Remnants of the Nationalist Chinese "lost army" of nearly 40 years ago still cling to a bygone way of life here in this mist-shrouded Thai village.
Now in their late 60s and 70s, the veterans of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomintang (KMT) have brought a 1930s Chinese life style to Thailand. The god of good fortune and classical aphorisms adorn housefronts; the click of chopsticks and the wail of Chinese opera issue from dusky interiors.
Thai officials, however, are trying to assimilate them and their offspring into Thai society to keep the KMT from firmly establishing a state within a state in northern Thailand.
Santikhiri is one of 13 villages where an estimated 13,000 to 20,000 Nationalists and their families live, often with other refugees and earlier migrants from southern China's Yunnan province.
Turned to Drug Trafficking
Chiang and most of his Nationalist followers fled to Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949, but before that the Kuomintang's 93rd Division--"the lost army"--trekked out of Yunnan into Burma to stage forays into China against the Communists.
The KMT troops were unwelcome in Burma; in order to sustain their military organization, they became major narcotics traffickers.
They moved then into Thailand and earned their keep and the right to carry weapons by helping the Thai government fight Communist insurgents in the 1960s and 1970s and safeguarding sensitive frontier areas.
Some members of the KMT community stayed with narcotics trafficking in Thailand. Others went into jade smuggling but more recently some have gone into the tourist business here in the picturesque mountains.
'They Must Adapt'
But wizened, white-haired Chinese men in Santikhiri and other villages still dream of the mountains of Yunnan, and some of their songs pledge allegiance to their own chieftains.
Thailand maintains that its policies of control and assimilation inevitably will convert the Chinese.
"The Thais are very good at assimilating outsiders," said Col. Pang Malakul of the Thai army. "We are trying to convince the KMT that to get along in Thai society they must adapt. We have accepted them; so now they must change."
The KMT are generally split between two groups. Gen. Ly Wen-huan, now 69 years old and nearly blind, set up his KMT 3rd Army in Thailand's Chiang Mai province, while Gen. Tuan Shi-wen headquartered his 5th Army in this Chiang Rai province village. Tuan died in 1981 and is buried here.
Vast Heroin Flow
U.S. drug enforcement officials in Bangkok, and Thai military sources in northern Thailand, say the Kuomintang may be less involved in narcotics than in the past. But they say it remains heavily invested in the vast heroin flow out of the Golden Triangle, the opium poppy-growing area where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet.
Ly's group, generally considered the better organized and disciplined of the two, still controls stretches of the lawless Thai-Burmese frontier where drugs, jade, antiques and consumer goods are smuggled. The area sometimes is the scene of KMT clashes with the Thai opium warlord Khun Sa and his Shan United Army.
Under a 1984 Thai government policy of assimilation, the KMT group was to hand in its weapons, disband its military organization and close its Chinese-language schools. Inducements since have included Thai citizenship, which about 2,900 now hold, and free plots of land in the hills.
The Thais have allowed two KMT border villages to retain arms for defense against Khun Sa, and officials say some weapons still are kept illegally.