The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Gen. Ouane Rattikone: The Vientiane Connection

Gen. Ouane Rattikone could not have foreseen the enormous logistical problem that would be created by his ill-timed eviction of the Corsican charter airlines in 1965. While use of Air America aircraft solved the problem for Gen. Vang Pao by flying Meo opium out of northeastern Laos, in the northwest Ouane had to rely on his own resources. Eager to establish an absolute monopoly over Laos's drug traffic, he had been confident of being able to expropriate two or three C-47s from the Laotian air force to do the job. But because of the intensification of the fighting in 1964-1965, Ouane found himself denied access to his own military aircraft. Although he still had control over enough civilian air transport to carry the local harvest and some additional Burmese imports, he could hardly hope to tap a major portion of Burma's exports unless he gained control over two or three air force C-47 transports. General Ouane says that in 1964 he purchased large quantities of Burmese opium from the caravans that entered Laos through the Ban Houei Sai region in the extreme northwest, but claims that because of his transportation problem no large Shan or Nationalist Chinese opium caravans entered northwestern Laos in 1965. (160)

Shortly after Gen. Phoumi Nosavan fled to Thailand in February 1965, General Ouane's political ally, General Kouprasith, invited the commander of the Laotian air force, Gen. Thao Ma, to Vientiane for a friendly chat. Gen. Thao Ma recalls that he did not learn the purpose of the meeting until he found himself seated at lunch with General Ouane, General Kouprasith, and Gen. Oudone Sananikone. Gen. Kouprasith leaned forward and, with his friendliest smile, asked the diminutive air force general, "Would you like to be rich?" Thao Ma replied, "Yes. Of course." Encouraged by this positive response, General Kouprasith proposed that he and General Ouane pay Thao Ma I million kip ($2,000) a week and the air force allocate two C-47 transports for their opium-smuggling ventures. To their astonishment, Thao Ma refused; moreover, he warned Kouprasith and Ouane that if they tried to bribe any of his transport pilots he would personally intervene and put a stop to it. (161)

Very few Laotian generals would have turned down such a profitable offer, but Gen. Thao Ma was one of those rare generals who placed military considerations ahead of his political career or financial reward. As the war in South Vietnam and Laos heated up during 1964, Laotian air force T-28s became the key to clandestine air operations along the North Vietnamese border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Gen. Thao M took personal command of the squadrons bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and providing close air support for Secret Army operations in the northeast. (162) But his proudest accomplishment was the invention of an early version of what later became the AC-47 gunship. Aware that the Pathet Lao often attacked at night when his T-28 fighters were grounded, Thao Ma began looking for a way to provide nighttime air support for government forces and came up with the idea of arming his C-47 transports with .50 caliber machine guns. In 1964 he reduced the air force's logistic capacity by converting a number of his transports into gunships. Thus, when Kouprasith and Ouane demanded two C-47s in early 1965, Thao Ma felt there were none to spare and refused. (163)

Despite further offers and heavy political pressure, Thao Ma's intransigence continued. In 1966 Ouane was still without access to air transport and again no major Shan or Nationalist Chinese opium caravans entered northwestern Laos. Evidently the economic loss of two successive Burmese opium harvests, and the dire prospect of continued losses, convinced Ouane and Kouprasith that the Laotian air force badly needed a new commander.

In May 1966 Gen. Thao Ma was summoned to Vientiane from his headquarters in Savannakhet for a harsh dressing down by the high command. The transport section of the air force was severed from his command and he was ordered to move his headquarters to Vientiane. (164) Fearing assassination at the hands of General Kouprasith if he moved to Vientiane, Thao Ma appealed for a six-month delay and began spending most of his time at the air base in Luang Prabang. (165) As the transfer date approached, Thao Ma sought desperately for an alternative. He begged the Americans, Capt. Kong Le, and the king to intercede on his behalf, but to no avail. (166) Friend and foe alike report that he was in a state of near panic by October, and Thao Ma himself remembers that he was functioning in a dazed stupor. (167) Thus, a coup seemed his only way out.

