Military Review

Civil War in Burma: The Opium Wars in the “Golden Triangle” of the Shan Mountains

Civil War in Burma: The Opium Wars in the “Golden Triangle” of the Shan Mountains

One of the most remote parts of Indochina and Asia as a whole - the mountainous areas at the junction of the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos - in the second half of the twentieth century, became world famous under the name of the Golden Triangle. This name is connected with the fact that the lands where opium poppy has been cultivated since time immemorial, since the 1950-s have become the center of world export of opium going for the production of heroin.

When the “triangle” was not yet “golden”, it was a rather closed mountain region, which was considered backward even by the standards of other provinces of Burma or Laos, not to mention Thailand. It was home to dozens of various ethnic groups and tribes, speaking Tibeto-Burmese, Thai and Mon-Khmer languages. One of the largest ethnic groups in the region has been and remains shans.

Shans are a Thai-speaking people, akin to the neighboring Lao, but mostly preserving the features of the archaic Thai culture. Today shans live in Burma (where they make up 9% of the population), China, Thailand, and Laos. It is clear that, being the largest and most numerous ethnic group, the shans largely asked the political climate of the region. Up until the British colonization of Burma, they retained the real independence of their mountain principalities, although they were formally considered as vassals of the Burmese crown.

The British, who used in Burma, as in India, a variety of management methods, which varied depending on the historical and cultural characteristics of the subordinate peoples, retained the feudal fragmentation of Shan society. All 33 principalities, located in the Shan Mountains, continued their semi-independent existence, the British administration chose not to interfere in their internal affairs.

Burma’s proclamation of independence was met by the Shan aristocracy with obvious disapproval. The princes felt the danger to the world order that had been conserved for centuries and demanded that the Burmese authorities grant independence to the Shan Federation. Naturally, the central authorities in this Shan leaders refused, after which they moved to the active phase of confrontation. In 1952, the Burmese armed forces that invaded Shan State met with opposition from not only Shan feudal lords, but also other tribes and ethnic groups inhabiting the region.

Perhaps, in the Shan mountains, the resistance of the Burmese army turned out to be the most fierce. This was explained by the fact that in several post-war years, the region turned into a somewhat uneasy territory from the usual agrarian backwater, where opium poppy became the main crop. Locals grew it for centuries and used for medicinal purposes, but only in the twentieth century it began to be exported outside the region in unbelievable quantities. This was facilitated by the invasion into the territory of the Shan Mountains of the remnants of the Chinese Kuomintang army, defeated in the southern provinces of China Yunnan and Sichuan by the Maoist People’s Liberation Army of China.

The Kuomintang troops from the 93 Division, retreating to Burma and Thailand, instantly realized what this mountainous region could feed them. The benefit of opium consumption was familiar to them even in life in China. Local peasants were taxed on raw opium, which was then exported to Bangkok and sold through the Chinese “triad” abroad. The Vietnam War, which spread to neighboring Laos, was the beginning of an active presence in the region of the United States of America. Puzzled by the question of destabilizing the situation in the potentially “red” Indochina, American intelligence agencies turned their attention to drug trafficking as the most important source of obtaining huge amounts of money. Some of these funds went to the maintenance of numerous rebel armies in Burma and Thailand, but the bulk of the money came at the disposal of the CIA-controlled structures.

It was with the help of the US CIA that regular air communication was organized between the fragments of the Kuomintang army, retreating to Burma (and they were in the middle of the 1950-s to 12 of thousands of soldiers and officers) and the island of Taiwan, where the KMT managed to gain a foothold in power. But if in Taiwan the KMT managed to create a capable state, which soon became one of the so-called. "Asian tigers" and still demonstrates a high level of development of economics and technology, then in Burma and Thailand the Kuomintangs were rapidly criminalized and turned into drug dealers.

