The deadly politics of opium

Daniel Burstein December 6 1982

The deadly politics of opium

Daniel Burstein December 6 1982

The deadly politics of opium


Daniel Burstein

Thailand’s up-country villages are among the most remote and bucolic in the world, but not Ban Hin Taek, a rugged hill town nestled in a spur of Thai territory clawing toward the Burmese border eight kilometres away.

Earlier this year, when the smoke cleared after three days of intense fighting between 800 Thai border patrol police and the rebel troops of opium warlord Khun Sa, the police moved in to uncover luxurious villas and a sports complex replete with swimming pool and tennis court.

Homes were furnished with color TVs and video players; kitchens were stocked with imported European foods and American whisky. Sophisticated electronic communications gear found in Ban Hin Taek could monitor events over a 300-km radius, but still more impressive was the staggering cache of modern light arms, from rocket launchers to

mortars. Police unearthed accounting ledgers that revealed monthly expenditures averaging $1 million to finance the extravagant lifestyle of the unusual village.

Unfortunately for Thai police, 17 of whom were killed and 50 injured in the attack, Ban Hin Taek’s most celebrated resident, Khun Sa, was not at home. He had already slipped back across the mountain frontier into the fierce reaches of Burma’s Shan state, where his 3,000-member Shan United Army (SUA) often wields far more effective control than the Burmese government. Khun Sa is a legend in this part of the world, where the politics of opium prevail. Some 70 per cent of the opium extracted from the “Golden Triangle” (the poppy fields where Laos, Burma and Thailand converge) travels through the jungled mountains in caravans consigned to him. Half Shan and half Chinese, Khun Sa, at 50, personally controls close to one-third of the world’s heroin supply.

No matter how primitive the life of opium-growing hill tribes in the Triangle’s mist-shrouded altitudes may be, Khun Sa knows how to get a product to market—by horse and mule down the steep slopes to heroin refineries that dot the Thai-Burmese border, then to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Penang and Hong Kong, where it is brokered by an ancient Chinese mercantile mafia, and finally shipped to North America and Europe via a mix of couriers ranging from affluent young junkies to dons of organized crime.

Chiang Mai, the first major stop on the route, has the outward appearance of a fantasy city. Once the capital of an ancient Thai kingdom and currently the summer home of the Thai royal family, Chiang Mai has spawned 75 Buddhist wats (temples), whose golden pinnacles sparkle in the morning sunlight like a true Shangri-La. But, while saffron-robed monks come and go and wealthy tourists arrive in droves, the back streets and cheap hotels of this, Thailand’s second-largest city, are witness to another scene. It is here that the first cuts and the first price inflations take place—where the small block of opium, bought by Khun Sa’s men for $200 from Triangle farmers, is turned

into a tiny, potent packet of heroin worth a thousand times more on the streets of Vancouver and New York City.

Khun Sa is many things to many people. To drug enforcement authorities in the region and around the world, he is evil incarnate. To old Chinese generals of the Kuomingtang who fled to Thailand after China’s 1949 revolution, he is an obnoxious upstart who has taken over their lucrative opium monopoly. To several armed factions of Shans fighting for the independence of their state from what they see as a repressive Socialist government in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, he is an opportunist who has misappropriated the name of the Shan cause for what is nothing more than an opium army. But, to many local people in Ban Hin Taek and in villages throughout the Triangle, Khun Sa is the warlord in the feudal Shan tradition—the man on whom the economic and political well-being of his subjects depends. He is seen by some—the beneficiaries of his plunder, not the victims—as a sort of Robin Hood who has defied authority and triumphed. Triumphed until recently, that is. Last year the Thai government put a price on his head—500,000 bahts (about $28,000) and decided to go to war against his operations on Thai soil.

