Supported by Chiang Kai-shek and the CIA, the Kuomintang dominated the world’s heroin trade for years. The Secret Army.
Among the wealth of gripping stories to come out of Southeast Asia in the last 60 years few are as compelling as the saga of the armies of the Nationalist government of China chased out of the country by the communists in 1949.
They regrouped in Burma and with arms and supplies sent on clandestine flights by the regime of their leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, by this time in exile on the island of Taiwan, and by the central Intelligence Agency mounted two futile attempts to invade China.
These armies of Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) sometimes numbered up to 20,000 men and swiftly took control of the established opium industry of the hills tribes in the infamous Golden Triangle jungle clad mounts where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet.
The CIA even colluded with this KMT army in distributing their illicit drugs in the 1960s and ’70s when this hidden army became part of America’s often secret war against communists in Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
On a couple of occasions there were loudly heralded campaigns to patriate soldiers of the KMT army to Taiwan.
But these were largely for show. Both Washington and Chiang’s regime in Taipei believed this military arm on Communist China’s western flank was too valuable a force to withdraw or abandon.
But in the end time, the opening up of China to business and increasing security in Southeast Asia has taken its toll.
But the remnants of Chiang’s army and its descendants can still be found in a number of unusually wealthy villages in northern Thailand where Chinese is taught in the schools and is still the family language.
Although this story has been written about and referred to many times, a new book has just been published which draws on both American diplomatic and Taiwanese government records to give an almost day-by-day account of the story of Chiang’s army.
Called The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Tri-angle, the book is by Richard Gibson, a retired former U.S. Consul General in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from where much of the con-tact with the KMT army was managed, and Wenhua Chen, a former Chinese translator at the United Nations and author of a book on the drug lords of the Golden Triangle.
The book is a definitive work on this extraordinary story and sets out far more clearly than has been done before the role played by the KMT army in promoting both the establishment of the Golden Triangle as, for many years, the hub of the international trade in heroin, and in inspiring the separatist insurrections by the ethnic minorities in Burma’s border regions that continue to this day.
On that score, the book per-haps pays too little attention to the feelings of superiority over the minorities by successive military regimes in Burma, dominated by ethnic Burmans.
And the book does not stand back enough from the mountain of documents on which the saga is drawn.
There is, for example, no fleshing out of the characters of men like Gen. Li Mi, who led the KMT Eighth Army and other remnants out of China’s far western Yunnan province and established them in Burma.
Equally absent is any vibrant portrait of Liu Yuan-lin who eventually took command of the exiled soldiers under the name Yunnan Anticommunist Volunteer Army.
These must have been men of considerable skill and authority to keep these tens of thousands of soldiers in the field for not years, but decades, and with little real expectation of ever returning to their homeland.
This is, perhaps, a book for aficionados of this story. It may not be the right book for some-one coming to this saga for the first time.
And unless one has scrambled through the hills and jungles of the Golden Triangle, or knows the geography of that region well, the overly simple maps accompanying the text will not be much help in explaining the battles and movements of men essential to the story.
This is a book for people who already know the essence of the story, and for them it is a splendid addition to bibliography.
But for new comers to the tale, it would probably be an advantage to start with the essential introduction, the 1972 book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred McCoy, Cathleen Read and Leonard Adams.
And there are several excel-lent books on the story of the Golden Triangle by the widely acknowledged expert on the story of the region, Thailand-based Swedish author and journalist Bertil Lintner.
Opium Museum Chiangrai
“Golden Triangle”, the words evoke images of opium poppies, of hill tribes, of mist–shrouded hills, of the mighty Mekong River, and of tropical forests. But most of all the words “Golden Triangle” evoke images of mystery and danger surrounding drug production and trafficking: porous borders; civil wars; armies, police, and smugglers clashing; poor hill farmers eking out a living from a beautiful poisonous plant; raids on hidden heroin factories; donkey caravans along old jungle trade paths.
The development of the Hall of Opium is the result of the initiative of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. The museum presents the history of opium and the impacts of illegal drugs, with an information center for research and extension education on opium, opiates and other narcotics in the near future. The Hall is 10 kilometers north of Chiang Saen town in Chiang Rai Province. The museum is incorporated within the 160 rai or 40-hectare landscape of the Golden Triangle Park. The total size of the exhibition area is about 5,600 square meters.
The exhibition begins with a walk through a 137 meter entrance tunnel, to help create an atmosphere of the contradictory moods associated with opium and narcotics: mystery, danger, fear, sleep and dreams, ease of pain, or suppressed suffering. Introductory displays are presented in the lobby, featuring two issues that attract people to the museum :1. the opium poppy and its products, and 2. Drug production in the Golden Triangle. This section provides a general introduction to the opium poppy, its products, and the history of its use from earliest evidence of at least 5,000 years ago to the late 18th century