Tuesday, March 29, 2011

1967 Opium War in Golden Triangle (1)

(Chapter 7:8 of Alfred W. McCoy’s Book The Politics of Heroin in SE Asia.)

Gen. U Ba Thein: Reaping the Whirlwind

Front Cover
Unlike many of the minority leaders who serve the CIA in the Golden Triangle region, U Ba Thein is not a mere mercenary. At the peak of his power in the mid 1960s, he was one of the most important Shan revolutionary leaders. Most of the things he did, including his work for the CIA, were designed to further the cause.

While most guerrilla leaders in the Third World would hardly consider the CIA a partner in national liberation, U Ba Thein viewed the Agency as his natural ideological ally. Most of the Shan rebels are anti-Communist monarchists, and the Burmese government they are fighting is Marxist oriented and socialistic.

The Shan rebel leaders look on the Burmese as aggressors who have expropriated their mineral wealth, but they remember the British colonial administrators with a certain fondness for having built schools and kept the Burmese at a safe distance.

Like many of his generation, U Ba Thein was educated in British schools, converted to Christianity, and learned to think of white men as his protectors. He said he was fighting for Shan independence, but he also wanted to place his independent nation under the protection of Britain or the United States.

In September 1971 he told the authors of his political aspirations:

"We want to be independent from the Burmese, but we are very poor and will need help. We have many minerals in the Shan States and perhaps the British or Americans will come and help develop these for us. You know, sir, we have given Bill Young twenty mineral samples to send to the U.S. to be analysed. Then if we can get Britain or the U.S. to come in and hold hands with us we can stand independent."

U Ba Thein enjoyed organizing commando operations for British intelligence during World War II because he was secure in the knowledge that a great white empire was behind him. When he began building up a Shan revolutionary movement in 1958, his first thought was to seek aid from the Americans.
Alfred McCoy with Meo Soldiers in Northern Laos in 1971.

Soon after U Ba Thein fled from Burma and arrived in Muong Sing, Laos, in mid 1958, he contacted Dr. Tom Dooley, a sort of Middle American Albert Schweitzer who was operating a free clinic for the natives in nearby Nam Tha, and asked him to get aid for the Shans from the U.S. Embassy or the CIA.

But although Dr. Dooley was fast becoming the patron saint of America's anti-Communist crusade in Southeast Asia, he was no gunrunner. U Ba Thein eventually became associated with a fledgling rebel group called the Youth party, but in general he accomplished very little during his first two years in Muong Sing.   

However, in 1961 U Ba Thein and another leader of the Youth party, "General" Sao Gnar Kham, decided to break with the party's incompetent leader and form the Shan National Army, a loose coalition that eventually included most of the rebel bands operating in Kengtung State.

While U Ba Thein was not an exceptional leader, Sao Gnar Kharn was one of the very few genuinely charismatic commanders the Shan rebellion has yet produced. Before joining the rebel movement, he was a practicing Buddhist monk in Kengtung City. There he used his remarkable personal magnetism to solicit donations for the construction of orphanages.

When the Shan secessionist movement began in 1958, Gnar Kharn made the mistake of openly expressing his sympathies for the dissidents and was arrested. After receiving a hideously severe beating he fled into the hills to join the guerrillas, taking the orphanage donations with him.

When the Shan National Army (SNA) was formed, Gnar Kham's leadership abilities made him the obvious choice for commander, and U Ba Thein became deputy commander,

During its first year, SNA operations were severely hampered by a lack of money and arms. In late 1961 their fortunes were at low ebb: their absconded funds were running low, few of the independent rebel bands seemed willing to join the SNA, and they desperately needed modern automatic weapons.

At this particular moment in history the interests of the Shan National Army complemented those of Gen. Ouane Rattikone, and the opium-arms traffic that later made Laos a major heroin -processing center was born.

As head of General Phoumi's secret Opium Administration, Ouane was charged with the responsibility for importing large quantities of Burmese opium. General Phourni had an ample supply of surplus weapons, since the rightist army was receiving large shipments of modem arms from the CIA, and its generals inflated the troop roster in order to pad the payroll.

For their part, Gnar Kham and U Ba Thein had contacts with rebel groups in Kengtung State who were trading the local opium they collected as taxes for overpriced World War I rifles and would welcome a better bargain.

What role, if any, did William Young and the CIA play in bringing the two parties together? First, it is important to note that the Kengtung rebels and General Ouane had known of each other for a number of years. When General Ouane was Pathet Lao commander in northwestern Laos during the 1940s, he was once forced to retreat into Kengtung State, where he was given asylum by the Sawbwa.
Gen. Quane Decorated by King of Laos in 1971.

The incident left General Ouane with a lasting affection for the Shans, and he kept in sporadic contact over the years. William Young says that Gnar Kham pleaded with him to arrange air transportation to Vientiane so that he could meet with General Ouane, but Young insists that he had no authorization for such trips and denied the request.

