1978 Opium War

(Concise translation of Chapter-1 from Thaung Wai Oo’s “My Opium Operations”.)

Thaung Wai Oo's My Opium Operations.

Before I continued on to write about my personal involvements in the 1978 army operations against opium–trafficking ethnic insurgent armies in Shan State I would like to explain a bit about the long history of opium.

Opium (Bain in Burmese) originally was not the product of Burma nor the infamous word a Burmese word. Opium reached Burma via sea routes across India and also land routes across China from the Europe and the Mediterranean regions and the Asia Minor.

Opium was originally called Ee-Phon in its native regions and E-pha-na in Pali language the ancient and the religious language of Indian Sub-continent. Later in India it is called Ah-Phain or Phain and it became Bain in Mon-Burmese language.

(Translator’s notes: we warrior Burmese had a peculiar practice of changing soft-sounding words into harsh-sounding words. For example, the soft name of Indian Princess Sitar from Ramayana was changed by our ancestors to our harsh Thidar.)

Thousands of years ago Indians and Chinese didn’t even know the existence of Opium let alone use it and become addicts. Opium propagated from Greece and Mesopotamia towards Asia. Opium was widely used in Asia Minor since the pre-historic ages.

In the stone-ages opium naturally grew on the hills around the Mediterranean Sea and there were written records of opium usage as a medicine by the European physicians a thousand years before Jesus Christ. Greeks and Romans also widely used opium as a common medicine.

Within a thousand years after Jesus Christ the opium spread into East India and China. It was said that from the neighboring Yunan Province of China the opium eventually reached the Golden Triangle region of our Burma.

Opium’s Arrival in Asia from the West

Since the Mongol-dominated era in 13th and 14th centuries the traders and merchants from all over the world started coming to China because of her globally famous wealth. At the beginning the trade was done through land routes the famous Silk Road. But by the end of 15th Century most merchandise from China were transported by the sailing ships.

Due to the basic fact that compared with the enormous size and massive population of China most European countries are much smaller and thus their trading with China in the popular merchandises like silk, cotton, sugar, and various spices were extremely profitable to the Europeans.

Portuguese were the top merchants back then and their main interest solely was trading but their rivals English were interested in both trading and the colonization of new territories.

Both Portugal and England then had a worsening problem of massive trade deficit with China as Chinese didn’t really need European products as much as the European desires for Chinese goods and so the Europeans had to use their precious gold and silver to pay for the goods from China. 

Chinese Opium Addicts.
Wicked English merchants soon noticed the hidden problem of opium addiction in China and started giving them chests of opium as payments for Chinese goods. As the demand for Opium grew in China many folds the British East India Company started establishing poppy plantations in Bengal in 1773 by introducing the European poppy seeds and European agricultural technology into India.

Within a few years India was producing commercial quantity of opium since the country had a vast amount of suitable land for poppy plantations and cheap labor for profitable high-yield production of opium. But it also escalated the already devastating opium addiction problem among the Chinese.

In 1729 Chinese Emperor Yung Cheng (1723-1735) tried to prohibit opium in China and again in 1796 Emperor Chia Ching prohibited opium in China. Despite the official prohibition the massive amount of British opium from India was still smuggled into China.

Opium Wars of China.
Early in 1729 the opium imports into China was only just over 200 Chests. But the imports grew five folds to over 1,000 Chests in 1767 and in 1820 it grew another ten folds to over 10,000 Chests. By 1838 over 40,000 Chests of opium was imported into China illegally despite the prohibition.

Major exporters of opium into China then were America, England, France, Portugal, and Dutch. Those western nations took unfair advantage over the hapless Chinese by taking their tea, silk, and other valuable commodities out of China in return for socially devastating opium cheaply produced in India.

The results were the infamous Opium Wars between China and England in the years 1839 and 1842. The Second Opium War known as the Arrow War broke out in 1856 and 1860 between China on one side and France and England on the other side.

China lost all those opium wars and the victors ruthlessly raised the yearly opium imports to China up to massive 60,000 Chests. Realizing the military and economic benefits of opium the colonial powers even expanded opium productions into the Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador in South America during the period between the First World War and the Second World War.

Opium’s Arrival in Burma

Ancient map of Burma.
According to the historical records opium was brought into and distributed in Burma since 16th Century by the Dutch and Italian traders.  In 1515 during the Taungoo Reign many Portuguese came to Burma and permanently settled in Martaban (Moat-ta-ma) and they brought opium along.

