Khun Sa, 74; headed narcotics empire in Southeast AsiaBy Richard C. Paddock and Barbara Demick,
Times Staff Writers
From the Associated Press
Khun Sa, a former drug warlord who headed a guerrilla army once described by the U.S. government as the world's largest producer of heroin, has died in Myanmar. He was 74.
Khuensai Jaiyen, a former secretary of Khun Sa with connections to Shan ethnic minority guerrilla groups, said his former boss died in Myanmar's capital, Yangon, on Oct. 26, according to his relatives.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but Khun Sa had long suffered from diabetes, partial paralysis and high blood pressure.
A Myanmar official in Yangon confirmed the death, saying Khun Sa was cremated Tuesday.
For years, Khun Sa maintained that he was a freedom fighter for the Shan, one of many ethnic minorities who for decades have battled the central government of Myanmar, also known as Burma. He had lived in seclusion in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, since 1996 after surrendering to Myanmar's ruling military junta, which allowed him to run a string of businesses behind a veil of secrecy. However, there was speculation that he was still involved in the narcotics trade, which was largely taken over by rival ethnic guerrilla groups such as the Wa.
At the height of his notoriety, Khun Sa presided over a veritable narcotics empire, leading a 20,000-member private militia called the Shan United Army -- later the Mong Tai Army -- in Myanmar's northeastern Shan state. It has been said that his army supplied nearly a third of the heroin on U.S. streets.
His sophisticated empire -- complete with satellite television, schools and surface to air missiles -- was carved out of jungle valleys in the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.
In a 1996 interview with PBS, Donald Ferrarone, who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Bangkok from 1993 to 1995, described Khun Sa's network as "an organization that has enriched itself beyond anything we'd ever seen. An organization that relied on violence and murders and assassinations and bribery to keep its whole infrastructure in place."
Khun Sa claimed he only used the drug trade to finance the Shan people's struggle for liberation. He argued that only economic development in the impoverished Shan state, still a major source of heroin, could stop opium growing and smuggling to the "drug-crazed West."
"My people grow opium. And they are not doing it for fun. They do it because they need to buy rice to eat and clothes to wear," he once said.
But the United States rejected those assertions and offered a $2-million reward for his arrest. After his surrender in a government amnesty in 1996, officials refused to deport him to the U.S. for prosecution.
Born of a Chinese father and Shan mother on Feb. 17, 1933, Khun Sa received little education but learned the ways of warfare and the opium trade from the Kuomintang, remnants of Chinese nationalist forces defeated by Mao Tse-tung's communist army and forced to flee to Myanmar.
By the early 1960s Khun Sa, also known as Chang Chi-fu, had become a major player in the Golden Triangle -- then the world's major source of opium and its derivative, heroin.
He suffered a near knockout blow in the so-called 1967 Opium War, fighting a pitched battle with Kuomintang rivals in Laos. Laotian troops intervened by bombing both sides and making off with the opium.
Seeking a less hostile environment in Thailand, he set up a hilltop base protected by his troops. But he was driven out by Thai forces in 1982 and lodged himself in Ho Mong, an idyllic valley near the Thai frontier inside Myanmar.
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