Notorious Asian drug warlord dies in Myanmar

posted 2007-10-30 09:12:08 by grendel

BANGKOK, Thailand -- One-time drug warlord Khun Sa, variously described as among the world's most wanted men and as a great liberation fighter, has died, an associate and a Myanmar official said Tuesday. He was 74.

Khuensai Jaiyen, a former secretary of Khun Sa who works with ethnic Shan minority guerrilla groups, said that his former boss died in the Myanmar capital of Yangon on Friday, 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. Khun Sa was cremated Tuesday morning, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Khun Sa's body had been kept since Friday at Yay Way cemetery in Yangon's outskirts, where the cremation took place, said a cemetery worker, who asked not to be named for the same reason.

For nearly four decades, the charismatic warlord claimed to be fighting for autonomy for the Shan, one of many ethnic minorities who have battled Myanmar's central government for decades.

But narcotics agents around the world used terms like the "Prince of Death" to describe him and the United States offered a $2 million reward for his arrest.

"They say I have horns and fangs. Actually, I am a king without a crown," he told this reporter, who visited his remote headquarters of Ho Mong after an 11-hour mule ride.

At the height of his notoriety, Khun Sa presided over a veritable narcotics kingdom complete with satellite television, schools and surface-to-air missiles in the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

He preferred to paint himself as a liberation fighter for the Shan ethnic minority, heading up the Shan United Army -- later the Mong Tai Army -- in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State.

He had lived in seclusion in Yangon since 1996, when he surrendered to the country's ruling military junta who allowed him to run a string of businesses behind a veil of secrecy.

Born of a Chinese father and Shan mother on February 17, 1933, Khun Sa received little education but learned the ways of battle and opium from the Kuomintang, remnants of forces defeated by China's communists and forced to flee into 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 for opium and its derivative, heroin.

He suffered a near knockout blow in the so-called 1967 Opium War, fighting a pitched battle with the Kuomintang in Laos. Laotian troops intervened by bombing both sides and making off with the opium.

For a time he served in the Myanmar government militia, but was jailed in 1969 after allying himself with the Shan cause. He was freed five years later in exchange for two Russian doctors his followers had kidnapped.

The wily operator sought a less hostile environment in Thailand, setting up a hilltop base protected by his sizable Shan United Army. But he was driven out in 1982 and lodged himself in Ho Mong, an idyllic valley near the Thai frontier inside Myanmar, also known as Burma.

There, the chain-smoking warlord entertained visitors with Taiwanese pop songs, grew orchids and strawberries, and directed a flow of heroin to addicts around the world. Washington estimated that up to 60 percent of the heroin in the United States was refined from opium in his area.

Khun Sa claimed he only used the drug trade to finance his Shan struggle. Peter Bourne, an adviser to former President Carter, called him "one of the most impressive national leaders I have met."

Khun Sa argued that only economic development in the impoverished Shan State, still one of the major sources of the world's heroin, could stop opium growing and its 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.

He carried out a one-way correspondence with U.S. presidents, offering to sell Washington the entire crop of opium in exchange for funds to implement his development plans for the Shans.

But in 1989, he was indicted for heroin trafficking by the U.S. District Court in New York and his extradition to the United States was requested.

Khun Sa continued to war with the central government and rival ethnic guerrilla groups like the Wa until 1996 when the junta, which had once threatened to hang him, offered him amnesty. He disbanded his Mong Tai Army of about 10,000 fighters and moved to Yangon, the Myanmar capital.

Although difficult to confirm, reports said he lived a life of luxury in a secluded compound, having been awarded concessions to operate a transport company and a ruby mine along with other businesses.

There was speculation that he was still involved in the narcotics trade, which was largely taken over by his former enemies, the Wa.