Using the inaccessibility of the Shan Mountains and allied relations with the leaders of the Shan and other tribal formations, which, as we know, have already fought with the Burmese power, the Kuomintang created a unique zone in the Golden Triangle that was not controlled by either the Burmese, Thai or Lao authorities. The only basis for its economy and financial well-being of local leaders was the drug trade.

For several decades, the American and Thai authorities actually patronized the production and export of heroin from the Golden Triangle. After all, the Kuomintang, who played a key role in the drug trade, were viewed by the CIA as a counterweight to red China and, in general, to the influence of communism in the region. Therefore, for obvious reasons, Thailand, in whose territory, in Maysalong, the headquarters of the Kuomintang division, was based, closed its eyes to the presence of illegal armed formations in the country's territory, and to their activities, which also run counter to legislation.

But Burma, whose territorial integrity was primarily attacked by the Kuomintang and the Shan rebels associated with them, repeatedly tried to bring the Shan Mountains under control. Ultimately, there was no other way left than to allow the units of the People’s Liberation Army of China to enter the country and knock out the Kuomintang units beyond the Burmese border - to neighboring Thailand. The Thai leadership accepted the presence of the Kuomintang. Moreover, they provided real assistance in the fight against the guerrillas from the Communist Party of Thailand, who also operated in areas bordering Burma.

However, the expulsion of the Kuomintang troops from Burma did not mean the cessation of the Shan armed resistance, or, of course, the refusal of the local population to cultivate the opium poppy. The drug trade in the region was taken under control by militants from the Mon-Thai Army, which was led by the famous Khun Sa. This Shan adventurer of Chinese origin bore the name of Zhang Shifu by birth and lived a life long enough for people of such a plan - 74 of the year, having died safely in 2007 of the year in his own mansion in Yangon. The world media, prone to demonizing such figures, he was often called almost the leader of the drug mafia on a planetary scale, although, of course, despite a certain influence in this field, he did not even fully control the collection of raw opium in Shan province.

The withdrawal from the political scene of Khun Sa was accompanied by the collapse of the Mon-Thai Army he created, from which the Army of the Shan State — the Southern (led by the successor of Khun Sa Yod-Suk), the Army of the Shan State — Northern and smaller groups. Also on the territory of the state are the National Army of the Shan State, the Eastern Army Shan and armed units of other ethnic communities - lakhu, pao, va. Twice - in 1994 and in 2005. - Shan leaders proclaimed independence of the Federation of the Shan States, but the efforts of the Burmese military led to the fact that today only a small part of the most inaccessible areas of the Shan Mountains is under the control of several rebel armies.
Seventy-three-year-old Iodine Suk is a professional soldier who served all his youth in anti-insurgent units, and in 1991, he was among the deputies of Khun Sa, today bears the title of chairman of the Shan State Congress and is the most authoritative politician of the Shan community, with whom the official Burmese authorities .

A constant military opponent of the Shan units are the rebels of the Wa nationality. The rivalry of the rebel armies is explained, firstly, by claims of their own statehood within a part of the Shan state, secondly by competition for the opium poppy fields and the raw opium market and, thirdly, by ideological considerations: if the chans have long maintained contacts with the Kuomintang, then for a long time the main support of the Burmese communists remained.

The territory of residence of the Mon-Khmer nation in the extreme northeastern state of Shan is high mountains in which opium poppy is a key agricultural crop. For centuries, the islands grew opium poppy, and also had the custom of “head hunting”, which is characteristic of many tribes in the region. It was precisely as drug manufacturers and “bounty hunters” who, with the help of the American and European press, became famous all over the world. Although in the end, these people are only victims of the political and economic interests of the major world powers, special services, and mafia syndicates who imposed on their traditional culture and lifestyle.

After the defeat in Central and Lower Burma, the Communist Party detachments retreated here, which gained the support of your backward and discriminated ethnic group, in addition to everything closely associated with China due to its proximity to the Burmese-Chinese border. Chinese volunteers and intelligence agents were transported across the border to the Wa area, and arms were supplied to the Communist detachments. It is clear that the successors of the Marx-Lenin-Mao case in the Shanskiy mountains also did not disdain drug trafficking.

