COLUMN ONE : The 'King of Opium' Besieged : Khun Sa leads an insurgent force in Myanmar fueled by the heroin trade. But a series of setbacks, including a U.S. drug indictment, may prove crippling.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thin, high-pitched drone of a single-engine plane intruded like a pesky insect on the twilight stillness of Tiger camp, a military installation that sprawls down a mountain valley under towering stands of tropical trees.

A cowbell began tolling a melancholy alarm and the power was abruptly shut down, plunging the camp into darkness. As a precaution, the electricity stayed off for the entire night, turning the camp's inhabitants into slow-moving silhouettes under the faint illumination of starlight.

There is an abundance of nervous jitters these days at the remote headquarters here of Khun Sa, a man regarded by the U.S. government as the "Opium King," the world's largest provider of heroin and the pre-eminent warlord in this lawless corner of Myanmar, which was once called Burma.

Khun Sa--the name means "Prince Prosperous" in the Shan dialect--is the commanding general of the Mong Tai Army, an insurgent force he says is fighting to win political autonomy for the eastern Shan States from Myanmar's central government. He also admits to controlling 80% of the narcotics flowing out of Myanmar to the United States, an activity he argues is the only way he can feed his people and keep his movement alive.

For years, Khun Sa craftily managed to elude his enemies and remain above the law. But recently, he has suffered a series of painful setbacks that may prove to be crippling, if not fatal, to his reign.

His difficulties began with the announcement in March that he had been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on 10 separate counts of drug trafficking stemming from the seizure of more than a ton of heroin in Bangkok, Thailand, on Feb. 14, 1988.

The day after the night of blackout, Khun Sa reflected concern about his old nemesis, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:

"We thought the plane might be the Thais or the DEA," he admitted. He joked to two visiting journalists that he had kept them waiting for several hours because he feared they might be involved in a kidnaping plot.

Adding to his nervousness, Khun Sa's troops have become embroiled in a huge battle near Doi Long, a mountain pass used by heroin caravans to travel from Myanmar into northern Thailand. The fighting, against a rival ethnic group called the Wa, threatens to divide Khun Sa's drug empire in what one Western official described as "a classic struggle for market share."

Already, Khun Sa has been forced to close a major heroin refinery near the scene of the fighting.

Strands from these two pressure points on Khun Sa have recently begun to intertwine. Western officials noted that the Wa were receiving assistance from the central Myanmar government, primarily in the form of transportation and artillery, and logistic support from the Thai government, which allowed the Wa to pass through Thai territory to get their troops into the battle.

Perhaps the most intriguing sign of change is that the traditionally good relations that Khun Sa has enjoyed with Thai government officials are apparently souring. In the past, his troops could have climbed into pickup trucks for a quick drive down a Thai-built road that runs from his headquarters into north Thailand's highway network. Instead, reinforcements for the battle are now being forced to set off on foot for a two-week slog through the jungle to reach the battlefield.

At first, Khun Sa and many other regional experts scoffed at the U.S. indictment, given the obvious difficulty of making an arrest. But Western officials said that the indictment, by undermining his image as a Shan nationalist, may have made it harder for Thai officials to continue their cozy relationship with him.

"They say I have fangs and horns, but that's not fair," Khun Sa, dressed in crisply ironed olive military fatigues, said in an interview. "They say I am a drug king and a devil. But the king has no crown."

He may lack the coronet, but the 56-year-old Khun Sa is undeniably master of a vast, finger-shaped salient of the Shan States, which pokes northward from the Thai border. By his own estimates, his domain includes an army of 15,000 men, including about 5,000 militia, and another 10,000 civilians--a figure Western officials say is about one-third higher than their own estimates.

"The Shan State is a lawless state," Khun Sa said seriously. "The law has never been enforced here. The people who own the most guns have the power."

Khun Sa's much-debated claim to legitimacy is based on an obscure document called the Panglong Agreement, which was reached in February, 1947, before what was then Burma achieved independence from Britain. The agreement provided for autonomy for the Shan States. This pledge, as well as later constitutional guarantees of equality with Burmese, was among the first promises forgotten when the new state of Burma was born.

Whether the independence struggle is genuine, or merely a cover for drug dealing, as Western narcotics control officials allege, Khun Sa has erected a vast administrative infrastructure to support his operations.

In addition to the army, there is a separate political movement, known as the Tai Revolutionary Council, as well as a governing executive committee, political workers, schools, hospitals and tax collectors.

Although Homong, accessible by an 11-hour mule ride through the mountains, is quite comfortable by rural standards in Southeast Asia, it hardly offers Khun Sa many outlets for an existence as lavish as those enjoyed by Latin American drug kingpins.

He is said to have a compound with three homes, to which he does not invite foreign guests. He has spent money acquiring a collection of beautiful horses. He has a wife and five grown children, among them a daughter who reportedly was educated in England under a pseudonym.

These days, Khun Sa travels around in a white Toyota pickup truck accompanied by 10 bodyguards toting U.S.-made automatic weapons, including a roof-mounted, 50-caliber heavy machine gun. He wears no jewelry other than a stainless steel Rolex watch and carries a rough-hewn, thick wooden cane.

Much of an interview with Khun Sa was devoted to a sermon about his relationship with the drug trade, a finely honed rationalization in which he mixes sympathy for the West's drug users with obvious concern for his Shan clansmen, delicately sidestepping the moral dilemma of bankrolling an independence struggle through the misfortunes of others.

The discussion is punctuated by a colloquial American "Well guys, how about some grub?" by Sang Joseph, a Shan and recent adherent to the cause who is Khun Sa's full-time publicity man.

