Business Week International Spotlight On Burma
A HEROIN LORD SAYS HE'S A FREEDOM FIGHTER...
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's most-wanted drug kingpin in southeast Asia, the Burmese warlord Khun Sa, has an image problem: Since 50% of the heroin arriving in New York comes from the region where he operates, he has his work cut out persuading the world that he is in fact a misunderstood freedom fighter.
But because he is in open conflict with the widely reviled military regime in Burma (which now styles itself Myanmar), the warlord hopes more people will see him in a different light. His heroes: George Washington and Ho Chi Minh. His goal: to deliver the Shan people and his mountainous stronghold on the Burmese-Thai border as an independent member state of the U.N.
Improbable as that prospect seems, the 60-year-old Khun Sa's life has already delivered plenty of surprises. He was born Chan Shee-fu, to a Chinese father and Shan mother. He was a government-sanctioned trader of opium--before it was made illegal in 1973. The drug trade soon became dominated by the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist Chinese forces, which had fled to northern Burma after Mao Zedong's 1949 takeover.
At 33, Khun Sa felt strong enough to strike for supremacy against the KMT generals. The result was the 1967 Opium War, which burst into headlines worldwide. Khun Sa at one time was reputed to control a majority of the drug refineries along the rugged Burmese-Thai border. It was during the late '60s that he adopted his nom de guerre (meaning "prosperous prince").
Khun Sa has been in and out of favor with the ethnic-Burmese regime in Rangoon for years. He spent nearly five years in prison in the early 1970s on treason charges and was sprung only when his own men seized two Russian advisers as hostages. In 1990, he was indicted in a Brooklyn (N.Y.) federal court as a drug trafficker.
Khun Sa concedes he lives off opium, which is used to produce heroin. He insists he simply taxes the farmers who have been growing poppies on steep mountain slopes for generations--but he says it is a necessary evil to support his 20,000-strong private army, the largest in southeast Asia. More than 50% of the world's illicit opium production comes from Burma; the country's share of the U.S. heroin market is over 60%. Khun Sa says that after gaining recognition for independence for the Shans and with some foreign assistance, he would move quickly to eradicate opium more effectively than the DEA--in alliance with Burmese authorities--ever could. He has written to every U.S. President from Nixon to Clinton proposing crop substitution for poppies--without a response.
In December, 1993, Khun Sa declared independence for the Shan state, an existing administrative unit of Burma rich in a variety of mineral and gem resources. Roughly 70% of its 8 million people are Shans, closely related to the Thais. Like other minorities, the Shans have suffered at the hands of the dominant Burmese, who make up the majority of the country's 40 million people. Plans are being made to apply for membership in the U.N. and to appeal to the World Court, where the Shans will claim a right to secede under a colonial accord.EDITED BY JOHN E. PLUENNEKE