Khun Sa (1934-2007) was a Shan Burmese warlord who once supplied half the USA’s heroin and a quarter of the world’s. In the 1980s his private army defied both the Thai and Burmese governments and the DEA. Despite a 2 million dollar bounty on his head, the self-styled King of Opium was never brought to justice. The US ambassador to Thailand referred to him as ‘the worst enemy the world has’.
Khun Sa was born Zhang Qifu in the poppy fields of Shan State, Burma to a Chinese father and ethnic Shan mother. The remote highlands where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet then produced 70% of the world’s opium. Though the local tribes of the Golden Triangle had cultivated the poppy for centuries, by the 1950s the Indochina Wars and a growing heroin market transformed opium into a cash crop that could bankroll armies.
Following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, in 1949 remnants of the nationalist Kuomintang descended on Northern Burma and established themselves as masters of the opium trade. Zhang Qifu joined them as a child soldier and by 16 commanded his own armed band.
In 1962 a coup d’etat replaced Burma’s federal democracy with an ethnic Burmese dictatorship. Disenfranchised minorities like the Shan promptly rebelled and the country plunged into civil war.
Now commanding a 700 strong militia, Zhang switched allegiance to the Burmese government. In exchange, they granted him military equipment and a license to freely grow opium in his own fiefdom. His militia battled the Kuomintang, Burmese Communist Party and Shan Nationalists, trading opium for guns on the black market. A year later Zhang broke ties and established a private operation along the Chinese border.
In 1967 Zhang attempted to smuggle 16 tons of opium to General Ouane Rattikone of the Royal Lao Army. His mule caravan was ambushed by Kuomintang soldiers, however, and subsequently bombed by Rattikone, who seized the drugs for himself without payment. After this defeat, Burmese forces imprisoned Zhang Qifu from 1968-73.
When a hostage exchange brought his freedom, Zhang reunited with his followers in northern Thailand. The Golden Triangle’s political climate had since changed. Rattikone and other CIA backed traffickers lost the Laotian Civil War, leaving a gap in the market, while American GIs had withdrawn from Vietnam, bringing their taste for opiates back home. Zhang exploited the power vacuum. In 1976 he adopted the nom de guerre ‘Khun Sa’ meaning ‘prosperous prince’ and reinvented himself as a champion of Shan separatism.
In 1985 Khun Sa formed the Mong Tai Army in a merger with other Shan insurgents. The largest rebel force in Burma, it controlled a 150-mile radius across the Burmese-Thai border region. Khun Sa rented his territory out to heroin manufacturers across Asia who paid for the protection of his private army, now 20,000 strong and better armed than the Burmese military.
For the next ten years, Khun Sa controlled 75% of the Golden Triangle’s opium and produced over 660 tons of heroin annually, most of which was 90% pure. 600 million dollars a year funded a well-developed private kingdom, complete with satellite dishes, hospitals, schools and an anti-air defence system.
In 1995 the Mong Tai Army caved under pressure from the Thai military and rival narco-armies. Sections of his force were concerned Khun Sa and his Chinese officers cared more about the drug trade than Shan nationalism, and the army splintered.
Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese government in 1996. In exchange, they provided a mansion in Yangon and the promise not to extradite him to the USA. Khun Sa retired with a fortune and lived his last eleven years in peace.
The glory days of the Golden Triangle are now over. Since the early 21st century, the centre of opium production has shifted to Afghanistan, with the Golden Triangle accounting for only 5% of the drug supply. Khun Sa is remembered favourably by Shan today, many of whom are still fighting the Burmese government.
Sources: The Economist, Factsanddetails, Getty Images, The Guardian, iWonderling, New York Times