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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 19, 2011


BOOK REVIEW
Revelations of a secret war
The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle by Richard M Gibson and Wenhua Chen

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Visitors to northern Thailand are often surprised to find prosperous Chinese settlements scattered among poor tribal villages in the hill areas near the Myanmar and Lao borders. These unusual settlements are often surrounded by tea gardens and orchards, fruit wine is frequently for sale and children attend schools where Chinese is the language of instruction. Some are even guarded by their own local militias, the legacy of a secret war that was fought well into the 1960s in the so-called Golden Triangle region.

Following their defeat in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, thousands of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese troops retreated from southern China into the Shan States of Myanmar

 
(then known as Burma) and later into northern Thailand. There, they established bases from which they attempted to re-take China from the Mao Zedong-led communists.

This "secret" army was supported by the Republic of China, which had retreated to the island of Taiwan, as well as the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Along with covert operations in Tibet, it was the first of other secret and not-so-secret CIA-orchestrated wars in Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan.

The flight of Nationalist Chinese troops into what is now known as the Golden Triangle - an area where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet - coincided with the outbreak of the Korean war. US General Claire Chennault admitted much later that a plan existed to implement designs drawn up by commander of the allied forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, to broaden the war against China. Testifying before the US Congress in 1958, Chennault declared: "It was a double envelopment operation. With the UN forces in Korea and the Nationalist Chinese in southern areas, the communists would have been caught in a giant pincers."

The Korean war ended in a 1953 armistice and the Nationalist Chinese forces failed to "liberate" the mainland from communist rule. Subsequently, they began to concentrate their efforts on developing a business in which many of them were already involved: the Golden Triangle drug trade.

The battle-hardened Nationalist Chinese troops were nevertheless used by the Thai army in operations against Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) rebels throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s. Some others acted as guards for Thai road construction crews in areas of Thailand where communist insurgents were active. Others even took part in actual combat, including operations that captured the CPT's military headquarters on a mountaintop in northern Thailand in 1981.

Richard Gibson, a now retired former US Consul General in Chiang Mai, has written the first complete account of this secret war. Assisted by Wenhua Chen, a former Chinese translator at the United Nations, Gibson went through a trove of documents in Chinese to piece together this groundbreaking volume.

The extensive research means that the book contains far more detailed information about this covert operation than, for instance, Alfred McCoy's classic The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Catherine Lamour's excellent Enquete sur une Armee Secrete, which is available only in French.

The Secret Army is more than a history of a largely forgotten war. The book explains the origin of the chaos and anarchy that made it possible for the Golden Triangle drug trade to take root and flourish to this day. It also shows that opium has always been an integral part of insurgency, as well as counter-insurgency, in one of Southeast Asia's most volatile regions. Burton Levin, a former US ambassador to Myanmar, writes in an endorsement of the book: "We owe our thanks to Mr Gibson for reminding us of yet another instance where covert action brought us more grief than relief."

Drug-dealing allies
The book covers the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese in Yunnan province in early 1950, their retreat into Myanmar and how the US got involved in the effort to rebuild and re-equip these forces. Gibson describes the establishment of the "Yunnan Anticommunist National Salvation Army" and the joint Sino-Myanmar operation in 1960-1961 that drove the Nationalist Chinese out of most of northern Myanmar and into Thailand. It also chronicles the support these forces lent the Thai army in battles against the China-backed CPT.

Ironically, the Nationalist Chinese involvement in the opium and its derivative heroin trades reached its height during the Indochina war in the early 1970s, when the most lucrative local market for the drugs was among US troops stationed in Vietnam. This, of course, was not appreciated but nevertheless tolerated as long as they served Thailand's and America's security interests. That's because they remained sources for crucial intelligence in areas where the Thais and Americans had little or no direct access. This information flow was especially important precisely during the Indochina war and in the fight against the CPT.

When the US GIs returned home, the narcotics problem shifted from army barracks and camps in South Vietnam to poor communities and even middle-class suburbs in the United States. The public became alarmed and Washington started taking measures aimed at solving the narcotics problem through its so-called "war on drugs". Conveniently forgotten was that the flow of narcotics was a direct outcome of the US-supported secret war in the Golden Triangle.

Some critics may argue that Gibson has relied too heavily on US State Department cables that are unlikely to reveal everything about America's secret war. Local CIA agents on the ground may have been much more closely involved with the Nationalist Chinese forces than what is reflected in the now declassified State Department reporting.

The US assisted in repatriating some of the soldiers from Thailand to Taiwan, but at the same time helped to sustain reinforcements of troops and military material and new local recruitment. The CIA continued to airdrop supplies to Nationalist Chinese in Myanmar and relied heavily on the intelligence they collected well after the repatriations took place in 1953-54 and again in the early 1960s.

Thai army sources quoted in the book may also have been too embarrassed to admit the crucial role that "Chinese irregulars" - as they were then called - played in defeating the CPT. Yang Weigang, a young Nationalist Chinese officer from the Thai town of Mae Salong, is attributed by most local sources as the man who led the final assault on Khao Ya - the CPT's last major military stronghold - with little assistance from Thai security forces.

When he and other "heroes of Khao Ya" arrived at Thailand's Chiang Mai airport after the battle, they were given a rousing welcome directed personally by the Thai commander of unit 04, which was responsible for liaising with the "Chinese irregulars". Disabled Nationalist Chinese veterans were given a modest pension by the Thai state and certificates which enabled them to stay legally in Thailand. Some were even granted Thai citizenship. But in official Thai histories of the battle to defeat the CPT insurgency they hardly ever receive mention.

The Chinese settlements in northern Thailand, however, are still plain to see in places like Mae Salong, Tam Ngob, Ban Mai Nong Bua, and Phatang in the hills of northern Thailand; they are just too big and thriving with commercial activity to be concealed. Now there is a very readable book which explains who these Chinese are and why they are there.

The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle by Richard M Gibson and Wenhua Chen. John Wiley & Sons Asia, Singapore (October 2011). ISBN-10: 0470830182. Paperback. Price, US$32.95, 384 pages.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

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