Michael Batson

Travel Writer





The Golden Triangle - Life and Death in the Middle Mekong - 24 February 2016

They say knowing things in the Golden Triangle is much more dangerous than not knowing them. One journalist reported rather it’s better to be ignorant than complicit, and it’s better to be complicit than dead. This watery intersection has had lots of things though arguably few of them on the surface of it, good things. These have included; ethnic militias, civil wars, gambling, smuggling, drugs, human trafficking, piracy, rogue paramilitaries, and genocide, all at the notoriously lawless region of the Mekong where Laos, Burma, China, and Thailand intersect. The area is an historical geographic crossroads, linguistically and culturally also. Now it’s a site of rapidly shifting geopolitics as China muscles in, and fast increasing trade – both licit and illicit. These days you can throw in tourism. Let’s face it, anything for a buck.

The locals refer to this river junction as Sop Ruak where the Mekong meets the Ruak River, which comes out of the Shan hills. For tourists it’s the meeting point of three nations and two rivers and usually visited by day tours run from the Thai city of Chiang Mai. You get lunch, a menu of destinations packed into a day, and lots of driving. There are bars, restaurants, tacky tourist shops selling wares and souvenirs, and boat rides across the river. It’s all fairly innocuous on the surface of it. A short ride from the tri-border meeting point of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand you can get an education on the history of opium, all 5000 years of it. This is the "Hall of Opium" museum in Golden Triangle Park - a project of Mae Fah Luang foundation, which sponsors a number of projects in Thailand and across Asia, and enjoys the patronage of the Thai royal family. The hall was intended to educate people about illicit drugs in to order to reduce drug abuse. So much for that then.

The Mekong, which translates to “Mother of Water” in both Lao and Thai, is wide and the colour of milky tea in these parts. In fact, I haven’t seen the river looking much like anything else. Moored here two and three abreast are river transports, a truck cab for the bridge giving them a strangely comical appearance. Here also are the river transports that are the mainstay vessels which run to and from Yunnan Province and dominate river traffic in this part of the river known as the Middle Mekong, a sort of freshwater highway that runs from Yunnan south to the Khone Phapheng Falls near the borders of Laos and Cambodia.

Most Western tourists visit the area from Thailand because that’s where most of the tourists are. Access from Myanmar is too difficult and dangerous, and from Laos possible but most don’t want to go to that much effort. Besides you can easily get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok by train, bus or by plane and then onto the Golden Triangle by road. Travel agents and just about every guesthouse in Chiang Mai are happy to take your money and organise everything for you. Prices are largely set and the service is door-to-door. What is missing from the tourist menu, the Hall of Opium aside, is anything to do with the history of what this place really is. Generally, it seems to be what’s missing from most tourist destinations. So bearing in mind what’s been said about knowing some things, here are some things to know.

Geo-politically, the Golden Triangle refers to a large area of almost one million square kilometres spread across the mountains of all three Southeast Asia nations. The “Triangle” is a politically-grounded geographic reference. “Golden” was reputedly as a result of payment for opium along the Burmese-Thai border made in exchange for gold ingots. Across the border in what is now Myanmar is the Shan State. A veritable Wild West home to an array of ethnic, Communist, and ex-Chinese nationalist forces vying for power. One commentator described that they have in common the money derived from opium. Opium was first introduced on a large scale by Britain a country which, through its agents, knows a thing or two about drug smuggling on a massive scale. The British used it for trade with China and orchestrated in the 1830s the “largest and most disgraceful drug smuggling in history” in order to break the Chinese ban on opium. When China complained, the British declared war on them. These days Britain talks about the scourge of heroin, but it’s a trade they themselves did much to perpetrate. No scruples back in the day there then.