After the political regime in China weakened revolutionary rhetoric and, accordingly, support for Maoist movements in Southeast Asia, the Burmese communists suffered a crisis. One of the biggest losses was a breakaway from the Communist Party of the Wa people who were once loyal to it, led by Bao Yusyan, who formed their own unified army of the Wa State and declared independence from both Burma and Shan State. Fortunately, the ten-thousand-strong number of armed units of the United Army of the Wa State allows you to maintain control over the territory of this mountainous hard-to-reach area.

The United States of America included the United Army of the Wa State on the list of organizations involved in drug trafficking. It is understandable - one and the same activity can remain “unnoticed”, as in the case of the allied US Kuomintang, or be subject to general censure, as is the case with the Wa army. The latter is explained by the fact that after the weakening of the Communist Party of Burma, it was the United Army of the Wa State that became the key conduit for Chinese influence in the region.

The unrecognized state of Wa today is virtually independent of Burma. Its population is about 200 000 people, while in the area of ​​Wa very clearly traced Chinese influence. People watch TV shows from China, in the course of the Chinese language. The yuan is widely used as a local currency.

According to the media, up to the present, weapons for the United Army of the Wa State come from China. Thus, human rights organizations in 2012 and 2013. China was accused of supplying the army with armored vehicles and helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles. Although the official Beijing denied these allegations, it is quite possible to assume that the Celestial is not in a hurry to part with the rebels of the Shan Mountains, who perform an important function of pressure on the Burma government.

In an effort to put an end to the cultivation of opium poppy in the Wa region, the Burmese government, with the support of international organizations, is implementing programs in the regions where mountainous peoples live, aimed at resettling highlanders to the valleys, displacing poppy fields by tea plantations, etc. Humanitarian assistance in exchange for the abandonment of the production of raw opium is the official strategy of the world community in its relations with the rebel movements of the Shan Mountains. Another thing is whether the latter intend, in fact, and not in words, to observe the agreements reached. Here a lot depends on the rebels themselves, and on those forces that continue to use them to their advantage.

It is obvious that the peasants of the Shan mountains, due to their economic backwardness and historical traditions of farming, growing opium poppy, have become hostages of serious political games started by the great powers in the middle of the last century. The United States of America, trying to counter the communist expansion in Indochina with the rebel armies of national minorities and Kuomintang, actually created the "Golden Triangle" as one of the centers of the world drug trade and provoked numerous bloody wars in the region, the victims of which were many thousands of civilians.
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  1. buzer
    buzer 26 May 2014 12: 52
    I alone think that the situation in those places will not change soon? What has nothing to do in our life ...
    1. Verdent
      Verdent 26 May 2014 16: 55
      Quote: buzer
      I alone think that the situation in those places will not change soon? What has nothing to do in our life ...

      not one) the United States knows how to make such a mess that it will then be raked by more than one generation ...
      1. teron
        teron 27 May 2014 11: 06
        The old, unkind strategy of the Anglo-Saxons is to pit peoples against each other, and if they are at odds with each other, then intensify the confrontation by adding the resulting bloody mess to the arms trade, drug trade, etc.
  2. Azaat
    Azaat 26 May 2014 17: 56
    Ksati in Hollywood movies is sold by the Chinese from the Shan mountains, but the Chinese are selling it. Even Stallone in "Some Rambo" is fighting the Kuomintang army in Vietnam.
    1. abdrah
      abdrah 27 May 2014 02: 20
      About Khun Su, the topic was not disclosed - in the 80s, the Soviet press wrote about the "king of the golden triangle" that he had his own small, but very well-armed army, he even had an air defense system (!!!), not a big truth, but for a private trader from Indochina and this is a document. At that time he was a billionaire and had his own army. I thought it was just some kind of fiction, but only 30 years passed and private armies became like lice on a mongrel and there are even more billionaires ...