The Book of the Week is “Chasing the Dragon, Into the Heart of the Golden Triangle” by Christopher R. Cox, published in 1996.
In 1994, this book’s author– a journalist, Jay Sullivan– a Vietnam veteran, American intermediary Barry Flynn, and local assistants, embarked on a shady adventure in Shan State, an embattled but little-known territory of Burma.
The author sought to interview the King of Opium and Shan State separatist– Khun Sa– at one of his mansions in Shan State, western Laos or northern Thailand. Khun Sa moved among them surrounded by bodyguards; for, there had been more than forty attempts on his life.
At the time of the book’s writing, Burma produced more than 70% of the earth’s illegal opium. Poppies are the most lucrative cash crop ever because they can be turned into heroin or opium, which is compact, portable and resists spoilage.
Sullivan sought to find out from Khun Sa whether there were Vietnam-War servicemen who were still missing-in-action or prisoners-of-war in Thailand or Laos, so he could contact them. As a Vietnam veteran himself, he had made numerous trips to the region through the years to salve his survivor’s guilt. He had yet to find concrete evidence of any veterans left behind. His quest was kind of a lost cause, as greedy local residents were only too happy to take bribes, breed deceit and swindle the victims’ families.
The trip was shady because it was illegal for foreigners to go to Shan State without permission. They had to bribe people-smugglers to transport and guide them. The trespassers risked their lives. Multiple, reputedly hostile people and animals, tropical diseases and inhospitable terrain in Shan State provided evidence that the author and his companions had a death wish.
The author described events that, along with Thailand’s corruption, have resulted in a horrible safety record, that has precipitated needless deaths and ruined lives. One thing leads to another. More specifically– shoddy, non-fireproof housing-construction does poorly in accidents and natural disasters. This leads to or compounds problems like flooding, landslides, and fires.
In 1988, a variety of different groups fought to claim the land, including multiple native tribes, the Burmese army, local militias, Communists, narco-insurgents, exiled Nationalist Chinese soldiers, and dacoits. AIDS was ravaging the whorehouses (which were supposed to be illegal, but the cops were paid off to let them be) in populated areas of Thailand.
Also, unsurprisingly, opium production was outlawed in Thailand in 1959. And at the book’s writing, Thailand had no official laws against money-laundering. Thailand proclaimed itself to be crime-free; never mind all those heroin and opium addicts in its slums. Around the same time, there arose a Nigerian Connection.
Beginning in the late 1980’s, “Ironically, Thailand’s poppy-eradication and crop-substitution programs, while decreasing the availability of raw opium, had driven hilltribe addicts to more potent, more accessible heroin that was produced just over the border in Burma.” The nation curbed the drug trade just enough to keep the financial aid coming from the United States. There was also honor among thieves in the black markets of baht, teak, jade and rubies.
Read the book to learn the suspenseful saga of the author’s adventures, as well as a wealth of regional history, the life story of Khun Sa, and about the complicated web of relationships among all different groups with different goals that enhanced the intrigue of the circumstances (hint: According to Khun Sa, “The KMT had received financial support from Taiwan and the CIA, the Communist Party of Burma [CPB] was underwritten by neighboring China, and the Burmese government received foreign aid.”)