The locals in the Golden Triangle then turned opium into their economic lifeblood. For Myanmar has suffered an internal war for the past sixty years and is where the world’s longest armed insurgency still takes place. As one veteran of Burma’s civil wars said “To fight, you must have an army,” and “An army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”

Briefly, the origins of Burma’s many militias which today vie for power, seek autonomy and traffic drugs and anything else they can get their hands on goes back to the end of World War Two, and even before. When the British moved back in 1945 they were faced with a militarised countryside populated by various armed gangs. The “frontier areas” of the so-called hill tribes had always had a separate administration since the onset of British rule in the 19th century, and whether deliberately or not, this had fostered a sense of difference between Kachins, Shan, Karens and Chin peoples and “ethnic” Burmese. The war had made the difference starker. The Burmans lived on the plains surrounded, by what Sir Stafford Cripps said if you looked at a map at the hill peoples, “a scythe” of different ethnic groups all with their own agendas and usually with traditional animosities and allegiances. Sort of an analogy of the Grim Reaper. Keeping them all together was a monumental challenge, letting them “Balkanise” would dangerously expose Burma to Chinese incursions. Burma was and today Myanmar is what one observer has called the "dilemmas of unity in a land of diversity.

The name the “Golden Triangle” originated with the US State Department back in the early 1970s. The area became synonymous with opium production in huge quantities from the early 1950s until the 1990s, before Afghanistan’s opium production surpassed that of Myanmar. Post World War Two, the US allowed opium trafficking and heroin manufacture in order to fund anti-communist activities in the region – drugs for guns. In the 1980s there were the Nicaraguan Contras, but first there was Burma or Myanmar.


Following the fall of Nationalist China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang (KMT) crossed into Burma setting up their own fiefdoms in the weak Burmese state. The KMT army in Burma expanded with support from the US, Thailand and Taiwan, as well as from opium and the taxes it levied often by force on the local population. The KMT-controlled territories largely made up Burma's major opium-producing region. They swiftly exerted their control over the region's opium trade. The KMT was, in effect, the forerunners of the private narco-armies operating in the Golden Triangle today. In 1967 there was even a war fought between KMT, the forces of the drug lord Khun Sa, and a corrupt general from the Royal Lao Army over a shipment, or rather a mule train, of opium destined for Laos.

In 2005, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that there were about 430 square kilometres of actual opium cultivation in Myanmar, mainly along the borders of China, Laos, and Thailand. Income from drugs in the area was so advanced that in 1996 the US Embassy in Rangoon (Yangon) stated the exports of opiates from the country ‘alone appear to be worth about as much as all legal exports.’ Much of that revenue from opium was believed to be controlled by the Myanmar army and channelled through MOGE, the state oil and gas company, under the watchful eye of the State Peace and Development Council or SLORC, once the official name for the country’s military regime.
Trafficking was largely controlled by ethnic Chinese interests, the aforementioned KMT, or individuals of Chinese descent in the melting pot of the border hill states. Opium was moved over the mountains using pack animal caravans to refineries along the Thai-Burmese border. Once refined and turned into heroin it headed to Bangkok for further distribution to international markets, largely to the US.

In the 1990s and early 2000s opium production in the area began to decline only to be replaced by equally illicit traffic in everything from humans to timber to wildlife species to other forms of drugs. The causes of the decline of opium growth varied; policing, poppy eradication campaigns, publicity and drought. Opium has however, been traditionally resilient. It survives and so do the reasons for growing it. It can be grown relatively cheaply, requires less intensive farming and less costly fertiliser. Compared with other cash crops, the less you put in the more you get in return. Plant it and it will grow.

Drugs and trafficking haven’t so much been eradicated as just evolved, largely to other forms of drugs. Illicit drug manufacture has simply moved to lab-produced crystal meth and other forms of methamphetamine for export. Like yaba, a sort of supercharged, high velocity Red Bull that comes in pill-form and transported wrapped in brown waxed paper and packed tightly into bricks, then usually into cardboard boxes. A popular brand comes with the letters “XY” stamped onto pink pills but there are many others. The Golden Triangle is still the world’s second largest producer of opium and is now the biggest producer of crystal methamphetamine, with an annual trade valued at US$8 billion.

The Golden Triangle was once home to the world’s most wanted man, a rather overblown sensationalist title for the drug lord, Khun Sa. Also known as the "Lord of the Golden Triangle" this former temple boy cut his teeth fighting the Chinese KMT, and then wound up with his own private army the SUA, or "Shan United Army". Far from sounding like some group of football supporters it was, at about 20,000-strong, better equipped than the Myanmar army by some accounts. Some said it was supposed to be fighting for Shan independence from Myanmar. Others reckoned it was little more than a narco-army escorting opium caravans and guarding heroin refineries. You could say, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s drug lord, or something like that.