There were written records describing the visit of an Italian Venetian named Ceaser Fredrick who also bought and sold opium in then the seaport town of Pegu in Burma.

According to the 1613 records of a Dutch trading company 200 pounds of opium was purchased in Malacca and transported to Pegu in Burma through Siam (Thailand) and sold there at a huge profit.

In 1824 British colonial administration started legally permitting licensed-opium-dens in Arakan and Tenasserim divisions they had captured from the Kingdom of Burma after First Anglo-Burmese War.

Because of widespread use of opium in Colonial Burma the opium production rooted in the remote border region and the devastating effects of opium would be bitterly felt by the whole country for more than 100 years since. But the worst had come with America’s War in Vietnam and the notorious CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).


This was what Tin Maung Yin (MA) described of America’s involvement in opium and heroin trade from the Golden Triangle of Burma in his translation of Alfred W. Macoy’s “Heroin Politics in South east Asia”.

“American foreign policy had basically encouraged a large scale opium growing and massive heroin production in South East Asia. Since 1950s America had supported KMT exile forces in Burma.

Heroin Route through Thailand.
But militarily-incompetent and cowardice KMT white-Chinese had rather wanted to run a very profitable heroin operation than fighting the superior red-Chinese communist forces inside China.

So KMT put all their efforts into expanding the opium growing in the Shan State, which was a virtually-lawless land back then, and attaining the almost monopoly of opium and heroin trade in the Golden Triangle. KMT even helped the CIA in recruiting the opium-smuggling war lords of Laos to form mercenary armies against the Communists rivals in Lao.

CIA had also supported the massive heroin-smuggling syndicates comprising the Ministers and senior Government officials from the right-wing Governments of South Vietnam and Laos and Thailand.

CIA also heavily relied on the Shan Insurgents in their clandestine operations against China in the neighboring Yunan Province while blindly ignoring Shan’s opium smuggling activities or even encouraging the Shans.

Shan insurgents sent their opium to the CIA-supported Laotian Army officers on the border and received the CIA guns from corrupt Laotians. And the Laotian Army converted the Shan opium into pure heroin for the GI market in South Vietnam and then the whole world.

Heroin Route through Vietnam.
One damaging result for our country from the opium and heroin trade had been the prolonging of Shan insurgency in Burma while CIA personnel had frequently entered Shan State for their spy operations in Yunan. The insurgency and the lawlessness in turn had increased the opium growing and heroin production many folds in the Shan State.

By 1969 not just the poppy fields but also the heroin labs were mushrooming in the so-called Golden Triangle region where Burma and Laos and Thailand meets. Limitless production of heroin had begun.

CIA also supported corrupt South Vietnamese and Laotian and Thai officials deeply involving in the international heroin smuggling operations by providing them with airplanes for heroin transportation.

CIA cold war strategy was thus mainly responsible for the spread of heroin menace in S.E. Asia especially our Burma.” 

Above was my short explanation of how the opium fields in Burma grew massively during those 20 years between 1950 and 1970.

Thus in our country the military operations against opium were mainly done in the Shan State. Almost every year the opium offensives have been launched by our army in the Lashio region and Eastern-Kengtung region of Northern Shan State.

Most poppy fields are in the Northern Shan State while the opium routes to Laos and Thailand are in the Eastern and Southern Shan State. The Kengtung area basically has common borders with China, Laos, and Thailand.

Centering on the course of Mekong River originated from China the Golden Triangle of Burma and Thailand and Laos once produced more than 10,000 tons of opium every year. That amounted to about 70% of world’s total illegal opium production.

But nowadays the biggest opium producer is said to be Afghanistan. The Taliban insurgents there grew opium large scale and smuggled heroin to America and Europe. They used the money from the heroin trade to buy the weapons used in attacking the American and her allies now occupying Afghanistan.

Now the notorious country producing about 70% of world illegal opium is Afghanistan.

Almost all the opium in this world comes from nearly 4,500 mile long mountainous strip of hilly lands from the Turkish-Anatolia Plateau in the West to Northern Laos in the East. People from the eight countries in that strip produce about 14,000 tons opium every year and supplied raw opium and heroin both legally and illegally to the consumers worldwide.

Only few tons of opium is supplied to the pharmaceutical manufacturers in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India for producing legal opiate-based medicines while the majority is converted into heroin and smuggled all over the world.

Poppy Plants to Opium to Heroin

Mature Poppy plants.

