Opium & the Golden Triangle

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Opium Poppy (Papaver somnniferum)

The opium poppy, Papaver somnniferum, has been cultivated and its resins extracted for use as a narcotic at least since the time of the early Greek empire. The Chinese were introduced to the drug by Arab traders during the time of Kublai Khan (1279-94). It was so highly valued for its medicinal properties that hill tribe minorities in southern China began cultivating the opium poppy in order to raise money to pay taxes to their Han Chinese rulers. Easy to grow, opium became a way for the nomadic hill tribes to raise what cash they needed in transactions (willing and unwilling) with the lowland world. Many of the hill tribes that migrated to Thailand and Laos in the post WW II era, in order to avoid persecution in Burma and China, took with them their one cash crop, the poppy. The poppy is well suited to hillside cultivation as it flourishes on steep slopes and in nutrient poor soils.

The opium trade became especially lucrative in South-East Asia during the '60s and early '70s when US armed forces were embroiled in Vietnam. Alfred McCoy's The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia recounts how contact with the GI market not only expanded the immediate Asian market but also provided outlets to world markets. Before this time the source of most of the world's heroin was the Middle East. Soon everybody wanted in and various parties alternately quarrelled over and cooperated in illegal opium commerce. Most notable were the Nationalist Chinese Army refugees living in northern Burma and northern Thailand, and the Burmese anti-government rebels, in particular the Burmese Communist Party, the Shan States Army and the Shan United Army.

The American CIA eventually became involved in a big way, using profits from heroin runs aboard US aircraft to Vietnam and further afield to finance covert operations throughout Indo-China. This of course led to an increase in the availability of heroin throughout the world, which in turn led to increased production in the remote northern areas of Thailand, Burma and Laos, where there was little government interference. This area came to be known as the 'Golden Triangle' because of local fortunes amassed by the 'opium warlords' - Burmese and Chinese military-businessmen who controlled the movement of opium across three international borders.

As more opium was available, more was consumed and the demand increased along with the profits - so the cycle expanded. As a result, opium cultivation became a fulltime job for some hill-tribe groups within the Golden Triangle. Hill economies were destabilized to the point where opium production became a necessary means of survival for thousands of people, including the less nomadic Shan people.

One of the Golden Triangle's most colourful figures is Khun Sa - also known as Chang Chi-fu, also known as Sao Mong Khawn - a half-Chinese, half-Shan opium warlord. He got his start in the '50s and '60s working for the Kuomintang (KMT) - Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Chinese troops who had fled to Burma. The KMT were continuing military operations against the Chinese Communists along the Burma-China border, financed by the smuggling of opium (with CIA protection). They employed Khun Sa as one of their prime local supporter/advisors. Khun Sa broke with the KMT in the early '60s after establishing his own opium-smuggling business, with heroin refineries in northern Thailand.

From that time on, the history of heroin smuggling in the Golden Triangle has been intertwined with the exploits of Khun Sa. In 1966, the Burmese government deputized Khun Sa as head of 'village defence forces' against the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), which was at maximum strength at this time and fully involved in opium trade. Khun Sa cleverly used his government backing to consolidate power and build up his own militia by developing the Shan United Army (SUA), an anti-government insurgent group heavily involved in opium throughout the Golden Triangle in competition with the BCP and KMT.

When the KMT attempted an 'embargo' on SUA opium trade by blocking caravan routes into Thailand and Laos, Khun Sa initiated what has come to be known as the Opium War of 1967 and thwarted the embargo. However the KMT managed to chase Khun Sa, along with a contingent of SUA troops running an opium caravan routed for Thailand, into Laos, where Burmese officials arrested Khun Sa and the Laotian government seized the opium. Khun Sa escaped Burmese custody by means of a carefully planned combination of extortion and bribery in 1975 and returned to take command of the SUA. About the same time, the Burmese government broke KMT control of opium trafficking and Khun Sa stepped in to become the prime opium warlord in the Triangle, working from his headquarters in Ban Hin Taek, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Coincidentally, US forces pulled Out of Indo-China at this time so there was no longer any competition from CIA conduits in Laos. Ironically since then, the primary law enforcement conflict has been between US-backed Thai forces and the SUA.

Whenever they receive a large financial contribution from the USA Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Thai army rangers sweep northern Thailand from Tak to Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, destroying poppy fields and heroin refineries but rarely making arrests. One recent sweep, a US$800,000 operation in December 1985, accomplished the destruction of 40 square kilometres or 25,000 rai (one rai is equal to 1600 square metres) of poppy fields in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Tak and Nan. Hill-tribe and Shan cultivators, at the bottom of the profit scale, stood by helplessly while their primary means of livelihood was hacked to the ground. A crop substitution programme, developed by the Thai royal family in 1959 (a year earlier cultivation of the opium poppy for profit had been made illegal), has generally been recognized as an almost complete failure. Success has only occurred in selected areas where crop substitution is accompanied by a concentrated effort to indoctrinate hill tribes into mainstream Thai culture.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the SUA continued to buy opium from the BCP, Shan and hill-tribe cultivators in Burma and Thailand, transporting and selling the product to ethnic Chinese syndicates in Thailand who control access to world markets. SUA strength has been estimated at between 1500 and 8000 regulars, putting it on a par with the BCP and the Karen National Union, Burma's two largest insurgent groups (among the 25 different groups operating in 1983).

A turning point in Khun Sa's fortunes occurred in 1982 and 1983 when the Thais launched a full-scale attack on his Ban Hin Trek stronghold, forcing Khun Sa to flee to the mountains of the Kok River Valley across the border in Burma, where he lives in a fortified network of underground tunnels. This led to the breaking up of opium and heroin production in the Mae Salong - Ban Hin Trek area.

The area is now undergoing heavy 'pacification' or Thai nationalization. At great expense to the Thai government, tea, coffee, corn and Chinese herbs are now grown where opium once thrived. Whether this particular project is successful or not is another question but the government's strategy seems to be one of isolating and then pushing pockets of the opium trade out of Thailand and into Burma and Laos, where it continues uninterrupted.

The Laotian People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), Laos' ruling group, is currently taking advantage of Thai government actions in northern Thailand to encourage an increase in opium production in Laos. They are effectively capturing some share of the market vacated by the SUA in Thailand. If the Burmese government steps up efforts to suppress poppy cultivation in Burma, as the Thai government has done in Thailand, Laos may in fact be in a position to corner the market, as it's the only government in the region with an official tolerance towards opium production. Smuggling routes for Laotian opium and heroin cross the Thai border at several points throughout the north and northeast, including the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Loei, Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom.

The cycle continues with power being transferred from warlord to warlord while the hill-tribe and Shan cultivators continue as unwilling pawns in the game. The planting of the poppy and the sale of its collected resins has never been a simple moral issue. The cultivators who have been farming poppies for centuries and heroin addicts have both been exploited by governments and crime syndicates who trade in opium for the advancement of their own power. This leads to the obvious conclusion that opium production in the Golden Triangle must be dealt with as a political, social, cultural and economic problem and not simply as a conventional law-enforcement matter.

So far a one-sided approach has only resulted in the unthinking destruction of minority culture and economy in the Golden Triangle area, rather than an end to the opium and heroin problem. Meanwhile, opium cultivation continues in Thailand in hidden valleys not frequented by the Thai armed forces. Any hill-tribe settlement may legally plant opium poppies for its own consumption. Small plots of land are 'leased' by opium merchants who have allowed heroin production to decentralize in order for poppy resin collection to appear legal.


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