CHIANG RAI – Nestled under a dense canopy of trees in a valley between the hills of the Thai-Burma border, the military camp of Ban Therd Thai village once hosted one of the most lucrative drug-running empires in history.
It is now home to a museum celebrating the life of its commander, once a towering figure in the global heroin trade, who enjoyed the protection of the former junta and was as admired by his acolytes and his community as much as he was reviled by Western governments.
The Khun Sa Museum, in Ban Toed Thai, is situated in the original camp headquarters.
Khun Sa, also known as Chang Chi-fu, the Shan-Chinese warlord who monopolized the Golden Triangle’s opium harvest between the 1970s and the 1990s, is now immortalized in a statue at the entrance of the former camp, sitting astride a horse in a pose reserved for stone tributes of decorated military leaders in other countries.
Before his surrender to the Burmese government in 1996, reputedly to escape extradition to the US on drugs charges, Khun Sa’s camp was home to thousands of soldiers of the Mong Tai Army. Underground prison cells, each little more than a hole in the ground, held three prisoners in each bunker, usually soldiers who had violated the warlord’s rules. Those soldiers responsible for graver crimes—such as using drugs, committing rape or selling their arms to enemy forces, were summarily executed.
Inside Khun Sa’s own spartan quarters, mementos of the late militia leader’s life have been hung on display as relics. In his bedroom alongside his military uniform and a number of traditional Shan costumes are his walking stick and sword, while in the living room next door is another imposing sculpture of the man himself, seated with legs crossed at the table where he received distinguished guests.
Khun Sa’s control of the regional drug trade was notorious worldwide, and at the peak of his power he is believed to have commanded over 20,000 men.
Over the course of the 1980s, heroin trafficked by the Mong Tai Army came to dominate global supply to the United States and other Western countries, leading the US Drug Enforcement Administration to unsuccessfully attempt his extradition.
In 1989, Khun Sa was charged by a New York court for trying to import 1,000 tons of heroin. By then he had proposed USA to buy his entire opium production or he would sell it on the international narcotics market.
Locally, Khun Sa is remembered in a different light, with those who knew him before his death in 2007 fondly recalling him as a patriotic and charismatic leader
Sai Khur Lurn, who served as a teacher under the Mong Tai Army, has worked to restore and maintain the old camp, turning it into a museum that seeks to promote the drug baron’s legacy amongst the younger generation in eastern Shan State and Thailand.
“People from his drug network pointed their fingers to him, so he was branded as an opium kingpin,” Khur Lurn claimed. “Actually, he just collected tax from drug dealers and provided security for drug trafficking route.”
“He did it because he needed money for his army. He didn’t use the money for himself alone. He built schools, clinics, monasteries, and houses for orphans wherever he was based.”
Khun Sa died on 26 October 2007 in Yangon at the age of 73. The cause of death was not known, though he had suffered from diabetes, partial paralysis and high blood pressure. He is buried at Yayway Cemetery, North Okkalapa, Yangon Division, Burma.
By Yan Naing