For years Khun Sa had moved back and forth across the Thai-Burmese border with impunity. Burma was his cropland, but Thailand was his marketing outlet, not only for opium but for jade and other commodities in which he dabbled. He visited a house that he owned in Bangkok periodically and travelled throughout Southeast Asia from Bangkok’s Don Muang airport. No one knows for certain why Thai authorities did not act more forcefully to stop him sooner. Some say that Khun Sa had used his vast wealth to buy high-ranking politicians’ support; others argue that Thailand’s strategic interests were served by allowing Khun Sa’s SUA to operate and serve as a security wedge, preventing Thai communists from linking up with the Burmese Communist Party.

But late last year the government of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond decided to get tough with Khun Sa and drive him from his Thai haven. Speculation in diplomatic circles was that the Thai action was designed to please the U.S. government, long critical of Thai inaction on the drug problem. Indeed, the first attack on Ban Hin Taek was designed to coincide with Prem’s visit to Washington in October, 1981. But that attack failed when Khun Sa’s own soldiers ambushed the Thai rangers and left at least nine of them in a pool of blood.

Thai officials vehemently deny that U.S. pressure or advice had anything to do with their decision to go after Khun Sa or with the January assault on Ban Hin Taek that ultimately wrested control of the village from the SUA. While U.S. drug enforcement officials often speak disparagingly of Thai antinarcotics efforts, in Bangkok it is the other way around. Thai authorities believe that the United States and other Western countries are not doing enough to help Thailand solve the problem. “Other countries should not point the finger at us,” says Maj.-Gen. Pao Sarasin of the Thai Narcotics Control Board and the country’s chief spokesman on narcotics matters. “It is a world problem. Thailand is primarily a transit country. Most opium exported is actually produced in Burma and consumed in the West. It is very easy to say Thailand should do this or do that, but we don’t have the planes, the helicopters or the money to do as some in the West would like us to do. The United States gave us seven helicopters, but that was 10 years ago, and now they are getting very old.”

In North America, where heroin addiction is spreading at an alarming rate and fuelling increasingly ugly violent crime statistics, it is easy to adopt the view that the best solution is to destroy the opium poppy at its source. But life in the Golden Triangle is far too complicated to allow such a simplistic approach. To begin with, the forbidding terrain is a major obstacle. Particularly in Burma, but even in Thailand, there are no roads into the hills where opium is grown. Even with helicopters, the thick foliage renders aerial attack inefficient, and the Shan army, as well as other factions, possesses antiaircraft equipment. To dislodge the opium armies from their strongholds would require the kind of con-

centrated force with air support that the Thais used at Ban Hin Taek—and even that was only accomplished with heavy casualties. The Burmese government devotes an estimated one-third of its total budget of $1 billion to the military but has not been able to muster the kind of force necessary to regain control of Shan.

Moreover, Thai and Burmese ties are virtual foreigners in these mountains, where popular allegiances are to tribes and clans, not national identities. Raising private armies to advance local interests is the rule rather than the exception. Machiavellian alliances, ruptures and stratagems go on in the mountains unknown, ex-

Thailand itself has more than half a dozen major hill tribes, most of whom have fled from Burma in the recent past: the Hmong, Akha, Lisu, Lahu,

Karen and Yao. Most, though not all, grow opium, using it for medicinal purposes, as an intoxicant and for a small amount of commercial trade. In their mountain villages one can always find a big house among the poor thatched huts which invariably belongs to the local opium merchant. Each season he brokers the locally grown product with the more sophisticated network of Kuomingtang Chinese narcotics traders.

In Burma the situation is far more complex and more violent.

At least four armies in Shan claim to be fighting for the independence of their state, yet all are at odds with each other as

cept through rumor, to the central governments in Bangkok and Rangoon. well. Liberation fronts also exist among the Karen, the Kachin and the Wa, also subdivided into antagonistic factions. The most potent force of all in the area is probably the Burmese Communists, with an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 guerrilla followers and, until recently, with considerable material backing from Peking.

For most of these groups opium is synonymous with power. Even those such as the BCP, whose political platform opposes the opium-based economy of the region, are compelled to use it as a means to an end. In a recent interview published in Hong Kong, Sao Hso Lane, the leader of the Shan faction known as the Shan State Army, perhaps the most idealistic of the Shan groups, succinctly summarized the situation by saying: “Potentially, the Shan state is one of the richest areas in the region. We do not need opium, we need peace and stability to develop. But, under the present circumstances, there is no choice. If our people did not grow opium, they would starve.”