At one point it was said he controlled fully half the world’s opium supplies. He has been portrayed by Hollywood most recently in American Gangster, where he says in rather eloquent English to Denzel Washington’s character “Quitting while you’re ahead, is not the same as quitting.” That line mirrored his own life for later Khun Sa did a deal with Myanmar’s government and gave himself up in exchange for a lucrative deal for himself and his family. In return he kept his headquarters at Homong in the Shan State near the Thai border under the watchful eye of Myanmar’s intelligence services.

Homong was a centre of the drug trade. A jungle hideout wasn’t really an apt description. Rather it was and is, a bustling town with shops, markets, schools and hospitals, even karaoke bars, and home to more than 10,000 inhabitants. There was even a golf course, for he was an avid golfer. Businessmen flocked from all over Asia to buy precious stones at Khun Sa's gem centre. Buy one get one free. Viewed as one of the more colourful and charismatic characters in the Golden Triangle he was also a pragmatist. Khun Sa had his house ringed by bunkers, anti-aircraft machine-guns, and dozens of heavily armed soldiers. "You never know," he told a Thai-based Swedish journalist in an interview. "I have an army, so I'm free. Look at poor Aung San Suu Kyi [then in opposition]. She's got no army so she's under house arrest."  The bottom line was that even without him the drug networks were able to continue.

Before Khun Sa there was Lo Hsing-han, the designated "King" of the Golden Triangle, and another ethnic Chinese. He rose, fell, and then rose again bigger than before. First he was a militia chief and drug trafficker before a fall after his arrest for not drugs, but treason, and sentenced to death. Later released, he went on to have close ties to Myanmar’s dictator Than Shwe. He became a business tycoon and a leading entrepreneur with links to Singapore. Singapore’s government might hang drug traffickers but that doesn’t stop them doing business with them. His Asia World Company involved in a number of mega projects across Asia but mainly in Myanmar including; hydro-electric power stations, deepsea ports, and oil and gas pipelines.

After Khun Sa came the United Wa State Army's Wei Xuegang also ethnic Chinese, who now controls the bulk of the illicit trade. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. He too, has used his drug money to expand into the world of commerce through his Hong Pang Group and the multitude of businesses it owns and controls. The bottom line appears to be that the drug trade could never flourish without those networks and official complicity in Myanmar, Thailand and elsewhere. It is business as usual in the Golden Triangle, only with a new cast of characters.
Tied to the expanding drug trade is the rise of river piracy. So much so regional navies have taken to patrolling the reaches of the Middle Mekong. Much of this work is carried out by China, which alone accounts for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping along the entire Mekong, a figure which supposedly doesn’t include the vast trade in illicit goods.

Chinese river patrols were stepped up in 2011 after the crews of two Chinese barges were hijacked and murdered at Sam Phu Island, home of the freshwater pirate Sai Naw (Nor) Kham, formerly one of Khun Sa’s top colonels. The two vessels carried over 900,000 pills of yaba, a blend of methamphetamine and caffeine popular in Asia and worth about US$6 million. The Thais said they were sent downriver by the Wei Xuegang’s United Wa State Army, which is a cross between paramilitary force and drug-trafficking syndicate, and one of dozens occupying the Golden Triangle.

Naw Kham, somewhat of an entrepreneur albeit with a criminal bent, was a shadowy figure tied to the Shan ethnic militia, and made a living extorting a portion of the lucrative river trade. He was a popular figure locally in some quarters for standing up to the Chinese, whose influence in the region is seen as increasingly heavy handed. The Chinese influence is becoming all pervasive, not only in the shipping along the Mekong, but in the so-called “soft power” it has exercised in the region, especially Burma now Myanmar, and where there are now many competing interests.

