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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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