Before we go deeper let’s become acquainted with Khun Sa, the king of poppies.
This will be a quick summary of his biography on the State Department encyclopedia. For the first half of his life his name was Zhang Qifu; in the second half of his life he was known as Khun Sa, “Prince Prosperous”.
Zhang Qifu was born in 1934 to a Chinese father and Shan mother in the village of Loi Maw. This community was founded by Chinese settlers who had come to the Shan states centuries earlier, likely during the Ming dynasty.
The Chinese Burmese population is portrayed here as very prominent in business, medicine, and legal professions. The Chinese communities operated their own private Mandarin-language schools until the government nationalized education in 1963. From these indications it seems likely that Zhang Qifu was born into a “middle class” community.
Orphaned as a child and taken in by his grandfather, Zhang Qifu did not receive formal education. Instead, he was recruited into basic training by the Kuomintang army after it fled Yunnan in 1949. Forming his own armed band the next year, Zhang continued working with the KMT until he had several hundred men under his own command. By taking his independence Zhang and his militia were free to switch sides and pursue opportunities in Burma’s endless civil war.
The civil war had begun in 1948 and the Communists had been a leading component of the insurrections. The military government of Ne Win took a new approach in the early 60s: they recruited local militias into the border guard, having them fight the Communists in exchange for certain privileges and protections.
One of the most important of these privileges was the freedom to grow opium.
So it was that in 1963 Zhang Qifu turned his militia into a unit of the home guard, the Ka Kwe Ye. In return, he received license to conduct his opium business without military interference.
Zhang worked to eclipse the KMT in his business endeavours, though he apparently remained part of their intelligence network.
The KMT’s stay-behind force in Burma, the Yunnan Anti-Communist National Salvation Army, had been driven out of Burma in 1961 by a combined PRC/Burmese offensive. The KMT had been able to escape to the border of Laos and Thailand, where they established their new base.
Tensions between Zhang Qifu and the KMT reached their peak in 1967. Zhang challenged the KMT’s monopoly on transit taxes at the Lao border. His men loaded a half million dollars of opium onto a mule train and made their way to a refinery in Laos.
Zhang’s Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) was pursued by soldiers of the KMT’s 3rd and 5th Armies but reached their destination: a refinery controlled by General Ouane Rattikone of the Royal Lao Army. Zhang’s men dug into their position and fought a heated battle with the KMT… Until the general called in air strikes and paratroopers on his erstwhile business partners. He seized the opium from the battlefield and took control of the borders from his defeated enemies.
The KMT and SURA were both greatly diminished by this loss. In 1969 SURA was approached by the Shan State Army with an offer of alliance against the Burmese government. The military caught wind of this communication and arrested Zhang for high treason.
Zhang’s militia dissolved without his leadership, but while he studied Chinese classics like Sun Tzu and Romance of the Three Kingdoms his loyalists took action. In 1973 they kidnapped two Soviet doctors visiting the country and ransomed them for Zhang’s release. In 1974 he was a free man, and by 1976 had reassembled his army and taken a new name: Khun Sa, the Prince Prosperous.
The most interesting part of the story of Khun Sa, leader of the Shan United Army, is his proposed solution to the drug wars. In 1977 he proposed that the American government should buy all of his opium to keep it off the black market: he could not stop its production because it was the likelihood of his people. He would later pose the same proposal to the government of Australia. In all cases his offers were refused along the line of ” we won’t pay criminals to commit crime.”
By the mid-eighties Khun Sa would oversee the production of almost half of the opium in the Golden Triangle. He built refineries and roads to service them, and hospitals and schools to service the workers. The drug trade funded the infrastructure and the infrastructure was built for the drug trade. However, the refineries and facilities were owned by men from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand. Khun Sa was paid to host and protect and supply these facilities.
In 1981 the communist rebels in Thailand’s north were finally defeated by the Thai and KMT armies. The US government was determined to eliminate Khun Sa and pressured the Thai government to cooperate. With the rebels defeated the Thai army was able to dispose of their buffer in the Shan United Army. In 1982 they drove Khun Sa’s forces back over the border.
In the last stage of his career Khun Sa merged his SUA with the Tai Revolutionary Council to form the Mong Tai Army. From 1985 to 1996 the Mong Tai fought the government and other militias to protect its business. However, new trade routes were opening up and bypassing Mong Tai territory.
Khun Sa’s position was weakened after the 1989 mutiny which destroyed the Communist Party of Burma. The United Wa State Army which emerged from the CPB had economic interests in the opium trade and political interests in Mong Tai territory. The military encouraged this conflict and allowed the UWSA to operate in the trade. When the Mong Tai Army was defeated and its leader surrendered in 1996, its territories were granted to the UWSA.
Khun Sa was allowed to retire in Yangon and operate a real estate business. His legacy in the country is complex:
Soon after he died, in November 2007, a memorial was held for him in Khun Sa’s former stronghold in Thailand, Thoed Thai, close to the Myanmar border. Asked why they honoured Khun Sa, the local people said that he helped the town to develop: he built the first paved roads in the area, the first school, and a well-equipped, 60 bed hospital staffed by Chinese doctors. He was building a hydro power plant, but after his departure construction on that project was halted. He also built an 18-hole golf course for foreign visitors and a functional water and electrical infrastructure. The local Thai authorities ensured that the ceremony remained relatively simple.Letting the wealth trickle down.
One could read these as the actions of a cynical drug lord looking to expand his profits and power. One could read these as the actions and legacy of a committed patriot, someone who uplifted the material conditions of his people even if it took a lot of dirty work. Was it for personal enrichment? Or did Khun Sa mean it when he said his people needed to sell opium to survive?