Khun Sa

Opium-trafficking 'Prince of Death'


Chang Shi-fu (Khun Sa), guerrilla leader and drugs baron: born 17 February 1933; died Rangoon 26 October 2007.

He called himself a freedom fighter and, for more than four decades, Khun Sa headed a ruthless guerrilla army which he said he was using to win autonomy for Burma's Shan people.

Others were not so convinced. Around the world, drugs agents termed him the "Prince of Death", saying that he and the drugs organisation he ran from deep inside the jungles of South-east Asia were responsible for murder, assassinations and bribery. At one point, officials in Washington estimated that 60 per cent of the heroin being sold on the streets of the United States came from opium refined in the area under his control.

For years his area of operation was the so-called Golden Triangle, that remote part of the jungle where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. His hideout – a virtual autonomous kingdom – was equipped with satellite televisions, schools and surface-to-air missiles. "They say I have horns and fangs. Actually, I am a king without a crown," he once boasted to a reporter.

Khun Sa had not always sided with the Shan, one of Burma's many indigenous peoples. In the early 1960s he formed a militia that was loyal to the Burmese government and received money and equipment for fighting against the Shan rebels. Before long he fell into conflict with the government and served time in a Burmese jail.

When he was released in 1974 he returned to drug smuggling, renamed his militia the Shan United Army and began using the outfit to fight against the government again. He claimed he was doing so in the cause of Shan independence but Khun Sa was able to use his position to create leverage along the Thailand-Burma border and rapidly he became one of the most important players in the drugs trafficking business there.

He claimed that he was only involved in the drugs business to further the cause of the Shan and on one occasion he offered to sell his entire opium haul to the US government in exchange for money to start economic development in the impoverished Shan areas. "My people grow opium," he said. "And they are not doing it for fun. They do it because they need to buy rice to eat and clothes to wear."

He was born Chang Shi-fu in north-east Burma in 1933 to a Chinese father and a Shan mother, later adopting the name Khun Sa. In his younger years he served with the Kuomintang of China but left to form his own army made up of a few hundred men. Though he had received little education he learned military tactics, as well as the business of opium dealing, from his time with the Kuomintang, the remnants of which had been beaten by the Maoist forces and were holed-up in Burma.

In the mid-1990s it appears that Khun Sa fell out with other Shan leaders and again it became necessary for him to switch allegiances. Though the US had offered a $2m reward for his capture, the former warlord was able to make a deal with his one-time allies in the Burmese regime and opted to move out of the jungle and enjoy a life of relative ease and seclusion in Rangoon.

Andrew Buncombe

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