Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Lord of Prosperity

Kelvin Rowley considers the life, death and legacy of drug kingpin Khun Sa, once known as king of the ‘Golden Triangle.’

By Kelvin Rowley for

On November 9 last year, officials at the village of Ban Therd Thai, Chiang Rai province, Thailand, organised a ceremony to mourn the death of Khun Sa two weeks earlier in Rangoon. “Everyone here called ‘Khun Sa chao oo’, or ‘father,'” a local official explained.

Decades earlier, when it was known as Ban Hin Taek, Khun Sa built schools and health centres in this remote and impoverished village. But Khun Sa was a not a noble man. He was generous to the inhabitants of Ban Hin Taek because for a few years he used their village as his base for an immensely profitable drug business.

For more than a decade, Khun Sa was one of the key figures in the world trade in heroin. His career depended on his ability to buy the loyalty of local people in places like Ban Hin Taek. But, more than this, his success depended on the patronage of military and political leaders of Southeast Asian states who shared in the profits of the trade. His rise and fall thus provides insight into Southeast Asian politics in the Cold War era.

Khun Sa was born Chang Chi-fu, the son of a soldier from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan and a woman from the Burmese Shan minority people. At the age of eighteen, he became a soldier in Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang army. When the Communists won the civil war in China in 1949 most of Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces fled to Taiwan. Others, cut off in the interior of China, retreated across China’s southern border into the upland country where Burma, Thailand and Laos met. Chang Chi-Fu’s unit was among them.

This was a wild, remote area inhabited by hill-tribe people, beyond the effective reach of lowland governments, and resistant to the encroachments of Rangoon, Vientiane and Bangkok alike.  From 1950, with the support of the CIA, the Kuomintang transformed it into a base-area for guerilla war against the new Communist regime in China.  But Mao installed a ruthless security system in southern China, and all efforts to launch anti-Communist uprisings failed miserably.

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The area seized by the Kuomintang was part of the belt of uplands stretching from Turkey to Southern China to which the opium poppy is native. Opium had long been used by the local peoples for medicinal and recreational purposes. In an economy which was largely-subsistence oriented, it was one of the few widely traded goods, and came to function as a primitive form of money.

The Kuomintang had been active in the opium trade in China. Chiang Kai-Shek ordered his followers in Burma to take over the local trade, and they did. Kuomintang officers also provided political and business connections with anti-Communist military officers in Laos, Thailand and South Vietnam. They also had excellent contacts in Hong Kong, the world’s greatest market for opiates. Keen to strengthen anti-Communist forces in Asia, the Americans were willing to turn a blind eye to the dubious business activities of their Cold War allies.

In the 1960s, the world drug trade was undergoing a revolution. Opium consumption and addiction had been a problem in Asia and the Middle East for centuries. As these regions came under European and American domination in the age of imperialism, the consumption of opium and its derivates began to spread in the West. Heroin was developed by a German company, Bayer, in the 1890s. It was at first marketed as a wonder-drug, but soon proved to be highly addictive.

By the mid-20th century, many governments were making increasingly vigorous efforts to suppress the use of opiates, especially heroin.  But attempts at prohibition did not suppress the growing demand for these drugs. Instead, they made supplying this market illegal and risky. This pushed prices up, and profits went up with them – making the trade a highly lucrative criminal enterprise. It also shifted the trade from opium to heroin, which was less bulky, easier to smuggle, and had an assured market because so many consumers became addicts.

As US troops poured into South Vietnam, new business opportunities opened up. Vietnamese criminals, police and military officers plied the GIs with cheap heroin. Many of them became addicts. Heroin use also exploded in the United States itself, creating vast opportunities for entrepreneurs able to obtain their heroin from Asia. New criminal networks arise, largely displacing the Sicilian Mafiosi who controlled the previous trans-Atlantic supply routes. Most of the new gangs were obtaining their heroin from the Kuomintang-controlled parts of Burma, Thailand and Laos. This area became famous as the “Golden Triangle” and for a time Khun Sa became its uncrowned king.

In 1963, Chang Chi-fu turned his Kuomintang unit into a private army, and went into the drug business, calling himself Khun Sa (“Lord of Prosperity”). He was a man of vision. His Kuomintang competitors were still content to organise mule-trains carrying raw opium out of the Golden Triangle, to be processed elsewhere. Khun Sa recognized that the lion’s share of the profits went to those who processed the opium and supplied pure heroin, so he hired chemists and built his own laboratories in remote villages. He also sought build up his own business, political and military connections to protect his operations and sell his product. At first, he built up a relationship with officers in the Burmese military. They were mainly keen to use him to undermine the Kuomintang takeover of a large swathe of Burma.

An “Opium War”  broke out between Khun Sa and Kuomintang officers in1967. Khun Sa’s private army was destroyed, but the Kuomintang was also weakened. The real winner was the Lao General Ouane Rattikone, who seized 16 tons of Kun Sa’s opium and launched his own career as a heroin trafficker. Khun Sa was arrested by his Burmese protectors, and languished in a Rangoon prison for several years. That may have saved his life.

He was released from prison in 1974, and moved to Thailand. He cultivated influential figures in the Thai military and established his base at Ban Hin Taek. The generals were interested in drug revenues, of course. But they also hoped to use Khun Sa to weaken the grip of both the Kuomintang and Rangoon on the highlands of northeastern Burma, and to expand Thai influence there. Khun Sa adopted the mantle of a liberator, promising to free the Shan people from Burmese rule. He also promised to help suppress the Beijing-backed Burmese Communist and Thai Communist Parties, then active in the area.