Every year in September and October the opium growers all over the world carefully spread poppy seeds on the prepared-land. The mature plant can grow up to 3 to 4 foot tall. In about three months the poppy plants bear beautiful flowers white or purple colored. Egg-shaped poppy fruit emerged once the petals are shed and inside the fruit is full of white latex.

And that milky latex sap is opium. Poppy farmers collect the sap by slitting the pods with specially curved knife and then scraping off the sap slowly oozing out of the slits. Once out of the pods the white latex sap transform into a brownish gum-like substance and it is raw opium.

Normally the opium traffickers refine their raw opium into morphine base first for the transportation as compact morphine bricks are much easier to handle than smelly and bulky opium bundles. Usually the rickety morphine refineries can be found near the poppy fields. Morphine refining method is the same for all the producers from both S.E. Asia and Middle-East even though they are separated by thousands of miles.

First step is boiling the sufficiently clean water in a cut-down oil-drum by firewood or charcoal fire. Once water is boiled raw opium is dropped into the boiling water and stirred continuously till the opium is dissolved. Then a sufficient quantity of lime is poured into the boiling opium solution.

A precipitate of wastes then sinks to the bottom and a white band of opium concentrate forms on the surface. The opium concentrate is drawn off and filtered through a piece of flannel cloth. The concentrate is heated again in another cut-down drum and Ammonia is added and stirred till dissolved. After a short period morphine crystallized and settled at the bottom.

Then the morphine solution is poured and squeezed though another piece of flannel cloth and the white and nearly solid morphine paste is left on the cloth. Once cooled down and dried the original 10 kilo of raw opium would become one kilo of morphine base. Morphine base is then sent to advance heroin laboratories to refine further into Number-4 heroin.


There are five steps in refining the morphine base to fluffy-white heroin powder.

First Step: To produce 10 kilo heroin ten kilo of morphine base and ten kilo Acetic Anhydrite are mixed in either a glass or ceramic container and heated. After six hours of heating at 185 deg Fahrenheit the morphine and the acetic combine and produce Diacetyl Morphine or impure heroin compound. (Most clandestine heroin lab in Burma can produce only 10 kilo of heroin a day.)

Second Step: Water and chloroform are added to the solution to precipitate the impurities. The solution after a draining is high grade Diacetyl Morphine.

Morphine and Heroin.
Third Step: After adding Sodium Carbonate to the solution and rigorous stirring the heroin compounds solidify and sink to the bottom.

Fourth Step: Heroin compound is filtered out of the Sodium Carbonate solution and then mixed with pure alcohol and heated by charcoal fire. Once the alcohol is evaporated only the small solid pieces of heroin are left in the container.

Fifth Step: This step is the final step to produce the fluffy white heroin powder the traffickers and the addicts all over the world highly value as the number-4 heroin. In this step heroin pieces are dissolved in pure alcohol in glass containers. The solution is then mixed with Ether and Hydrochloric Acid. The resulting chemical reaction produces crystallized heroin compound. The crystals are filtered out and chemically dried to become the fluffy white powder of 80% to 90% pure heroin. (This step also requires not just a skillful but also absolutely-careful chemist as the volatile Ether gas can ignite and produce a violent explosion that can demolish a clandestine heroin lab.)


Jungle heroin labs.
Above is the step by step description of refining opium to heroin the illicit drug that could destroy the human race with its devastating effects to the addicts and their families and their society at large.

Over the years to eradicate the opium and heroin totally out of Burma our army has sacrificed many thousands of lives of our soldiers in the operations against opium producers and heroin traffickers and many more thousands became cripples as they lost one or more of their limbs in those military operations.

But these operations are necessary as we as a nation needs to stop the growth of opium cultivation and heroin addicts. An addict becomes basically a useless person for him or herself and also for the people around him or her. An addict is a danger to the society and the opium must be totally eradicated.

I myself have had a very dear friend who has two sons and two daughters. He used to be very wealthy but his family became destitute within a six years period as his two teenage sons became heroin addicts.

If they couldn’t get the money for heroin from their parents they stole from them. They even threatened their parents whenever they became desperate. My friend tried to cure his sons so many times but they always came back to their drug habit. Only many years later they managed to kick their drug habits for good after becoming Buddhist monks in a very strict monastery.

In addition to large scale military operations against opium growers and traffickers our Government has also drawn out a 15 year long-term plan from 1999 to 2014 to totally eradicate the illicit drugs in the country.

So now is time to continue on to write about my personal involvements in the 1978 army operations against opium–trafficking ethnic insurgent armies in Shan State.