Report on visit to Shan State
MAY 23rd to 30th, 1994

Arrangements for my visit to Shan State were made by British television producer, Adrian Cowell, who has been filming there periodically since the early sixties.  I flew to Mae Hong Son on the Thai/ Burma border where he was awaiting my arrival. That evening I met with Khern Sai Jaiyen of the Shan State (Mong Tai) external relations department (foreign ministry). The following morning at 5:00am he, Adrian, and I, together with American cameraman, Ned Johnston drove in a pickup truck to an isolated farm near the border. There we mounted mules and, with our luggage loaded into paniers on other animals we were led on a trek into the mountains by guides and our muleteers. Khun Sa, President of the Shan State Restoration Council, and commanding General of the Mong Tai Army had sent his personal mule for me to ride, an action considered byeveryone to be a great honor.  The trek lasted seven hours up and down steep mountains and through dense jungle. On several occasions we dismounted and walked to rest the mules and because on some of the inclines it was too steep for them to carry us. After several hours we illicitly crossed the border into Burma and the territory controlled by the free Shan State movement. There is access by dirt road, and by informal agreement Thais and Shans are able to cross at the official check points often with money informally changing hands. The Thai border guards are, however, forbidden to allow any foreigners to cross; thus the reason for our circuitous route.

Eventually we came out of the jungle and arrived at a heavily armed hilltop fort that reminded me of the Special Forces ‘A’ camps in which I had spent much time during the Viet Nam war.  Nearby a group of leading officials from the Shan State Restoration Council and the Mong Tai Army greeted me. We left the mules and proceeded in a motorcade of pickup trucks (the indispensable means of transport as free Shan State has no paved roads).  My vehicle was flying the Shan State flag and the Stars and Stripes. En route to the capital of Homong we passed through six villages. At each the population as well as the local military detachment was lined up along the side of the road to greet me and young women or children presented me with flowers. There were banners across the streets welcoming me and many of the people carried placards in Shan and Englishsaying such things as, “End Burmese oppression,” “Long live Shan/US friendship,” and “Bring Peace, End Opium Cultivation.”  

At the guest house where I was to stay, I was greeted by President Zao Khun Sa (Zao is a Shan honorific) and senior members of his administration.  These included,Zao Fa Lung, Chief of Staff of the Mong Tai Army, Zao Kern Jeid, President of the Congress, Health Minister and earlier one of their most successful military commanders, Zao Ma Chung-Ying, Minister of Finance and a moslem, Zao Khun Seng,Director of Public Construction with a secondary portfolio in finance also. He is also chairman of the upper house or Council of Organizations. Later that evening Khun Sa hosted an informal dinner.

Although these officials spoke a smattering of English, I more naturally gravitated to the three individuals from the department of External Affairs, whospoke fluent English, which all of them had learned as children in Catholic missionary schools. Khun Sa officially holds the position of Foreign Minister. Khern Sai Jaiyen, who had met me in Mat Hong Son runs the department on a day to day basis and spends considerable time in Thailand. He is in his mid-forties and has been involved in the independencestruggle since he was a student. He is very well read and quite studious, being responsible for drafting most communications with the outside world. Sai Yisaeng, around forty, trained as a vet. at the University of Rangoon, but was in trouble with the authorities even then for his outspoken support of Shan independence. He has spent much of his life working in Thailand and holds a Thai passport. He is probably the most sophisticated of those around Khun Sa in terms of the outside world. Seng Joey, from a minor princely family in Kong Keng has been an active fighter with various anti-Burmese and Shan liberation groups for the last twenty years. Begining with the Shan State Army (SSA) he was a member of the faction that joined with the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). When it collapsed in the mid-eighties he joined the Shan United Army, later renamed the Mong Tai Army led by Khun Sa.  Over a week I had many long discussions with these three individuals and was impressed by their dedicated devotion to the cause of Shan independence and the struggle against Burmese oppression and human rights abuses to which their lives had obviously been committed.

Homong, the capital of free-Shan State, was created about five years ago amid a handful of small villages. It constitutes a major departure for any insurgency group like the Mong Tai Army to build a permanent base potentially vulnerable to attack, but it reflects the sense of security and confidence they have in their future as an independent country. There are perhaps twenty thousand people living in Homong and its immediate environs. Construction is going on everywhere with attractive traditional style houses being built from the vast supply of local timber. Large brick and cement buildings are being put up for various purposes, including to house the National Assembly and visiting dignitaries. A large dam has been built into which they hope soon to install turbines to provide a permanent source of electrical power. Lack of adequate power is a major problem in the development of manufacturing and the overall growth of the economy which they plan. They have a gem finishing plant that processes about 7,000 carats a month and a textile plant producing colorful local cloth.  One of the “crop substitution”projects that they have been developing as a potential substitute for opium cultivation is producing large quantities of mushrooms that they are selling on the international market through Thailand.  There are plans to build an airport on a site I was taken to see, and in the next few months they hope to start a free Shan State radio station.

