When people look back on their life to try pinpoint the time when they ‘lost their innocence’ and came to an understanding of the world as it really is, all kinds of little rites-of-passage loom into view. Was it losing your cherry on the sand at Manly beach one party night? Was it the pressure of your first job and dawn of responsibility? Leaving home and getting a driver’s licence? For soldiers, it might be the dehumanising ritual of boot camp and first combat that marked the tender passage into a knowing of thyself and thine world.
In my case, I think it was finding myself as a rookie 21-year-old photojournalist, in 1991, interviewing the biggest opium warlord in the world and realising that the war on drugs was not just a lie, but an elaborate charade run by the very powers that claimed to be fighting it. Curiosity had led to shock and then the reckoning: a coming to terms with state evil.
It had taken six months of networking to get access to General Khun Sa and his fortified Tiger Camp lair in the mountains and jungles of the notorious Golden Triangle region, which intersects northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. At the time this region was producing more than 2,400 tons of opium annually, supplying about 80 percent of the world’s heroin. Back then, Afghanistan accounted for roughly the other 20 percent. Now it has flipped entirely and Afghanistan is the main source while opium production in the Golden Triangle has fallen considerably, replaced by meth factories and ice mules using much the same supply routes.
I’ll come to my meeting with ‘Prince Prosperous’ and his revelations in a moment. First though, a couple of recent news stories that put me in mind of the years I spent covering the war in Burma and how our phone drug war continues to be waged and lost.
A story in The Sydney Morning Herald in July this year, quoting the Australian Bureau of Statistics, screamed: Prescription opioids are killing more Australians than heroin.
Whether opiates are bought over the counter or sourced in dark alleyways, you’ll find a government behind them.
“An analysis of finalised ABS data by researchers at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found 68 percent of the 668 overdose deaths in 2013 were related to pharmaceutical opioids — a far cry from the heroin epidemic of the 1990s when the majority of opioid deaths were caused by illicit drugs,” it said.
It is powerful new opiates such as oxycontin, tramadol and fentanyl (which took both Michael Jackson from his dodgy Neverland ranch and Prince off to his Purple Palace in the sky), that are used as painkillers by ordinary folk, who then find themselves, whoops! — addicted and soon enough, overdosing. While once such drugs were used only for cancer patients and battlefield casualties, now it seems your local GP might give you a fistful to help manage your transitory back pain. A knock-on effect is that many people who found themselves hooked on prescription meds and found supply difficult have turned to heroin instead: hello suburban mum and dad junkies. Be warned.
As Bee Mohammed, chief executive of ScriptWise, told the SMH: “The politicians have seen the statistics and state coroners have flagged these numbers, but for some reason they keep diverting funding and resources to illicit drugs… when that’s really not the real issue.”
In the US prescription opioid overdoses have reached crisis level. When President Trump made his most serious fuck-you threat to North Korea, warning of “fire and fury” if they attacked Guam, he happened to be in a national crisis meeting about opioid deaths at the time. In America, 142 people die every day from opioid overdoses. But Big Pharma keeps laughing all the way to the bank and Trump’s administration is hardly going to rein them in.
Whether opiates are bought over the counter or sourced in dark alleyways, you’ll find a government behind them. Occasionally a little snippet of light gets through the cracks and we glimpse the truth. Take this obituary in July this year of Olive Yang, who is described as a “cross-dressing royal-turned-warlord, whose CIA-supplied army consolidated opium trade routes in the Golden Triangle in the 1950s, had tabloid-fodder romances, and later in life served as a government peace broker with Kokand rebels.”
She died at 90, decades after leading a 1,000-strong army of anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) guerillas in northern Burma, hence their US patronage. They fought Chinese-backed communist guerillas while taxing the caravans of raw opium on their way to the Thai border. Being the gay daughter of the king of Shan state may have given her the licence to boldly be herself: there’s a story of how on her wedding night as a young girl, pushed into a family-arranged alliance, she threw a pot of urine over her husband when he tried to consummate the marriage. Later she embarked on a torrid affair with a well-known Burmese actress.
Yang’s group was affiliated with Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army (MTA), made up of local Shan child soldiers and Chinese KMT soldiers who had fled China after Mao and his communists took over. I never met Yang, but after a lengthy trek into the foggy mountains of the Golden Triangle, alongside panting donkeys and the occasional elephant, I reached Tiger Camp in order to interview Khun Sa.
It happened just after the US had seized Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, another CIA operative who knew too much. Following Noriega’s capture, suddenly Khun Sa was thrust into the spotlight, named “public enemy number one” by the Drug Enforcement Agency and indicted by a US court on nine drug trafficking charges. It looked like Khun Sa (real name Chiang Chi-Fu; his adopted name means Prince Prosperous in the Shan dialect) was to be the next target — and here I was, about to meet him. Jeez, Khun Sa must be taking extra precautions I thought as I arrived at Tiger Camp, where I was frisked under a monsoonal downpour and led to a little guest house.
So you can imagine my surprise when I interviewed the charming, cigarette-smoking, Chivas Regal-imbibing Prince Prosperous, responsible for most of the world’s heroin, some days later, and he waved all concern away with a regal sweep of his hand.