At 7:00 A.M. on October 22, six T-28 fighters took off from Savannakliet and headed north for Vientiane. At 8:20 A.M. the squadron reached the Laotian capital and the first bomb scored a direct hit on General Kouprasith's office at general staff headquarters. The T-28s strafed and bombed the headquarters compound extensively. Two munitions dumps at Wattay Airport on the outskirts of Vientiane were destroyed. The squadron also rocketed General Kouprasith's home at Chinaimo army camp, but all the missiles were wide of the mark and the general was unharmed. (168) Over thirty people were killed and dozens more were wounded. (169)

The squadron flew back to Savarmakhet, and Vientiane waited nervously for a second round of attacks. After receiving numerous appeals from both Lao and American officials to end his revolt and go into exile, Gen. Thao Ma and ten of his best pilots took off from Savannakhet at 1:45 A.M. October 23, and flew to Thailand, where they were granted political asylum. (170)

Although his coup was primarily an act of revenge, Thao Ma had apparently expected that his friend Kong Le, the neutralist army general, would seize Vientiane and oust the generals once Kouprasith was dead. (171) However, Kong Le was having his own problems with Kouprasith and, unknown to Thao Ma, had left for Bangkok five days before to meet with CIA officials. Shortly after the T-28s struck Vientiane, Thai officials placed Kong Le under house arrest in Bangkok and Kouprasith ordered Laotian border guards to arrest him if he tried to return. Kong Le became a political exile in Paris, and his neutralist army fell under rightist control. (172) Soon after Thao Ma flew into exile, a pliant, right-wing general was appointed air force commander.

With an ample supply of C-47 transports and helicopters now assured, General Ouane proceeded to contact Chinese and Shan opium brokers in the tri-border area, and placed a particularly large order with a fastrising young Shan warlord named Chan Shee-fu. (173) As the Lahu and Wa hill tribes of northeastern Burma finished harvesting opium in the early months of 1967, Chan Shee-fu's traders and brokers began buying up all the opium they could find. By June he had assembled one of the largest single shipments on recordsixteen tons of raw opium. When the caravan set out across the rugged Shan highlands for its destination near Ban Houei Sai, Laos, about two hundred miles away, its three hundred pack horses and five hundred armed guards marched single file in a column that extended over a mile along the narrow mountain trails.

But this monumental caravan was to spark off a bloody confrontation that made headlines all over the world as the " 1967 Opium War." While the war in the papers struck most readers as a colorful anachronism, the war in reality was a struggle for control of Burma's opium exports, which at that time amounted to about five hundred tons of raw opium annually-more than one-third of the world's total illicit supply. Consequently, each group's share of Burma's opium exports and its role in the Golden Triangle's heroin trade were largely determined by the war and its aftermath. All of the combatants were well aware of what was at stake, and threw everything they could muster into the battle.

The confrontation started off with the KMT (Nationalist Chinese army units) based in northern Thailand deciding to send more than a thousand soldiers into Burma to head off Chan Shee-fu's caravan. The KMT had been worried for some time that the rising young Shan warlord might threaten their fifteen-year domination of the opium trade, and this mammoth caravan was a serious threat. But the Shan caravan eluded Nationalist Chinese forces, fled across the Mekong into Laos, and dug in for a fight at Ban Khwan, a lumber town twenty miles northwest of Ban Houei Sai. After several days of indecisive fighting between he Chinese and Shans, Gen. Ouane Rattikone entered the lists. Displaying an aggressiveness rare among Laotian army commanders, General Ouane bombed both sides with a squadron of T-28s and swept the field of battle with the Second Paratroop Battalion. While his friends and enemies fled in disorder, General Ouane's troops scooped up the sixteen tons of raw opium and delivered it to the victorious general, presumably free of charge. Almost two hundred people, mainly Shans and Chinese, died in the fighting.

As a result of General Ouane's victory, the KMT lost many of i s profitable prerogatives to the general. They had nevertheless crushed Chan Shee-fu's bid for supremacy, even though they had not completely destroyed him. After the battle General Ouane emerged as one of the most, important heroin manufacturers in the Golden Triangle, since his share of the Burmese opium trade increased considerably.

Although it was a relatively minor military action compared to the battles raging elsewhere in Indochina, the 1967 Opium War captured the imagination of the American press. However, all of the accounts studiously avoided any serious discussion of the Golden Triangle opium trade, and emphasized the sensational. Using a cliche-studded prose usually reserved for the sports page or travel section, the media rambled on about wild animals, primitive tribes, desperadoes of every description, and the mysterious ways of the Orient. But despite its seductively exotic aspects, the 1967 Opium War remains the most revealing episode in the recent history of the Golden Triangle opium trade.

After the abolition of government opium monopolies in the 1940s and 1950s, the Golden Triangle's drug trade disappeared behind the velvet curtain of government secrecy and it became increasingly difficult to verify official involvement or the extent of the traffic. Suddenly the curtain was snatched back, and there were eighteen hundred of the distinguished General Ouane's best troops battling fourteen hundred well-armed Nationalist Chinese soldiers (supposedly evacuated to Taiwan six years before) for sixteen tons of opium. But an appreciation of the subtler aspects of this sensational battle requires some background on the economic activities of the KMT units based in Thailand, the Shan rebels in Burma, and in particular, the long history of CIA operations in the Golden Triangle area.