For a Heroin King in the Golden Triangle, Death and Taxes Rule

updated 06/25/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 01:00AM

The gleaming white Toyota truck speeds down the dirt road, its new Michelin tires leaving deep creases in the mud. Abruptly, it stops in front of a small garden blooming with marigolds, impatiens and bougainvillea. The truck's door opens and a bamboo walking stick appears, followed by a self-assured gent in starched white shirt, pressed khakis and freshly polished shoes. Surrounded by a hastily formed circle of guards, General Khun Sa, 56, enters his garden and begins to pick a bouquet. It is 6 A.M., deep in the misty jungles of the country known on maps as Myanmar, to history as Burma.

To surrounding villagers here in northeastern Myanmar, Khun Sa is known as Prince Prosperous. To American narcotics agents, he is something far different. "As the largest dope dealer in the Golden Triangle, the title 'Prince of Death'...might be more apt," said Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, announcing the general's felony indictment earlier this year.

Although he faces possibly 10 life sentences, Khun Sa is unlikely to serve a day. The U.S. has never exercised its extradition treaty with Myanmar successfully and last year cut off all aid to protest human rights abuses.

And so, Khun Sa continues. As the reigning drug lord in the Golden Triangle, the poppy-growing region spilling across Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, he is connected to an estimated 40 percent of all the heroin smuggled into the U.S. Backed by a private army that may now number 12,000, he imposes a 40 percent tax on all farming, refining and trafficking of opium in exchange for protection from other drug lords and government troops. Despite his admitted foreign bank accounts and investments, Khun Sa declines to discuss his opium income.

He does deny that he and his men, the so-called Mong Tai Army, are motivated by greed. He insists the sale of drugs is merely to raise funds for the liberation of the Shan State, one of the most virulent of Myanmar's tribal regions that have been fighting for independence for 40 years. "Once we get our country back," says the general, "we will pull out the poppy plant by its roots."

His history suggests otherwise. Born in a Shan village in eastern Burma, he got his first taste of militarism when the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek's defeated army of Nationalist Chinese, fled into Burma and confiscated his family's mules and horses. "Since I was a small boy, I noticed two reactions to the sight of a uniform," he says. "Younger people tended to admire the idea of wearing it when they grew up, while older people feared it."

In his early 20s, Khun Sa entered the drug trade by joining with the Kuomintang, who by then had seized control of Burma's opium production. He broke away in 1960 to form his own peasant army, but he was eventually captured by the Burmese government and sentenced to five years' solitary confinement and two years' house arrest.

It was in prison that he studied Lao-tzu's The Art of War and Kuan-chung's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, discovering in their pages his own pragmatic philosophy. "In politics there are no lifelong friends, and no lifelong foes," he says now. "They change according to the gains and losses. A good leader must be able to take advantage of every change and utilize it."

Now a master of shifting alliances among the hill tribes and ragtag armies in his region, Khun Sa works from a mountain stronghold that boasts its own Buddhist monastery and a 60-bed hospital and is virtually impregnable. To guard against air assault, his men are practicing with homemade missiles and surface-to-air rockets allegedly obtained from Laos.

At night, the mile-long compound echoes with loud conversation and Voice of America radio broadcasts in English and Burmese. For his own amusement, Khun Sa usually watches Japanese sumo wrestling on videocassette. "I used to be an ardent fan of James Bond movies," he says, "but now they bore me." The warlord, whose two wives live in Bangkok and Rangoon, also enjoys the pleasures of "man's favorite pastime," as an aide discreetly puts it, with young women from surrounding villages.

For the U.S., the threat from Khun Sa's opium empire is growing. Heroin processed in Southeast Asia is now about five times more potent than in the past, making it easier to smoke and a possible replacement for crack. But there are also signs that the threat to Khun Sa may be growing as well. Although Myanmar's leaders, burdened with a crumbling economy and corruption in the military, seem to be more concerned about internal Communists and tribal insurgents than opium traders, others have the general in their sights. In 1984, Thai troops succeeded in dislodging his forces from their country after a fierce, four-day battle. And this February a neighboring tribal group attacked his forces and seized control of a key mountain trading route.

But if his latest defeat or the U.S. indictments worry him, Khun Sa isn't showing it. He sips his tea, tends his garden and scoffs at the notion his removal will solve any problems. "Power does not accompany us forever," he says knowingly. "I'm sure there'll be someone else like me. The opium business has been in our land long before I was born."

—Karen Petersen, Shan State, Burma

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