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Last stand of man who hooked millions

A ruthless drug baron's reign over the Golden Triangle may soon be over. Tim McGirk reports from Rangoon
Back in the Sixties, the Burmese army took the decision to give a few rifles to a local tough named Khun Sa, to protect his village in the hilly jungles against marauding Communists. It was an appalling error of character judgement, and one the military regime in Rangoon has regretted ever since.

Khun Sa used the guns to set himself up as an opium smuggler. Now a grandfatherly 62, he has grown into the most feared opium warlord in the Golden Triangle covering Burma, Laos and northern Thailand, and which is the world's largest producer of opium.

For more than 30 years, Khun Sa has directed a river of heroin into the streets of Europe, Asia and the United States, wreaking misery and death on millions of lives. Inside his own territory, he followed a custom of old Burmese kings: he executed any of his army caught using opium, or its refined product, heroin. The monarchs had molten lead poured down an offender's throat; the more frugal Khun Sa uses a single bullet.

For nearly 30 years, the Burmese military despots have been trying to cover their blunder by disarming Khun Sa, without success. His ethnic Shan army of several thousand men employs the latest weaponry. Burmese aircraft do not strafe his encampments along the Salween river as they fear Khun Sa's sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. Khun Sa is reported to have bribed Burmese and Thai district commanders on both sides of the border not to move against him.

Drug enforcement experts in Bangkok and Rangoon, however, claim that Khun Sa's reign as lord of the Golden Triangle may soon end. The Burmese military junta, having secured cease-fire agreements with all but one ethnic army, that of the Karens, is finally moving against Khun Sa's fiefdom. Burmese soldiers are being helped by rival opium barons from the Wa clans, which are plotting to seize Khun Sa's opium farms, heroin factories and caravan routes into Thailand, China, Laos, and India.

Khun Sa is worried enough about a possible assault to raise the possibility - unacceptable to Rangoon's generals - that he would step down as Shan army chief and turn his region into a "narcotics-free zone" under United Nations control. Burma still insists that Shan state is part of its territory. "There is no way we will agree to that," Khun Sa said recently.

Rangoon's cease-fire pact with one Karen ethnic army has enabled the Burmese troops to move up to the edge of Khun Sa's jungle domain. Most of the Burmese troops are clustered around Ho Mong, Mong Yawn and Tachilek, near the Thai border. In addition, the anti-Communist generals who have ruled Burma since 1962 have overcome their ideological qualms to buy more than 5,000 mortar shells from China, which they plan to lob at Khun Sa.

Most damaging, generals on the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) in Rangoon have succeeded in exploiting ethnic differences within Khun Sa's army. Half-Chinese and half-Shan, Khun Sa has surrounded himself with a circle of Chinese field commanders. Many of these commanders were Khun Sa's old comrades from the Kuomintang, exiled anti-Communist Chinese who during the 50s and 60s received covert backing from the CIA.

As one Western diplomat explained: "Khun Sa happens to be a drug lord who sells himself to the locals as a Shan nationalist fighting against the Burmese army."

Few Shan, which in the local language means "Free People", are gullible enough to believe Khun Sa. While Khun Sa is said to have invested his millions buying up property in Chang Mai, Bangkok and Hong Kong, drug experts claim that his soldiers' wages are meagre, barely enough to buy a rice meal and a pack of cigarettes.

His credentials as a Shan nationalist also faded when the first of his several wives, who was related to a Shan royal family, recently died.

Playing on the discontent between Shans and Chinese in the warlord's army, Rangoon tempted a key defector, Major Karnyord, who now leads an independent Shan militia of over 1,000 men. The major reportedly quit because of Khun Sa's "discrimination" against Shans.

Khun Sa may not be able to bribe, or fight, his way free of Rangoon's threatened offensive once the monsoon rains let up. But few drug enforcement experts believe supplies from Burma, which last year shipped out more then two tons of pure heroin, will dry up. "It's good to see the Burmese generals take on a main trafficker, but there are plenty of others who will fill the gap left by Khun Sa," one drug expert said.

The heroin trade is too lucrative for the Burmese authorities to close down. When a Mercedes or a BMW hurtles past in Rangoon, honking its way through the rickshaws, it is taken for granted that the driver is a drug trafficker or one of the ruling generals' sons.

If Khun Sa is dethroned as the supreme warlord of the Golden Triangle, there may soon be many more luxury cars racing around Rangoon.