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.

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.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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