Pressure mounted for the Thais to make arrests. The Chinese sent their top cop, Vice Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng, to Bangkok to lean on the Thai police to move quickly. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao contacted his counterparts in Thailand and Myanmar to urge “complete cooperation” from their governments. That’s like being made an offer you can’t refuse. Naw Kham may just have been a convenient fall guy. Whether this was the case or not he was later arrested in Laos and extradited to China, paraded before the cameras and then executed by lethal injection. Depending on which story you believe and who’s doing the talking, the actual killings were the work of rogue Thai paramilitaries, perhaps even the elite Royal Thai Army drug-interdiction task force, who come heavily armed and dress in all black. Elements within the Thai and Myanmar governments are widely believed to be complicit in the rampant river piracy. Here it is then, “the shady world of gangsters, police and civil authorities who in a seemingly paradoxical symbiosis often control criminal activities” as one long-term observer puts it. Naw Kham for example, had previously spoken openly of paying a 30 percent cut of his drug revenues to government officials.

The Golden Triangle has experienced much change since China opened its borders and began engaging more with its neighbours from the 1980s. There was the trade between the locals in Yunnan and their ethnic counterparts (the Dai of Southwestern China are closely related to the Thai, the Lao and the Shan of Eastern Myanmar) on the other side of the river, but the relationships have grown more complex with China’s recent rapid development.

China’s extensive influence in the region is becoming evident; much of it achieved through “soft power”. That is the ability for a nation to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Loans, arms sales, and the sort of international support that only a permanent UN Security Council member can provide have followed. The results has been that countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are bound more closely to China than ever before. Historical tensions exist with Vietnam and but China’s aid with other Mekong countries inevitably comes with strings. They may “give” money to build infrastructure for example, but ultimately there is always some ongoing benefit to be had for Beijing.

China also exercises what analysts call a “hydro-hegemony” over Southeast Asia. Consider this; the Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, running for more than 2,700 miles (4,345 kilometres) from the Tibetan Plateau to its delta in southern Vietnam. In the wet season it becomes the world’s fourth largest river by volume. It is the largest inland fishery in the world and an integral part of the region's food supply. China’s power in this is huge. Many of the major rivers of Asia originate in the Tibetan Plateau, controlled by China, which needs hydroelectric power for its massive economic growth.

Some say that the Chinese have turned the Mekong into their own private river, with a number of hydroelectric dams built and more in the planning stages. The downstream countries — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — are dependent on Chinese goodwill to maintain the flows on which some 60 million people depend for food, trade, and irrigation. This control has come at an ecological price. The Xayaburi dam the first dam being built on the main stem of the Mekong south of the Chinese border. The project, along with several other large dams proposed downstream, are vehemently opposed by Cambodia, Vietnam, and many environmental organisations because of their threats to the river and those who depend on it.

Locals say floods and droughts have become more devastating because of Chinese dams upstream. River transports have now at times, been left stranded along the Middle Mekong in the leaving their cargo high-and-dry. The downstream countries and environmental groups blame the dams for the water shortages, while the Chinese government blames increasing droughts.

China began to implement its “Go Out” (or “Go Global”) policy in the late 1990s. As a result legal trade expanded along the so-called Middle Mekong, increasing threefold since 2004 according some sources, including the Mekong River Commission. The Commission is an inter-governmental body established in 1995 between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to manage shared water resources of the Mekong River. While these nations cooperate through the commission’s work in various ways, China does not participate, though arguably it has the most influence over all.

Gambling is now so prevalent in the Golden Triangle the tri-border area is referred to as Las Lao or near Chiang Saen at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) “Macau on the Mekong”. Here are the golden domes of a casino built by Chinese investors with links to Macau and costing US$800 million. The casino is one of several projects located in the SEZ, to which the Lao PDR government has granted Chinese companies development rights with a 99-year lease. The Kings Romans Group (KRG) controls 10,000 hectares of that region, including an entire island. At the end of that period, all of the Chinese-owned properties in the area will be turned over to the Laos authorities. According to some sources, the KRG plans to invest US$2.25 billion by 2020. Compare that with the entire national budget of the Lao PDR, which in 2009 was estimated at US$1.13 billion. Also planned is a city of some 200,000 which would be the second largest town of Laos after the capital, Vientiane.

