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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)