The communist victories in Laos and South Vietnam in 1975 strengthened Khun Sa’s competitive position. The Kuomintang-dominated drug-smuggling routes through those countries were disrupted.  Khun Sa’s outlets through Thailand suddenly assumed unparalleled importance.

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This enabled Khun Sa to create a new, more powerful military force, which he called the Shan United Army. Within a few years, he had won control over much of the Golden Triangle. At its peak in the early 1980s, the SUA had 20,000 men under arms, and claimed to control about eight million people. But Khun Sa’s pose as a liberation fighter was a sham – his objective was to win control of the drug trade emanating from the Golden Triangle.

In this, he was highly successful. By the early 1980s, the US Drug Enforcement Agency estimated that 70 percent of heroin consumed in the USA came from his organization. The US government placed a reward of $US 2 million on his head, but this was less money than he was making in one month. He spread his money around generously, to good effect. “Khun Sa is the most wanted man on earth,” remarked journalist Bertil Lintner, ‘but he has friends everywhere.”

He became an increasingly public figure. While the Thai police and military supposedly had no idea of his whereabouts, a stream of journalists trekked to Ban Hin Taek to interview him. He invited a group of US Congressmen to meet him, and offered to help Washington suppress world heroin trafficking. Amid the stream of lies and boasts, his interviews contained occasional revealing flashes of truth.  “When the DEA gives the Thais money they come and attack me,” he told one journalist. “When I give them money, they go away again.”

But Khun Sa was beginning to over-reach himself. His success in dominating the Golden Triangle effectively destroyed the old Kuomintang organization. Rangoon and Bangkok increasingly saw him as the main obstacle to their own visions of controlling the region. Meanwhile Washington, struggling to stem the flood of heroin into the USA, was increasingly exasperated with Southeast Asian governments which tolerated drug trafficking.

Khun Sa’s position began to unravel as early as 1980. The downfall of the government of General Kriangsak Chomanan in Bangkok robbed him of a key protector. Kriangsak’s successor, General Prem Tinsulanonda, agreed to crack down on the drug trade in Thailand. In 1982, the Thai army launched a military operation against Ban Hin Taek. Someone tipped off Khun Sa beforehand, and he hastily relocated his headquarters to the town of Hua Muang, in the Burmese highlands. Over the next few years, a string of arrests severely weakened his Thai networks.

The Burmese army attacked Khun Sa at Hua Muang. But his troops were better equipped and trained than theirs, and routed them. Humiliated, the generals struck a deal. They agreed to a ceasefire if Khun Sa would help them suppress the various insurgent groups plaguing Burma’s borderlands. He promptly dropped his pose as a liberator from the Burmese and agreed. This gave him a free hand in the heroin-trafficking business once again. But this reprieve proved only temporary.

By the early 1990s, the Burmese army was steadily gaining the upper hand in the Burmese hill country. It no longer needed to tolerate Khun Sa. Furthermore, the Americans were increasingly pressing the generals to clean up the heroin trade out of Burma. When the Burmese Communist Party collapsed, and former Communist military commanders tried to muscle their way into the drug trade, the generals saw their opportunity. Just as they had once used Khun Sa to undermine the Kuomintang, they now used these Communists-turned-gangsters to undermine him. Under increasing pressure, Khun Sa’s lieutenants began fighting between themselves.

Khun Sa’s position was falling apart, but his diplomatic footwork was as deft as ever. In 1996, he negotiated a new deal with the Burmese. He agreed to close down his heroin business. The Burmese agreed to integrate his followers into the Burmese military, and to protect him in retirement from his many enemies. This finally gave the Burmese what they wanted most of all – control of the Golden Triangle.

Khun Sa spent the remainder of his life living quietly in a villa in Rangoon (not far from Aung San Suu Kyi’s home) with his four young Shan wives. He avoided the media. Some reports said he was under house arrest, others that he was active in real estate and the construction industry in Burma.

No-one who had followed Khun Sa’s earlier career expected him to die of natural causes. But that is what happened. In retirement, he developed high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, and finally died in October 2007.

Another surprise was that the 1996 deal largely held. The Burmese government’s control of its northeastern highlands has expanded, and the chaotic situation from which Khun Sa emerged is now a thing of the past. The main visitors to Ban Hin Taek and Hua Muang nowadays are tourists curious about their colourful history, not heroin traffickers.

Drugs still come out of the Golden Triangle. But the heroin business has largely collapsed. According to the US DEA the Golden Triangle now accounts for only 5% of world supply. Some of Khun Sa’s followers have apparently converted his laboratories to the manufacture of methamphetamine. Over the last decade this drug has flooded into Thailand, where it is known as yaa-baa (“crazy drug”) because of the violent psychosis it may induce in users.

The demand for heroin in wealthy countries has continued to grow, and new, cheaper sources of supply have emerged to replace the Golden Triangle. The toxic brew of weak states, warlordism and heroin trafficking which produced Khun Sa has emerged elsewhere. In the last couple of decades, Afghanistan and its neighbours have become the world’s main source of heroin.

Kelvin Rowley is a Senior Lecturer at Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology