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Shan United Army (SUA)
Mong Tai Army (MTA)

The private army of the notorious opium king Khun Sasi - the Shan United Army (SUA) - was a purely commercial operation that, despite its name, consisted mostly of Chinese. It had its origen in remnants of the old Kuomintang and had remained in the mountains of the Golden Triangle since its defeat at the hands of Mao's communists in 1949. The infiltration into Shan State of remnants of Nationalist Chinese forces begining in late 1949 aroused fears the Chinse might pursue their defeated opponents into Burma.

After Yunnan Province in southern China was taken over by the communist People's Liberation Army, Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces crossed the border into Burma and began using the border area as a base from which to attack the communist forces. Before long these troops in Burma, labeled the Chinese Irregular Forces (CIF), had entrenched themselves in Shan State, numbering as many as 12,000 in 1953, including Shan levies. They turned their attention from battling the communists to building up a profitable opium export business, extending their control over most of the Eastern portion of Shan State, operating much like the warlords of China in the 1920s.

Here, a system of warlordism flourished, which gradually extended into western Laos and northern Thailand, creating what would be known as the "Golden Triangle," a major world center for opium cultivation and export. By 1953 some five-sixths of the Burma Army was tied down in fighting CIF groups. During the early 1950s the Burmese army launched limited military campaigns against CIF groups, many members of which were evacuated in 1953-54 in a United Nations-sponsored airlift to Taiwan. Several thousand remained behind, however, beyond the reach of Burmese forces. Government attacks against CIF remnants in 1975 broke their hold on the opium trade and forced most members to retreat into Thailand.

The Shan United Army took advantage of the disruptions caused by the government's initiatives and expanded its own operations, controlling some 70 to 80 percent of the trade by 1978. Until 1992 the Shan United Army worked out of strongholds in Thailand and reportedly maintained close ties with senior government officals of that country. Bases in Thailand were subsequently destroyed, however. After its hold was broken in early 1982, several other groups, including the BOP, were poised to take over. By the early 1980s, the SUA had attacked most of the nationalist guerrilla armies in the Shan State, captured new bases, and expanded its influence to include almost the entire border region between Thailand and the Shan State of Burma. Thes Shan United Army controlled territory and fought the government with proceeds from opium and heroin sales.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council negotiated the "surrender" of the notorious drug lord Khun Sa and his Mong Tai Army (MTA) in January 1996. According to the SLORC, the terms of the surrender stipulated that in return for ending his insurgency and surrendering his weaponry, Khun Sa would be allowed to live under close government supervision in Rangoon, where he could engage indirectly, via third-party investors, in legitimate business -- but not drug trafficking -- and would not be prosecuted for his trafficking activities or extradited to the US.

The MTA drug trafficking network had been disrupted, but reports suggested that Khun Sa and his MTA associates were still involved in the trade. Overall trafficking from Burma has not diminished, as other groups, particularly the Wa, took up the slack caused by the dissolution of Khun Sa's army. Moreover, Khun Sa has not been brought to justice in Burma, and the Government of Burma has refused USG requests to turn him over for prosecution in the US. Indeed, the SLORC treats him with respect, addressing him with the traditional honorific. The "surrender" of Khun Sa allowed the Burma Army to project its authority into the former MTA area. The military disrupted, at least temporarily, trafficking routes and destroyed a number of heroin refineries in the area.

Following the surrender of Khun Sa, the Kokang, Wa and Essa areas in particular became drug trafficking havens where opium was produced and refined with relative impunity. As part of the SLORC's efforts to bring the ethnic groups under its control, it granted leaders of these drug trafficking armies significant political legitimacy, and several participated in the government's National Constitutional Convention. These leaders exploited their relationship with Rangoon to expand their businesses -- legitimate and illegitimate -- although their prosperity has not filtered down to the ordinary people of the ethnic areas.

The ethnic drug trafficking armies with which the government had negotiated cease-fires, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA-Kokang Chinese), remained armed and heavily involved in the heroin trade and to some extent moved into territory vacated by Khun Sa's former MTA. The top leaders of these ethnic groups were: U Sai Lin (Lin Ming-Shing) of the Eastern Shan State Army (ESSA); Yang Mao-Liang, Peng Chia-Sheng and Liu Go-Shi of the MNDAA; Pao Yu-Chiang, Li Tzu-Ju and Wei Hsueh-Kang of the United Wa State Army; and U Mahtu Naw of the Kachin Defense Army (KDA).




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