On the riverfront boats disgorge Lao and Thai businessmen. They come because casinos are banned in both China and in Thailand, and the government in Laos is looking to cash in. The KRG operation is run by a man reportedly connected with the casinos of Mong La in the Shan area of Myanmar, which many believe belong to the former drug baron Sai Leun, aka Lin Mingxian. Sai Leun ran his own principality and had his own army, the National Democratic Alliance Army. His profitable substitute for opium is fleecing Chinese gamblers, now much of it online. Well, you have to move with the times.

Mong La was dubbed “Sin City”, and was a veritable magnet for Chinese given its proximity to Yunnan. It has been described as a “startlingly incongruous outpost of concrete and throbbing neon nestled in one of the most isolated jungle regions of Southeast Asia, [and] is a tawdry mix of gambling clubs, massage parlours, and Thai transvestite floor shows.” It was set up as a Chinese tourist hub for gambling and prostitution. It was crouching tiger, hidden dragon but with real animals, there being a thriving illegal trade in wildlife. The locals were forcibly relocated during its construction. As part of the deal China built schools, which then taught a Chinese curriculum, half of it in Mandarin and half in Lao.

It also developed a reputation for money laundering. In 2005, Beijing banned Chinese from travelling there after reports of corrupt Chinese officials gambling away state funds in the casino, and rumours of murders and hostages. It was once one of the largest Chinatowns on the planet now largely abandoned, only the odd caretaker wandering about. There was even a cross-border golf course where, if you hit the ball hard enough, it would travel from Southeast Asia across the regional divide fully into East Asia.
Some local leaders from the Golden Triangle and intra-governmental drug agencies like the UNODC, are worried that the new centrepiece casino will be used to launder money from the region's infamous drug trade. The much vaunted employment benefits are another concern. Of the 4,500 people working in the SEZ, only some 500 are Laotian. At night, the bars and hotel buildings shine with a myriad of coloured bulbs highlighting the large multi-coloured crown that tops the dome of the casino building itself. “Before there was nothing in Laos; there were no lights at night" the locals will tell you, “now there is all this.”

A few years back a mate of mine Kiwi Paul was in Chiang Saen with a pal, another Kiwi also called Paul. They spotted lights one night across the river and decided to check it out. They were told this was a casino owned by the Burmese military. “Don’t go there” they were warned. Thinking this seemed more like an invitation, they headed over in a longtail boat suitably dressed for the occasion. No passports required. Confronted by a Burmese soldier with an assault rifle they were issued their entry permit to Burma on a post it note! The soldier hastily scribbled something to the effect of “Two Farangs, One Night” and pointed the way to the casino. The hotel and restaurant were brand new, five-star and completely empty. About 40 Chinese business types and a few uniformed military were in the casino. Everyone stopped and stared when the two Pauls walked in. The bar was fully stocked but none of the spirits were for sale. The bartender explained that they were just for show. It was soft drinks only so cokes all round. Heading back the two Pauls were confronted by a different soldier. They promptly produced their post it notes and the soldier summoned their transport by radio, and back they went to Thailand. It was a night excursion, Golden Triangle style.

Despite geo-political shifts the intrigue and machinations of the Golden Triangle will continue. The banks of the Mekong are now lined with illegal sawmills, bordellos, methamphetamine labs and casinos. The new government in Myanmar will inevitably have to address the vexed issue of autonomy for ethnic minorities. It has undone governments before, caused political assassinations, and led to military interventions and human rights’ abuses. Thousands of ethnic refugees have fled Myanmar as a result, eking out an existence in Thailand. China’s continued quest for resources will increasingly dominate the political landscape, and they will compete with the West to do so, and probably India also.

Controlling the river means the energy, the fishing industry and the trade – legal and illegal – that thrives along the banks of the Mekong River. Between all this remains the bizarre association of underworld figures, and uncrowned kings with private armies, the military and police and civil authorities who use state resources to engage in freelance ventures and often control criminal activities. Tomorrow will be much like yesterday. Sometimes the players may change but the game will likely remain the same. So these are some things that are known about the Golden Triangle, and now you know them too.


This travelogue piece was completed with the assistance of Bertil Lintner, Jeff Howe, the Chiang Mai News, Pierre Arnaud Chouvry, Christopher Bayly, Tim Harper, and Kiwi Paul.


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