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Myanmar’s narcotic king is no more

world Updated: Oct 30, 2007 22:27 IST
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One-time drug warlord Khun Sa, variously described as among the world's most wanted men and a great liberation fighter, has died in Myanmar at the age of 74, an associate said on Tuesday.

Khuensai Jaiyen, a former secretary of Khun Sa who works with ethnic Shan minority guerrilla groups, said his former boss died in Myanmar's largest city Yangon on Oct. 26, according to his relatives.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Khun Sa had long suffered from diabetes, partial paralysis and high blood pressure.

A Myanmar official in Yangon confirmed the death. He was cremated Tuesday morning, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

His body had been kept since Oct. 26 at a cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon called Yay Way where the cremation took place, said a cemetery worker, who asked not to be named for the same reason.

Khun Sa had lived in seclusion in Yangon since 1996, when he surrendered to the country's ruling military junta who allowed him to run a string of businesses behind a veil of secrecy.

At the height of his notoriety, Khun Sa presided over a veritable narcotics kingdom, carved out of jungled valleys and complete with satellite television, schools and surface-to-air missiles in the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

For nearly four decades the charismatic warlord claimed to be fighting for autonomy for the Shan, one of many ethnic minorities who have battled Myanmar's central government for decades. He painted himself as a liberation fighter for the Shan, heading up the Shan United Army — later the Mong Tai Army — in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State.

But narcotics agents around the world used terms like the "Prince of Death" to describe him and the United States offered a $2 million reward for his arrest. "They say I have horns and fangs. Actually, I am a king without a crown," he told this reporter who visited his remote headquarters of Ho Mong in 1990 after an 11-hour mule ride.

Born of a Chinese father and Shan mother on February 17, 1933, Khun Sa received little education but learned the ways of battle and opium from the Kuomintang, remnants of forces defeated by China's communists and forced to flee into Myanmar.

By the early 1960s Khun Sa, also known as Chang Chi-fu, had become a major player in the Golden Triangle — then the world's major source for opium and its derivative, heroin.

He suffered a near knockout blow in the so-called 1967 Opium War, fighting a pitched battle with the Kuomintang in Laos. Laotian troops intervened by bombing both sides and making off with the opium.

For a time he served in a Myanmar government militia, but was jailed in 1969 after allying himself with the Shan cause. He was freed five years later in exchange for two Russian doctors whom his followers had kidnapped.

The wily operator sought a less hostile environment in Thailand, setting up a hilltop base protected by his sizable Shan United Army. But when the Thais got too embarrassed by having a drug kingpin on their soil, he was driven out in 1982 and lodged himself in Ho Mong, an idyllic valley near the Thai frontier inside Myanmar, also known as Burma.

There, the chain-smoking warlord entertained visitors with Taiwanese pop songs, grew orchids and strawberries, and directed a flow of heroin to addicts around the world. At one point, Washington estimated that up to 60 percent of the heroin in the United States was refined from opium in his area.

Khun Sa claimed he only used the drug trade to finance his Shan struggle. Peter Bourne, an adviser to former US President Jimmy Carter, called him "one of the most impressive national leaders I have met."