“Oh that’s nothing. It’s just a newspaper war. The CIA — they’re my friends,” he said, smiling like a cat. “I am not American and the charges do not concern me. The simple fact is, the DEA and CIA don’t want to stop opium production in the Golden Triangle, because then they won’t have any job, any money or any power left!” he laughed.
“How else do you explain the rise in opium production and the fact that no major drug seizures have ever been made here?”
At the time, this region was producing more than 2,400 tons of opium annually, supplying about 80 percent of the world’s heroin.
He was well aware of the dangers of opium but insisted he had no choice because opium, was the only crop that poor and remote Shan farmers could cultivate to give them enough money to live on for the year. He claimed to be a “scapegoat” in the opium trade, singling out the DEA and CIA as being largely responsible for it and alleging they had “meddled in this region for too long”. The US had ignored his seven-year plan to convert opium fields to cash crops and rice and in 1976 rejected an offer he made to sell the annual opium harvest for US$300 million, promising to eradicate the fields permanently. He was told by US officials that they “don’t deal with blackmailers”.
“There are only two people in the world who want to get rid of opium — the mother of the addict and myself,” he said, and then asked, “How come the US spends more than a billion dollars on fighting drugs but they are unable to stop the flow?”
While his comments were an attempt to duck the spotlight, they have some factual basis. We need to understand that the history of opium is the history of empires. It was the Dutch and their East Indies Company who first traded in opium in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French quite openly taxed opium as a way to pay for their colonial administrations in Indochina. But it was the British who really, ahem, gave the drug trade a shot in the arm. Finding that the Celestial Kingdom had no great interest in British products at a time when Britain was desperate for Chinese tea, they fought two wars to force China into accepting opium. Hong Kong island was one of the prizes for British victory and many of the big British trading houses there, such as Jardines, first made their fortune in the opium trade.
When the Americans became involved in the wars of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, they pretty much took over the opium trade to help pay for it. Professor Alfred McCoy did some fascinating research that was published in 1972 in his now famous book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, which the CIA tried unsuccessfully to ban. In it he traces US covert links to the drug trade back to WWII. At the time
US Naval Intelligence was concerned about Nazi infiltration and several sabotage incidents on the East Side docks in New York, where merchant ships were a vital lifeline to Britain and the war effort. They had to control security on the wharves at a time when the docks where being run by powerful wharfies and unions with links to the Italian mafia.
Enter Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, a Sicilian mobster who did a deal with US authorities to provide security on the wharves in return for a blind eye turned to his narcotics trade. During the invasion of Sicily, the allies also used the mafia’s network as they pushed deeper into Italy to defeat Mussolini, often installing known mafiosi as town mayors.
The links between US intelligence, the Italian mafia and the Corsican underworld continued well into the ’50s and ’60s, as mobster Santo Trafficante inherited Luciano’s network. So when the US became involved in the Indochina wars they already had a powerful underground network in place for distribution. During the ’60s and ‘70s the CIA, through its Air America program, was responsible for basically flying in weapons to anti-communist guerrillas in Laos and Cambodia — and flying out “Number 4 (best) grade” heroin.
It wasn’t just about making money. Part of the rationale was to get blacks, hippies and war dissenters back home hooked so they could be controlled: it was social conditioning. This information became so well known that it has trickled down into pop culture and even some Hollywood films have slyly tackled it — Mel Gibson’s Air America references the guns-for-drugs operation and the stateside impact is central to American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
Later investigations into collusion, such as Gary Webb’s journalistic exposure in the 1980s of complicity between US intelligence and the Contras in Nicaragua, who just happened to be major cocaine traffickers, was also highlighted in a film called Kill The Messenger.
And now? Following Khun Sa’s peaceful death in 2007 in Yangon, completely untouched by the US, is it any surprise that Afghanistan has since emerged as the world’s largest opium producer? The US has some responsibility here too, particularly given that the Taliban declared its intention to destroy poppy cultivation when it first captured the country. The trade has since flourished because of the war. You could say the seeds were planted even earlier. In the 1950s, as part of a massive infrastructure project to help the king of Afghanistan modernise his nation, the US built massive dams and irrigation projects in the otherwise dry Helmand province. Today Helmand is the centre of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, as highlighted in Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary Bitter Lake.
So it seems whether you get hooked on junk through prescription drugs or from your man in a dark alley, both avenues are rooted in government complicity. Disgust at this state of affairs should be enough to wean you off riding the dragon.
After my trip to see Khun Sa I was invited to address a packed audience at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, where I duly reported Khun Sa’s claims of CIA complicity and noted the long imperial history of the drug trade. A man in a bad cream suit stood up, announcing in a Southern drawl that he was from the US embassy, and angrily denounced any accusations of complicity as “lies and fabrications”. Looking back I’m somewhat amazed by my unguarded honesty and perhaps naivety in speaking out, but perhaps that’s what happens when you lose your innocence and get angry for feeling duped.
Ever since I have followed a basic journalist credo: don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied. The drug war is bogus, while the powers behind it continue to shape our geopolitics. There is simply way too much black money to be made, which is why it’s much more profitable for those who wish to keep it illegal — gangs and governments alike.