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. -General Tuan, 1967
Coming down through Thailand’s far north, approaching Mae Chan, the hazy flat expanse of green rice shoots west of bustling Highway 1 ends at the base of high hills of scrub jungle, scattered villages, and the occasional half-completed holiday resort. Speeding upwards on a careening tuk-tuk, amid the dark shade of the surrounding hills at mid-morning and catching faint cross-breezes coming down from Myanmar’s Shan State, I felt a sudden, surprising sensation of cold. In Thailand, even in February, it’s easy to forget what that feels like. The old man in the bench across folded his arms against his chest, kicking his feet out for stability as we rounded another curve.
Cresting the ridges, the knotted brush gave way to denuded hilltops, as far as could be seen, cleared and shovelled and planted with endless terraced rows of squat little tea trees. The road followed one ridge higher still, and suddenly the trees on both sides were replaced by squat square buildings, old and new, wood and concrete, forming a long strip of town on top of the narrow crest. There was a peculiar appearance about this place: roof eves turned upward at the corners, torn and dusty red lanterns hooked on coat hangers below; sparkly Chinese Spring Festival couplets pasted on the doorways. A signpost: 美 斯 乐. Mae Salong. A town with its name posted in Chinese, here in the hills of northern Thailand. The old man yelled something, recognizable to me only after the fact, as the vehicle slowed and I watched him jump out: 司机！停下来，这边下车吧！The consonants were foreign to me, but the tones were unmistakable.
Farther up the hill, the driver stopped again. This is it. I got out. Handing him the fare, I asked: 你汉语会讲吗, you speak Chinese? He laughed. 会！His expression made it clear that I am not the first westerner to come here and ask him that.
I wandered along the main street, occasionally advancing down or up a steep side road for a better view of the terrain. At one corner, ladies in all their Akha costumed splendor hawked trinkets to a couple of tourists, just emerged from their black Audi with Sichuan license plates. Farther down, I stopped to watch a Chinese New Year dragon dance. A couple dozen youth had been corralled to perform the noisy door-to-door ritural. The dragon dancers jumped around self-consciously in front of the family they were visiting; they looked about 15 years old, and probably weren’t sure if this kind of thing was still okay to be fun at their age. The girls sang 恭喜发财, and then everyone jumped into the open bed of the pickup truck and moved up to the next house. Next to me, a few elderly men watched them, looking wistful.
I continued down to the biggest intersection, where more elderly men were gathered at a tea house, next to motorcycle drivers waiting for fares to go back down the mountain. There was a TV on, loudly broadcasting news about a traffic accident in Shandong. I looked: CCTV, the TV network of the Chinese government.
The proprieter of the tea house was a short middle-aged lady who walked with a pronounced limp. I asked her if she was a local here. She smiled, again giving me the feeling that I was the umpteenth person to come here and use standard Mandarin to ask her that very same question.
Who are these people here? This is a home of the survivors and descendents of the Guomindang’s (KMT) 93rd Division, a component of General Li Mi’s 15,000-strong 13th Army of Yunnan Province that retreated to the border of British Burma in 1948-9. Initially supported by the CIA and the KMT government in Taiwan, Li proclaimed an independent Shan state after Burma’s independence, and dedicated his “Anti-Communist National Salvation Army” to the eventual overthrow of the PRC. He was able to “recruit” local chiefs and thousands of tribesmen into his force, and benefitted from the fact that Burma was fighting four other insurgencies, two of them communist, at the time. During the Korean War, his army attempted to invade Yunnan no less than seven times. But as the politics of Southeast Asia became increasingly hostile to western imperialism, it became clear to the US that the KMT’s presence there was doing more harm than good for the anti-communist cause. Reluctantly, the Taiwan government repatriated General Li and 7,000 of his tropps to Taiwan in 1953. But nearly 10,000 remained. They stayed, living out the rest of the decade in the jungles of eastern Shan state, receiving a dwindling stream of supplies from Taiwan, and fighting the Burmese government’s increasingly capable forces. By 1960, the gig was up: Burmese Premier U Nu and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai negotiated the delineation of their undefined border, and joined their forces in an attempt to annhilate this leftover remnant of the Chinese Civil War.
In the subsequent fighting, dubbed the “Chinese-Burma Border Survey Security Campaign” 中缅边境勘界警卫作战, the “lost division” escaped annhilation but were pushed out of their sanctuary. Under General Tuan Shiwen, about 4,000 of them turned south. In 1961, they arrived across the Thai border. They were given sanctuary, but on one condition: they had to help Thailand in the north fight its own growing communist insurgencies.
The army was not well-supplied. Support from their former government in Taiwan had stopped, and the Thai government was wary to provide them with too much. Meanwhile, the hilltops of Mae Salong, where they settled among the native hill tribes, could not produce nearly as much food as their former home in Burma. So they did what plenty of other Chinese armies under corrupt, unsavory warlords in the 20th Century had done (including Mao’s), and started growing opium. Soon, as major players in the trade coming out of the Golden Triangle, the leaders of Mae Salong would contribute much to the boom in worldwide heroin supply (and addiction) in the 1960s and 1970s.
But by the early 1980s, Thailand’s communist movements had fizzled out, and the government no longer had a need for its Chinese army-turned-opium growers. The ’93rd Division’ accepted the deal, and largely ceased its drug activities in exchange for permanent Thai citizenship. Their base was officially renamed by the Thai government as Santikhiri, or “Hill of Peace.” It’s been a big change, I imagine. Before, a stateless rogue army supplying the world with heroin and nominally dedicated to the overthrow of Chinese government. Now, one of northern Thailand’s most celebrated tourist stops among visitors from that country.
The lady served my tea and gave me her story. She’d been born in Burma; her father had been a colonel under General Tuan. She’d lived in Mae Salong as long as she could remember. She’d actually been to China once, with a group that apparently had no problem using their Thai passports to go to Beijing. She had nothing really good or bad to say about the place: it was big. Her Mandarin pronunciation was very standard; I asked, and she said it was what was used in their schools, and that all the shop owners could speak it, too, on account of the mainland Chinese tourists. I asked where in China her family had originated, and she gave me the name of a village in Yunnan. She couldn’t tell me where in Yunnan it was.
The conversation lulled. I looked around, and saw everyone’s eyes were directed at the TV. A Chinese soap opera had come on, and like so many others on China’s state-controlled television it was a historical series set at some point in China’s glorious ancient past. The volume was way up, perhaps for the benefit of the dozing motorcycle taxi drivers outside. On the screen, a general in full armor paced back and forth and spoke bloodthirstily of taking revenge on a rival for some misdeed. But then his wife interrupted, and counselled that this was not the time.