium cultivation in the form of taxes, which account for a mere 4 per cent of its total income. Drug smuggling into Thailand was the "act of individual traffickers", not the work of the UWSA, he said. Bao's deputy, Wei Hseuh-kang, who commands UWSA's Brigade 171 near the border, has been accused of being the main force behind the millions of methamphetamine pills flooding Thailand on a weekly basis. [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003 ///]

“The US State Department says the 20,000-strong UWSA is the world's largest drug-trafficking army. A US federal court has convicted Wei, along with other Burmese warlords, including Khun Sa, of trafficking in heroin. Bao vowed to keep his pledge of turning his autonomous region, properly called Special Region No 2, into a drug-free zone by 2005, or, in his own words, "you can come back and chop my head off". ///

One Wa soldier told The Guardian: "Our life here is hard … we always need to make money some way, any way to feed our people. We need to survive."

Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang task force, told The Guardian that with the money it is making the Wa was arming with surface-to-air missiles bought from China, and AK-47 assault rifles. "They are preparing for war. " The Burmese government wants the Wa to disarm, come under government control and become a border guard force. But the Wa will not ever agree to do that, so they are preparing for the government troops to move in on them. are getting ready to fight. They are selling more and more drugs so they can buy weapons to fight the government." [Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

Shan and Illegal Drugs

The Shan State Army South (SSA-S) is one of the largest armed groups still fighting the Myanmar military regime (Tatmadaw), under the umbrella of an organization called the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). RCSS/SSA-S officials declare that their regular military strength is 5,000 soldiers, with approximately 5,000 local militia under the control of village heads.

The Shan State Army was a fighting force created by drug warlord Khun Sa to protect his territory and drug empire from the Myanmar government and rival groups. It was made up of mostly of Shan fighters and in its time was well armed. It was supposed to disband after Khun Sa retired and made a peace agreement with the Myanmar government, however it continued to fight the government.

The Shan State Army is based in the Shan State in eastern Myanmar. It has its headquarters in Doi Tai Lang and has been driven to a few remaining strongholds near the Thai border. In recent years the Shan State Army has allied itself with the Myanmar government and helped them fight against the United Wa State Army. The United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army have traditionally battled one another over control of the Myanmar opium and heroin market. The Shan State Army is allied with the Thai government.

U Sai Lin is one of the main drug lords. He is on the most wanted list of the U.S. government. He controls the Eastern Shan State Army. 2004

Naw Kham: the New "Opium King"?

Naw Kham—the fugitive "freshwater pirate" of the Mekong—is regarded by some as the new “Opium King. Operating at one time on Sam Puu Island near the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, he is a member of Myanmar's ethnic Shan minority whose hill tribe militia is accused of drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder.

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Naw Kham has become a near-legendary figure. So many shipping attacks are attributed to this 46-year-old ethnic Shan that it seems as if the Mekong ambitions of the Asian superpower are being foiled by a medieval-style drug lord with a few dozen hill tribe gunmen. Naw Kham proved impossible to reach for comment: Thai boats dared not sail to Sam Puu Island. Kheunsai Jaiyen said he was in hiding. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Naw Kham started out as a lowly administrative officer in the now-defunct Mong Tai Army (MTA), said Khuensai Jaiyen, a Shan journalist who also once served in the same Shan rebel group. The MTA's leader was Khun Sa, the so-called "opium king" of the Golden Triangle, who had a $2 million reward on his head from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration until his death in Yangon in 2007. /=/

“But while Khun Sa was a flamboyant figure who courted media attention, Naw Kham is so publicity shy only two photos purporting to be him exist. Both are blurred, and show a faintly smiling man with protruding ears, thick eyebrows and a mop of black hair. One of the photos is attached to an Interpol red notice seeking the arrest of a fugitive Myanmar national of the same name. The notice lists the man's birthplace as Mongyai, a remote area of Myanmar's war-ravaged Shan State. A second big difference between Khun Sa and Naw Kham: the drugs that allegedly enriched them.” /=/

Naw Kham, Mekong Smuggling and Methamphetamine Production

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Opium and heroin are no longer the Golden Triangle's only products. Since the late 1990s, secret factories in Shan State have churned out vast quantities of methamphetamine. This highly addictive drug is known across Asia in pill form by the Thai name yaba ("crazy medicine") and in its purer crystalline form as ice or shabu. Naw Kham's rise coincided with this explosion of meth use, which transformed the ill-policed Mekong between Myanmar and Laos -- Naw Kham's patch -- into one of Southeast Asia's busiest drug conduits. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Every year hundreds of millions of Myanmar-made methamphetamine pills are spirited across the river into Laos or down into Thailand. The trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- enough to corrupt poorly paid law enforcement officials across the region. /=/

