The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Survival of the Fittest

Although the 1967 Opium War strengthened the KMT's position inside the Shan States, it complicated the KMT's amicable relations with its host, the Thai government. Ever since the mid 1950s, when the Thai police commander, General Phao, became notorious as one of the major opium traffickers in Southeast Asia, the Thai government has been extremely sensitive about covering up its involvement in the opium trade. When the KMT moved to Thailand in 1962, the government labeled them "civilian refugees" and claimed that their organized military units had been broken up. (275)The KMT reinforced this face-saving fiction by isolating themselves in their mountain redoubts and wearing civilian clothes whenever they went into nearby towns. On the whole, the Thai government was quite successful in convincing the world that the KMT Third and Fifth armies no longer existed. Only five months before the battle, for example, a full-fledged U.N. investigating team spent two months examining the drug problem in Thailand without discovering any substantial evidence of KMT activity. (276) When the 1967 Opium War shattered this carefully constructed myth, the Thai government claimed that it was being "invaded" by the KMT and dispatched several thousand troops to Chiangmai to defend the northern frontier. (277)

In order to ensure that it would not be similarly embarrassed in the future, the Thai government placed the KMT's fortified camps under the supervision of the Royal Army, and KMT generals became accountable to the high command in Bangkok for every move in and out of their headquarters. Aside from these rather limited gestures, however, the Thai government made no effort to weaken the KMT. In fact, the Thai military has moved in the opposite direction by granting the Third and Fifth armies official status as legitimate paramilitary forces. Although the KMT had been responsible for security in the northern frontier areas for a number of -years without receiving official recognition, the recent outbreak of the "Red" Meo revolt in Nan and Chiangrai provinces has brought about a gradual reversal of this nonrecognition policy.

The "Red" Meo revolt began in May 1967 when Thai officials visited the same Meo village in Chiangrai Province on three separate occasions to collect pavoffs; for letting the Meo farmers clear their opium fields. The Meo paid off the first two visitors, but when the Provincial Police showed up to collect their rake-off the Meo attacked them. The next day sixty police returned to the village and burned it to the ground. Although there was no further violence, this incident apparently convinced counterinsurgency strategists in Bangkok that the Meo in Chiangrai and adjoining Nan Province were about to revolt. (278) In October the Thai army and police initiated a series of heavy-handed "Communist suppression operations" that provoked a major uprising. To reduce its mounting casualties, the army began napalming selected villages and herding their inhabitants into guarded relocation centers in early 1968. The revolt spread rapidly, and as the army had to withdraw into a series of fortified positions in June, the air force was unleashed over the insurgent areas, which had been declared free fire zones. By 1970 guerrillas were beginning to sortie out of their mountain "liberated zones," attacking lowland villages and ambushing cars along the highways.(279)

It was obvious to many Thai and American counterinsurgency planners that troops had to go in on the ground to clean up guerrilla mountain sanctuaries before the insurgency spread into the lowlands, However, as their earlier performances had shown, the Thai army was ill suited for mountain warfare. (280) The Thai military, with American financial support, turned to the KMT for help. In the past, General Tuan had claimed credit for keeping Chiangrai. Province free from "communist terrorists. (281)The KMT had all the necessary skills for mountain warfare that the Thai army so obviously lacked: they understood small unit tactics, had twenty years' experience at recruiting hill tribe paramilitary forces, and could converse with the hill tribes in their own languages or Yunnanese, which many tribesmen spoke fluently. (282) But most important of all, the KMT knew how to pit tribe against tribe. While the Thai military had tried to get Meo to fight Meo with little success, General Tuan recruited Akha, Lisu, and Lahu from western Chiangrai Province and sent them to fight Meo in eastern Chiangrai. In December 1969 General Tuan ordered five hundred of these polyglot Fifth Army troops into the mountains just north of Chiang Khong, near the Mekong, to attack the "Red" Meo, and General Ly sent nine hundred of his Third Army troops in an adjoining clump of mountains to the east of Chiang Kham. (283) By mid 1971 two Thai air force UH-IH helicopters were shuttling back and forth between the KMT camps and Thai army bases in eastern Chiangrai. A special photo reconnaissance lab was working round the clock, and a ranking Thai general had been placed in command. When asked what he was doing in Chiang Khong, General Krirksin replied, "I cannot tell you, these are secret operations." (284) However, the senior KMT officer at Chiang Khong, Col. Chen Mo-sup, insisted that his forces had the "Red" Meo on the run and claimed that his troops had killed more than 150 of them.(285)

Even though the KMT have now been integrated into the Thai counterinsurgency establishment, the government has made no appreciable effort to reduce their involvement in the opium trade. In mid 1971 the CIA reported that Mae Salong, KMT Fifth Army headquarters, was the home of one of the "most important" heroin laboratories in the Golden Triangle, and in April 1972 NBC news reported that a laboratory was operating at Tam Ngop, the KMT Third Army headquarters .286 In addition, reliable Shan rebel leaders say that KMT caravans are still operating at full strength, the opium duty is being collected, and no Shan army is even close to challenging the KMT's hegemony.