Young adds, however, that General Ouane found out about the situation independently and ordered the Secret Army commander for north-western Laos to begin making arms available to the SNA in exchange for Burmese opium.

Sometime later Ouane himself flew up to Ban Houei Sai and met with Gnar Kharn to finalize the arrangements. U Ba Thein generally concurs with Young's account, but adds that Young knew about the arrangement, saw the stolen arms and opium being exchanged, and never made any move to stop it.

Since the Americans had denied his formal requests for military aid, U Ba Thein assumed that their benign neglect of the opium-arms trade was another form of repayment for all the services the SNA was providing the Agency.  

In fact, the security of CIA's listening posts near Mong Yang and Ving Ngun did depend on the Shans having good automatic weapons and the Agency's logistics link with these two bases was the SNA opium caravans.

Young admits that he adopted a posture of benign neglect toward the traffic, but denies any personal wrongdoing, claiming that this was the CIA policy throughout northern Laos. The CIA was afraid that pressure on local mercenary commanders to get out of the traffic might damage the effectiveness of paramilitary work.  

Once matters were finally settled with General Ouane and a steady stream of Shan opium and U.S. arms began moving in and out of Ban Houei Sai, Gnar Kham and U Ba Thein launched an ambitious attempt to forge a unified guerrilla army out of Kengtung State's potpourri of petty warlords.

In late 1962 Gnar Kham and U Ba Thein left Ban Houei Sai and moved across the Mekong River into Thailand where they laid the foundation for their modern, unified army.  

Under Gnar Kham and U Ba Thein's supervision, the opium-arms commerce produced a marked improvement in Shan military capabilities and a dramatic shift in the balance of forces in Kengtung State.

In 1962 most of the rebel units in Kengtung were little more than bands of outlaws hiding in the most remote mountains. After gathering opium taxes from the few villages under their control, each of the local commanders led a caravan to Gnar Kham's forward caravan camp at Huei Krai, Thailand, and used the opium to buy U.S. automatic weapons from the Laotian army.

With more weapons, the rebel groups were able to take control of additional opium-growing villages before the next year's harvest was in. More opium taxes meant more automatic weapons from U Ba Thein's rear-area headquarters near Ban Houei Sai, which in turn meant control over more villages and still more opium.

The symbiotic cycle of opium and arms spiralled upward into a military whirlwind that swept the Burmese army out of the countryside into a few well guarded cities. By 1965 the SNA's seven major local commanders had an estimated five thousand soldiers under their command and controlled most of Kengtung State's twelve thousand square miles.  

The importance of the opium-arms dynamic in building up the SNA is illustrated by the military impact of the 1964-1965 opium harvest in Mong Yang and Kengtung districts. The two SNA commanders who controlled the mountains around Kengtung City, Major Samlor and Maj. Tsai Noie, finished collecting the first round of their opium tax in January 1965.

To protect themselves from the Burmese army and the KMT, they merged into a single caravan of ten mules carrying 650 kilos of raw opium and set off for northern Thailand with a combined force of two hundred armed men. After crossing the border into Thailand, they unloaded their cargo at Gnar Kham's camp in the mountains and sold it to a merchant in the nearby town of Mae Sai for $28 a kilo, a rather low price.

Then they purchased sixty rifles in Ban Houei Sai (paying $125 for an ordinary rifle and $150 for a U.S. M-1 or M-2), and had them smuggled across the river into Chiang Khong and delivered to Gnar Kham's camp. While the group's leader was in Chiang Khong supervising the opium-arms transfer, they visited William Young at the CIA bungalow and briefed him on the situation in their areas of the Shan States.   

When the caravan returned to Kengtung District in March, the two commanders divided the sixty rifles evenly. These thirty rifles represented an important addition to Major Samlor's arsenal of eighty rifles, four Bren automatics, and one mortar, and an equally important supplement to Maj. Tsai Noie's collection of fifty rifles, two Brens, and a homemade bazooka.

During the 1964-1965 harvest the SNA commander for the Mong Yang region, Maj. Saeng Wan, sent two large caravans to northern Thailand, which earned over $25,000 and brought back 120 rifles, some mortars, and several heavy machine guns. Before these two caravans returned, he had had only 280 armed men, one heavy machine gun, and four Bren automatics to protect the entire Mong Yang region, which included the nearby CIA listening post.   
Shan State Map.

While opium was indeed the miracle ingredient that rushed vital arms and money into the SNA's system, it was also a poison that weakened its military effectiveness and finally destroyed the fragile coalition. There was enough opium in even the smallest district in Kengtung State to buy arms and equipment for a rebel army and make its leader a wealthy man.

As a result, rebel commanders became preoccupied with protecting territorial prerogatives and expanding their personal fiefs. Instead of sending troops into an adjoining area to launch a joint operation against the Burmese, SNA commanders kept every man on patrol inside his own territory to collect the opium tax and keep his greedy comrades at a safe distance.