Over and over again, Thai authorities have tried to make this same point to Western drug enforcement agencies: the poppy cannot be eradicated without creating chaos and revolution among a population whose economy is founded on opium. Thai policy stresses “crop substitution” programs, whereby hill tribes are taught how to grow coffee, tobacco, potatoes, corn, beans and other cash crops in

addition to opium. They seek to build up gradually an infrastructure of schools, rural banks and non-opium-based health clinics that can transform the indigenous cultures to which opium is now central. But crop substitution is slow, painstaking work. “We have to be fair with the hill tribes,” says Sorasit Sangprasert, director of a joint Thai government-United Nations crop-substitution program outside of Chiang Mai. “They have been earning their money for generations with this crop. If we took violent steps to eradicate opium, it would be like pouring boiling water into a cold glass.”

An hour up into the mountains from

Everyone involved in crop substitution concedes that progress is slow and that there will be big problems ahead next year when the United Nations pulls out after the final year of a seven-year plan to aid the program. They also know that, even if successful villages provide a good model, the crop-substitution idea cannot even be tried in areas where the opium armies are strong. To do so would be to place in jeopardy the lives of experts and teachers.

Chiang Mai is a Hmong village called Ban Buak Chan, where crop substitution has made considerable headway. Even so, police had to be called in last year to prevent villagers from using crop-substitution funds and supplies to grow opium. Notes Pongtade Suriya, a program official: “We only send the police in to stop the opium in villages that are already successful with other crops, not in ones where the people still depend on opium.”

For the highlanders in the Triangle, the future is not particularly bright. The attack on Khun Sa is widely seen as a potentially dangerous and destabilizing event because now Khun Sa must reweave his alliances, establish new refineries and carve out new smuggling routes. His rivals, meanwhile, must seize the opportunity to try to take a share of the trade from him. This past summer offered a glimpse of what might come in the next round of opium wars as battles flared on the slopes of Doi lang, a mountain range straddling Thailand’s Chiang Mai province and Burma. Khun Sa’s SUA reportedly engaged the Burmese Wa National Army in fierce fire fights for control of Doi lang and its heroin refineries. The Lahu National Liberation Front and the Shan United Revolutionary Army also joined in the fighting, as did a detachment of Chinese, who only withdrew after a Taiwan official flew in to meet with them on top of Doi lang. In October the Thai army launched its own offensive. About 1,000 army troops, backed by artillery and warplanes, seized one of Khun Sa’s outposts about nine kilometres from Ban Hin Taek and destroyed a heroin refinery.

Meanwhile, with Khun Sa temporarily forced to maintain his headquarters in Burma, there are reports that he is seeking greater flexibility by making an agreement with the Burmese Communists under which he would provide them with rice in return for access to opium in the large belts of territory under their control. The Burmese government, fearing the combined dangers of a Khun Sa-Communist alliance, has responded by rehabilitating Lo Hsinghan, the opium warlord who fought ruthless battles a decade ago with Khun Sa for control of the traffic. Rumor in the Triangle is that, in return for agreeing to form a militia, Lo Hsing-han has been given a free hand to smuggle jade out of Burma. Whether or not Rangoon will allow him to return to opium smuggling in the hope of further weakening Khun Sa is unclear, but, if that happens, observers say that the Triangle would be plunged into a cataclysmic civil war.

The hopelessness of the situation is explained by Phibol Phaniloke, an entrepreneur who is a veteran of the jade and ivory smuggling routes out of Burma. Says Phaniloke, as he gestures toward the mountains that run out of Chiang Mai toward Burma: “Up there the world is not like it is down here. There is no government and no law. There is only opium, gems and guns. Khun Sa is the master of the game. He is shrewder than most presidents and prime ministers and he has more power than many of them, too.”