Khun Sa and his officers vigorously maintain that the group is not directly involved in the drug trade, but merely taxes the opium as it passes through areas controlled by his army. Officials said the group earns 60% of its revenue this way.

Western narcotics officials paint an entirely different picture, saying that Khun Sa and his lieutenants organize the farmers who grow the opium poppies in the highlands and run the laboratories that reduce the opium to morphine base and then convert it to heroin.

The Shan States, which cover 62,500 square miles--almost the size of Washington state--produce an estimated 2,625 tons of opium every year, more than half the total world output. The area has an ethnic smorgasbord of hill tribes like the Wa and Lizu and valley dwellers like the Shan.

Khun Sa makes the point that most of the people in the highlands of the Shan States eke out the barest of livings from the soil, usually growing rice to feed themselves. Because there are no roads and little transportation, it is impossible for the farmers to grow cash crops that have to be rushed to market before spoiling. So they turn to poppy cultivation.

A skilled self-publicist, Khun Sa gained fame in 1977 with an audacious proposal, made through a congressional emissary, to sell the opium crop directly to the United States for $300 million in development aid over a six-year period. He would then use his army to crush the narcotics trade.

"Why not use a bandit to catch a bandit?" is his frequently quoted line.

The U.S. government has repeatedly rejected his offer. In the 1980s, it gave financial and materiel assistance to the Myanmar government to spray the opium fields, but the move apparently boomeranged, according to narcotics officials.

Instead of reducing production, the spraying scared farmers into vastly increasing their planting. The Myanmar government also sprayed without warning, ruining thousands of acres of normal farmland and poisoning the countryside with herbicides.

"In the past 17 years, the Western world has lost a lot of money on drug suppression, spent thousands of millions of dollars for nothing," Khun Sa said. "Instead, they should help people out of their misery."

He scoffed at the DEA's efforts, said the drug trade is "flourishing" and predicted that even if he were caught--a remote possibility given his location and the size of his army--"they would have to feed me in jail and the cultivation of poppies would go on."

In a sense, Khun Sa may also be a victim of his own publicity. The Democratic Alliance of Burma, a coalition of opposition groups, including some that occasionally dabble in selling opium, has consistently refused to admit Khun Sa because of his international reputation as a drug peddler.

The greatest criticism raised by his critics among the Shan, however, is that for an insurgent leader, Khun Sa spends remarkably little energy battling the central government in Yangon, or Rangoon, as it used to be called. There is considerable fighting, but it is usually aimed at other insurgent groups in the Shan States trying to seize a part of the opium market.

In fact, Khun Sa has a long history of cooperation with government officials, who in turn have allowed his opium caravans to pass unhindered.

From 1964 to 1967, he even headed a government-sponsored home guard unit called the Ka Kwe Ye, apparently winning government blessing to deal in drugs in exchange for helping to suppress ethnic rebels. Although jailed by the Burmese from 1969 to 1974, he was released to return to the Shan States and resume the suppression of rebel groups, which he achieved by converting some to his banner and killing off the others. Groups such as the Shan United Army and the Shan United Revolutionary Army were simply merged under his command.

The Shan States had been exploited as opium producers by the remnants of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) army, which fled neighboring China after the victory of the Communist revolutionaries in 1949. Kuomintang generals co-opted Shan rebels and formed them into fighting units.

Khun Sa was himself born into the family of an ethnic Chinese father and Shan mother. He is also known by his Chinese name, Chang Chifu. The Shan name Khun Sa was given him as a boy, long before his involvement with drugs made him into a truly prosperous prince.

Today, the Nationalist Chinese influence is still greatly in evidence: Chinese is the common language of Khun Sa's army and military training is conducted on the Nationalist model. Khun Sa said he even sends some officers to Taiwan for training, but this could not be independently confirmed.

His military deputy, Chang Suchuan, was a Kuomintang officer, and many of the other officials are also full-blooded Chinese rather than Shan. Even the camp doctor is Chinese, although he said he fled to the Shan States only during last year's student rebellion in China.

Khun Sa's army is well outfitted by Third World insurgent standards, with every soldier in a clean uniform and boots. Most of the weaponry appears to have originated in the United States--the M-16 rifle is most common--but there is a smattering of Chinese arms. The army also produces its own mortar ammunition and some huge rudimentary rockets.

The soldiers are paid $6 a month. Army officials admit to forcing about 40% of the troops to join up. The troops not at the battlefront live in neat teak buildings with tin roofs. There is a Saturday night disco, regular video viewing and a recently installed satellite dish that pulls in the latest news from CNN.

According to Western officials, the fighting against the Wa at Doi Long could become an important turning point for Khun Sa. His troops are surrounded by the United Wa States Army on three sides and have their backs to the Thai border, in effect cut off from resupply. The fighting has been especially bloody in recent weeks, frequently involving hand-to-hand combat. The Wa are the region's fiercest fighters, mercenaries often compared to Nepal's Gurkhas.

Khun Sa said his troops suffered 60 dead and 140 wounded in a single, 10-day battle in July. Wa casualties were not known, but were believed to be even higher since they were attacking Khun Sa's fixed positions and were thus more vulnerable.

Whether the fighting goes for or against Khun Sa--one Western official said he was giving slight odds to the Wa--it is unlikely that Khun Sa will be toppled entirely from his prominence in the Shan States. An outright Wa victory would confront the Myanmar government with a new, formidable enemy, and Khun Sa undoubtedly still has friends in positions of influence in both Myanmar and Thailand.

"If I were the Yangon government, I wouldn't want to see Khun Sa eliminated," said one Western analyst. "I merely would like to see Khun Sa cut down to size."

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