A British journalist who spent five months in Kengtung State with the SNA in 1964-1965 reported that:

". . . it would be far more accurate to describe the SNA as a grouping of independent warlords loosely tied into a weak federation with a president as a figurehead. This president has influence through the facilities he offers for selling opium and buying guns and because he presents a front to the outside world, but it is unlikely he will ever wield effective power unless he becomes the channel for outside aid in the forms of guns or money."   

The lucrative opium traffic turned into a source of internal corruption alienating commanders from their troops and prompting ranking officers to fight each other for the spoils. Shan troops frequently complained that they were left at Gnar Kham's mountain camp to feed the mules, while their leaders were off in the fleshpots of Chiangmai wasting opium profits on whores and gambling instead of buying arms.

Often, as soon as a rebel group grew large enough to be militarily effective, the second in command killed his leader or else split the force in order to increase his personal share of the profits.

Not surprisingly, it was this type of dispute that ultimately destroyed the Shan National Army. U Ba Thein had been concerned about Sao Gnar Kham's enormous popularity and his control over the opium traffic for several years. Evidently there were repeated disagreements among various leaders over the opium profits.

In December 1964 the charismatic commander in chief of the SNA was shot and killed at the Huei Krai caravan station. Some sources claim that it was an opium profit dispute that led to the murder.   

U Ba Thein was selected commander in chief of the SNA at a meeting of the local commanders in February 1965, but he lacked the personal magnetism and leadership abilities that Gnar Kham had used to maintain some semblance of unity within the strife-torn coalition.

Afraid that he would suffer a fate similar to Gnar Kham's, U Ba Thein refused to venture out of his headquarters either to meet with subordinates or to travel through Kengtung State for a firsthand look at the military situation.

Local commanders began to break away from the coalition and the SNA gradually dissolved; by 1966 these leaders were marketing their own opium and U Ba Thein had become a forgotten recluse surrounded by a dwindling number of bodyguards.

Six years after Gnar Kham's death, five of his seven local commanders had either been captured, forced into retirement, or killed by their own men, while the remaining two have become mercenary warlords, professional opium smugglers.

But even well before Gnar Kham's death, other Shan rebel armies had already begun to play an even more important role in the region's opium trade. While the history of the SNA's involvement in the opium traffic is important because of its relationship with Gen. Ouane Rattikone, its caravans probably never carried more than 1 percent of the Burmese opium exported to Thailand and Laos.  

In fact, the only Shan warlord who ran a truly professional smuggling organization capable of transporting large quantities of opium was the notorious Chan Shee-fu (Khun Sa).
Shan Opium Warlord Khun Sa

A halfShan, half-Chinese native of Lashio District in the northern Shan States, Chan Shee-fu became involved in opium trafficking in 1963, when the Burmese government began authorizing the formation of local self-defense forces (called Ka Kwe Ye or KKY in Burmese) to combat the Shan rebels.

While the Burmese government gave its militia no money, rations, or uniforms, and only a minimum of arms, it compensated for this stinginess by giving them the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in the Shan States for opium smuggling.

In 1963 Chan Shee-fu was authorized to form a militia of several hundred men, and being a young man of uncommon ambition, he quickly parlayed a number of successful opium shipments to Thailand into a well-armed militia of eight hundred men.

After severing his ties with the Burmese army in 1964, Chan Sheefu abandoned his bases at Lashio and Tang Yang and shifted his headquarters eastward to Ving Ngun in the Wa States (one of the most bountiful opium-growing regions in Burma), where he established an independent fiefdom.

He ruled the Ving Ngun area for two years, and his ruthlessness commanded the respect of even the wild Wa, whose unrelenting headhunting habits had forced both the British and Burmese to adopt a more circumspect attitude. To increase his share of the profits, he built a crude refinery (one of the very few then operating in the Shan States) for processing raw opium into morphine bricks.

In 1966 he rejoined the government militia, and using the government's laissez passer to increase his opium shipments to Thailand, he expanded his army to two thousand men. Unlike the SNA, which could never mobilize more than two hundred or three hundred of its troops at any one time, Chan Shee-fu ruled his army with an iron hand and could rely on them to do exactly what he ordered.   

Despite the size and efficiency of his army, Chan Shee-fu still controlled only a relatively small percentage of the total traffic. In fact, a CIA study prepared by William Young in 1966-1967 showed that Shan caravans carried only 7 percent of Burma's exports, the Kachin Independence Army (the dominant rebel group in Burma's Kachin State) 3 percent, and the KMT an overwhelming 90 percent.   

Even though the KMT's position seemed statistically impregnable, Chan Shee-fu's precipitous rise had aroused considerable concern among the KMT generals in northern Thailand. And when his massive sixteen-ton opium caravan began rolling south toward Ban Houei Sai in June 1967, the KMT realized that its fifteen-year monopoly over the Burmese opium trade was finally being challenged.

The situation provoked a serious crisis of confidence in the KMT's mountain redoubts, which caused a major internal reorganization.