Khun Pao, one of the main characters in The Valley Walker is loosely based on the life and times of this man. You’ve probably never heard of him, but I saw the results of his business.
Up close and personal.
He was born in 1934 to a Shan mother. His Chinese father died early in his life. Consequently, he was raised primarily by his mother who became a mistress to a local tax collector in the northern regions of Burma. His given name was Chang Chi-fu, but he was better known by his nom de guerre, Khun Sa… Prince Prosperous.
After a shiftless, criminally disposed youth, he became a soldier in the Chinese Nationalist Army, and retreated with them into Burma when the communists gained power in 1949. In the early sixties he was hired by the military junta that had taken over Burma… renamed Myanmar… to help quell rebel groups that had broken out. He broke with the government and went out on his own within a year.
Entering the Business World
He soon went into the opium business in the Golden Triangle, the border area of Thailand, Burma and Laos. His dealings were in direct competition with the Chinese Nationalists who were using the profits to fund their fight against the Chinese Communists. After initial failings (he was imprisoned from 1969 to 1974) he eventually established himself as the Opium King, even declared himself the King of the Golden Triangle. Evidently the title Prince Prosperous wasn’t lofty enough.
Some of the highlights of his career are:
- At his peak, his army was estimated at 20,000 men… men better armed than the army of Myanmar.
- During the 1980s, the DEA estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the heroin sold in New York came from Khun Sa’s network.
- It was estimated that 45 percent of the heroin in the world came from his network.
- His Double UO Globe heroin was the purest sold, and even had its own distinctive brand marking… two lions that faced each other and held the globe in their paws.
- He offered to sell his entire opium crop to both the U.S. and Australian governments as a way to take it off the market.
- He was indicted by a New York court for conspiring to import 1000 tons of heroin.
- The U.S. government eventually put a price on his head of 2 million dollars, but the military government in Myanmar still refused to extradite him.
In 1996 Khun Sa formally surrendered to the government of Myanmar. Ten thousand of his soldiers took off their uniforms and turned in their weapons. A large cache of ammunition and weapons was also surrendered, including Soviet SAM missiles. The heroin refineries under his control were shut down. The peasants that cultivated the crops put away their tools and went home.
During the day-long ceremony, Khun Sa never lost his smile.
A Quiet Passing
In October of 2007, Khun’s family notified authorities that he had died at his mansion in Yangon (Rangoon). After living the majority of his life as a man to be feared… a man to be dealt with, the Opium King’s passing was almost incidental. Not many people noticed, or cared.
His sizable army is no more. The vast poppy fields he once controlled are now overgrown. The refineries that once produced his Double UO Globe heroin are gone.
The major supplier of heroin worldwide is no longer the Golden Triangle. It is now Afghanistan.
Business is business.