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Monday, November 28, 2011

Doi Mae Salong and Ban Hin Taek

From the hill tribe villages around Tha-ton, we drove up to Doi Mai Salong which is further North East and right on the Burmese border.

This is originally a Kuomintang Chinese town that used to be a centre of the Opium trade but has now been 'bought out' by the Thais and flooded with money to turn legitimate and boasts tea plantations and massive horticulture operations. Substantial numbers of Chinese people of (mainly) Yunnanese descent can be found in villages around Chiang Rai Province. These are descendants of Kuomintang soldiers who fought against the Chinese Communist soldiers in the 1940s, before fleeing to the northern regions and settling among the local people.

There are also of Akha street sellers of handcraft and tourist trinkets and more local Akha villages further down on the slopes of the valley, including notorious Ban Hin Taek, (Thai: ที่บ้านหินแตก, "The Village of Broken Stone") now renamed Ban Therd Thai - “Village to Honor Thailand”, believed to be the first Akha village in Thailand. Mae Salong (Thai: แม่สลอง) has likewise been renamed Santikhiri (Thai: สันติคีรี). Santikhiri meaning "hill of peace" was introduced by the Thai government in an effort to disassociate the area from its former image as an established opium zone.

Khun Sa, "Prince Prosperous", the Shan opium warlord, operated his expanding empire for a period in nearby Ban Hin Taek. “Ban Hin Taek's village headman Duangdee Khemmawongse recalls, ‘Khun Sa came to live at Ban Hin Taek in late 1964, when he was around 30 and left a year later. In 1976, he came back again with his wife and children.’” In 1974, Khun Sa was released from Burmese prison he set up his base 2 years later in Ban Hin Taek.

As long as the Thai generals were getting some of the drug revenues, Khun Sa could keep operating in Ban Hin Taek. Khun Sa was also beneficial to the Thai because they hoped to topple the Kuomintang and Rangoon’s hold on northeastern Burma so that Thailand could become more influential in that area. Khun Sa ended up becoming a very successful drug warlord in the years 1974-1982. Once the communists came to power in both Laos and South Vietnam in 1975, Khun Sa was able to get a much stronger hold over the drug trade as the KMT’s smuggling routes in the area were now disrupted. Thus he set up the Shan United Army (SUA) which at its peak had 20,000 soldiers.

Khun Sa’s drug empire continued to grow until the early 1980s when the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimated that “70% of heroin consumed in the USA came from his organization.” Khun Sa built health centers, schools and was the major benefactor of the Da Tong Chinese school which the KMT had set up. Thus the villagers “called Khun Sa chao oo, or father.”

However, Khun Sa’s generosity came to an end when the Thai government suddenly changed hands from General Kriangsak Chomanan to General Prem Tinsulanonda. The new general, along with pressure from the DEA who were trying to stop the flow of heroin into the United States, decided to kick Khun Sa out of Thailand. Thus, in January 1982, the Thai army, in conjunction with the Border Patrol Police, launched an offensive against Khun Sa’s base in Ban Hin Taek. Many days of violent fighting ensued and eventually the Thai forces used tanks and planes to get the SUA forces to retreat into Burma. Khun Sa managed to escape beforehand to the town of Hua Muang across the Burmese border.

In 1989, Khun Sa was charged by a New York court for trying to import 1,000 tons of heroin. By then he had proposed the USA buy his entire opium production or he would sell it on the international narcotics market. It is claimed that Khun Sa surrendered to Burmese officials in January 1996, reportedly because he did not want to face drug smuggling charges in the USA. The US DEA had promised $2 million reward for his arrest. Khun Sa left the Shan States for Rangoon, but he was never arrested by the government. Burmese officials refused to extradite him, and he lived the rest of his life in the Rangoon area with significant investments in Yangon, Mandalay and Taunggyi.

When on October 26, 2007, Khun Sa died. A funeral was arranged for Khun Sa in Ban Hin Taek in order to commemorate his death, but to also attract tourism to the village. From this point on, investors have approached the village trying to develop it and attract tourists to the area.

The Shan United Army still operates drug factories in Myanmar and there are stories in Thai newspapers about methamphetamine pills being transited through border villages and the odd corrupt official getting bumped off.

Wikipedia notes that General Tuan Shi-wen, commander of the Kuomintang Fifth Army (based in the Golden Triangle), died in 1980, and was buried in a pagoda-like tomb on a hill-top reached via a 300-metre (984 ft) climb. Here is his most famous quote: "We have to continue to fight the evil of Communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium."

View out towards Ban Hin Taek

Ban Hin Taek has a long custom of an agriculture industry. Produce such as tomatoes, maize, onions, garlic and potatoes are grown and then sold in other places in Chiang Rai. There is even a tea factory in the village. It also has a prosperous cross-border trade. According to Northern Rose, there is a museum where Khun Sa's old base used to be. Baan Therd Thai is still a stepping stone in to the Shan state. The Shan women taking care of the museum, say a yearly commemoration for Khun Sa is held a few kilometers further west, in a village closer to the Burmese border. Some of the Shan people in the village still have relatives serving the Shan army. There is a garden guesthouse, called Rim Taan, and next door to the guesthouse (053730209) you can have southern Chinese foods at Ting-Ting restaurant.

A one and only image of modern Ban Therd Thai from the internet

Although many of the people and most of the architecture are Chinese, there is also a Mosque. In the far North there are pockets of Thai Muslims of Chinese Hui origin. Most Chinese Muslims belong to a group of people called Chin Ho or Haw in the Thai Language, although most of the Chin Ho are not Muslim. Chin Haw or Chin Ho are Chinese people who migrated to Thailand via Burma or Laos. Most of them were from Yunnan, the southern province of China. Approximately, one-third are Muslim, known as Hui. The rest are Han chinese and follow Chinese religions.

We returned in the evening to Chiang Mai via Chiang Rai.

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