The Return of the Golden Triangle

The lawless area in the intersection between Laos, China, Thailand and Burma – more commonly known as the Golden Triangle – has been a major drug producing area since the 1960s. Rough terrain, armed guerrillas and little government control enabled powerful drug kingpins to make billions on large-scale cultivation of the opium poppy – which is processed into heroin – as well as dozens of illegal factories producing methamphetamine and amphetamine. Focused efforts by national governments and international organizations, including giving opium farmers alternative crops to grow, led to a sharp decline in drug production in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the region has seen growing drug production for the seventh last years, creating the second biggest exporter of heroin after war-torn Afghanistan. It appears that the Golden Triangle is booming again.

Khun San meets Australian journalist Stephen Rice, 1989

The Golden Triangle has a bloody history. When the nationalist Kuomintang lost the Chinese civil war to Mao’s Communist Party, tens of thousands nationalist troops that refused to surrender escaped across the borders to neighboring Thailand and Burma. They soon turned to drug trafficking to finance their fight against the communist regime, ending their hopeless war only in the 1980s.  The area hosted several powerful armies that profited from the opium trade, but the most notorious drug lord was undoubtedly Khun Sa, leader of the Mong Tai army with several thousand soldiers. Dubbed the “Opium King”, this Burmese warlord of Shan decent was the major exporter of heroin to the US until the 1990s (he was portrayed in the movie American Gangster) and allegedly offered American and Australian governments to buy his entire opium crop to cut out the supply to their illegal markets.

After Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese authorities in 1996, his subordinate Naw Kang quickly took control of key stretches of the Mekong river that follows the borders between the countries. His gang trafficked drugs worth tens of millions of dollars and taxed boats that travelled through their territory. His reign only ended with his execution in 2013, after 13 Chinese sailors were massacred on the Mekong and he was captured by Special Forces sent by China to his hideouts in Laos.

Shan State, Myanmar.

The majority of the drug production takes however place in Burma’s mountainous Shan State. Due to decades of bloody civil war this state is host to numerous armed guerillas, among them the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) with an estimated 20 000 man under arms. From their large territories on the Chinese border they are believed to be the largest criminal gang in the region, earning billions of dollars by producing copious amounts of methamphetamine and taxing opium farmers. While the UWSA leadership denies all such claims, few doubt that drug production is a lucrative business for many powerful players, government and guerrilla alike. The American embassy in Yangon concluded 20 years ago that Burma’s “exports of opiates appear to be worth as much as all legal exports.” With the country still among the poorest in the world, it is very likely that the massive opium production is a key reason for the continued fighting in parts of Burma.

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