“Narcotics are not the Mekong's only contraband. Other lucrative goods include: endangered wildlife such as tigers and pangolins; weapons, stolen vehicles and illegal timber; and, in the run-up to this month's Tet celebrations, thousands of dogs in filthy cages bound for restaurants in Vietnam. There is human contraband too. Illegal migrants from Myanmar and Laos are bound for Thailand's booming construction or sex industries, while a constant stream of North Koreans journey across southern China and through Laos to surrender to the Thai authorities, who obligingly deport them to South Korea. /=/

“Naw Kham gets a cut of "anything that makes money and passes through his territory," said Kheunsai Jaiyen, who runs the Shan Herald Agency for News, a leading source of news from largely inaccessible Shan State, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He believed the most recent attack on a Chinese ship happened because the crew, thinking the new patrols would protect them, didn't pay the usual protection money to Naw Kham.”

“The freshwater pirate has capitalized on growing resentment towards China's presence along the Mekong. Cheap, high-volume Chinese goods are squeezing Thai and Myanmar farmers and small traders, and threatening to turn Laos into what Paul Chambers called "a mere way-station."

Reporting from the Thailand-Myanmar border on the Mekong River, Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “It was here, according to the Thai military, that 13 Chinese sailors— blindfolded, gagged, terrified—on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were murdered in early October 2011. It was the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times. But a Reuters investigation casts serious doubts on the official account of the attack.[Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The Thai military says the victims were killed upriver before their ships floated downstream into Thailand. But evidence gleaned from Thai officials and unpublished police and military reports suggests that some, if not all, of the sailors were still alive when their boats crossed into Thailand, and that they were executed and tossed overboard inside Thai territory. /=/

“On the morning of October 5, 2011—near the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, near the Mekong pirate Naw Kham's haunt of Sam Puu Island—the two cargo ships, Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, drifted down the Mekong into Thailand. The Hua Ping was carrying fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8 had apples and garlic. Sometime after they crossed the border, the ships were boarded by an elite Thai military unit called the Pha Muang Taskforce, named after an ancient Thai warrior king. On the Yu Xing 8's blood-splattered bridge, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as its captain, Yang Deyi, the taskforce said. The Hua Ping was deserted. /=/

“Aboard the two ships were 920,000 methamphetamine pills with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. The corpses of the 12 other crew members were soon plucked from the Mekong's swirling waters. Their horrific injuries were recorded in a Thai police report. Most victims had been gagged and blindfolded with duct tape and cloth, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had massive head wounds suggesting execution-style killings; others had evidently been sprayed with bullets. Li Yan, 28, one of two female cooks among the victims, also had a broken neck. /=/

Drug Lord Behind the Murder of the 13 Chinese on the Mekong?

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “The assailants remain unknown. Initially, the prime suspect was a heavily armed Mekong pirate who terrorizes shipping in Myanmar. As a furious Beijing dispatched senior officials to Thailand to demand answers, a suspect for the massacre emerged:Naw Kham, the fugitive "freshwater pirate" of the Mekong, a member of Myanmar's ethnic Shan minority whose hill tribe militia is accused of drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The freshwater pirate has capitalized on growing resentment towards China's presence along the Mekong. Cheap, high-volume Chinese goods are squeezing Thai and Myanmar farmers and small traders, and threatening to turn Laos into what Paul Chambers called "a mere way-station." /=/

“So when the crew of the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 were fished from the Mekong, Naw Kham seemed the obvious culprit. Yet both Kheunsai Jaiyen and Thai MP Sunai Chulpongsatorn, who chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, remained unconvinced. Sunai believed that a Naw Kham legend had been created by attributing attacks by other Mekong bandits to him. "There are many Naw Khams, not just one," he said. "It's like in a drama. He's a made-up character. He exists, but it seems he has been given a lot of extra importance." /=/

“Lost in China's outrage over the massacre was the possibility that the Chinese sailors were themselves involved in the drug trade. One theory holds that Naw Kham suspected that the Chinese vessels contained large shipments of narcotics, and dispatched men to seize the illicit cargo and brutally murder the crew to deter others from running drugs through his territory.” /=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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