The Shan people are ethnically related to the Thais. The Shans refer to themselves as Tais and the termMong Tai as in Mong Tai Army means Tai country. In the sixteenth century the Shan empire was the largest in the region and stretched from India to Laos and up into China.Today there are about 8 million Shans in Shan State and another 6 million in the surrounding areas including over the border in China. The sense of affiliation with the Thais is striking with every house I went into, including Khun Sa’s, having pictures of the Thai king and queen on the wall. As they explained to me the Shans traditionally had princes, but no kings, so the Thai king is their king. There is no sense of affiliation with the Burmese quite apart from the antipathy towards the present regime in Yangon. Khun Sa has successfully tapped this nationalism and it was clear to me that he was seen as a hero who could bring them both independence and a sense of nationhood that had been denied them for so long. At present Khun Sa and the Mong Tai Army has complete control over about a third of Shan State (the area east of the Salween river). Another third is disputed, although he exerts substantial control over much of it. The remaining third is in the hands of the Burmese. During the sixties and seventies the Shan independence movement was fragmented between several different groups with differing agendas. They included the Shan State Army (SSA), the Shan United Army (SUA), the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) and the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), as well as separate minority ethnic groups living in Shan Sate such as the Wa, the Pa-o and the Kokang who were waging their own wars against Burnese oppression and all too frequently fighting against each other.  There was also a Shan independence party in Rangoon which sought to support Shan State interests peacefully through the political system. Recently they have concluded that no such role is feasible under SLORC and have gone under ground with most members coming to Shan State to join Khun Sa. Over the last five years Khun Sa has consolidated his power so that now all the independence groups have given their allegiance over to him. The last holdouts with any significant military forces were the Wa. Following a series of bloody battles in 1990 the Wa havesince conceded overall authority to Khun Sa. They have collaborated with SLORC in the past and Yangon is claiming this to be the case now. That may be true of certain individuals and factions, but I did not get that impression overall. A “preliminary agreement” between the Wa and the Shan Satte Restoration Council was negotiated was worked out and signed in my presence, (attached).  Khun Sa has successfully driven out the remaining remnants of the KMT who have now either fled to Thailand or joined the Mong Tai Army, (almost all the muleteers are ethnic Chinese.) Many now second generation descendents of those who came originally from China have settled and are integrated into the civilian population in Shan State

Philosophically Khun Sa is committed to a free enterprise, capitalist system and many of the senior officials in his administration have private businesses, lie is extremely eager to get Taiwanese and Japanese businessmen to invest in Shan State, especially in joint ventures. He would similarly welcome any American businessmen. In part because of pressure from those who have joined the movement more recently, many of whom have a more progressive orientation, Khun Sa is also implementing extensive social programs including a basic stipend for all those involved with the government, broadly defined, disabled veterans, and other disadvantaged groups. Those who move into free Shan State from other areas get a substantial resettlement grant.  He is also committed to providing health care. After a visit to the main hospital I was particularly impressed by their plans for the future. A British NGO, Merlin, recently sent a group of doctors funded by the British Overseas Development Agency (ODA) to Homong to assess the medical needs. They are recommending to ODA that it fund through them a brand new hospital which Merlin would initially staff and operate.  Given the history of the relationship of the British with the Shan’s this is perhaps the most natural relationship for them in the West. I also visited a drug rehabilitation center where individuals addicted to opium, heroin, and pharmceuticals obtained from Thai land, especially amphetamines, are treated. I was impressed by the generally high level of nutrition and health of everyone 1 met in Homong.  Water and sanitation standards were also high.

There is every evidence that despite fighting a civil war and having to operate a society that, ofnecessity, places its first priority on its military needs. there is a concerted effort to implement democracy. This may be in part because they know that to achieve international recognition a democratic image is essential.  I was told by their senior political officer that the current constitution, adopted after the People’s Assembly formally declared independence from Burma in December, 1993, was an “interim constitution,” but was as far as they could go until peace was achieved. A strict system of drafting young men into the army is rigidly enforced. I was, however, asked repeatedly to point out anything I saw that was not consistent with democracy. It is clear that the National Congress (or People’s Assembly) is an elected representative body that includes all minor ethnic groups. Real power, however, rests in the hands of Khun Sa, who, while elected by the Congress has not been elected by the people. On the other hand there is little doubt in my mind that in a free and open election in peaceful Shan State he would be elected overwhelmingly. It also makes little sense to quibble over the niceties of democratic procedure, at this stage, when they are in the middle of of a tough independence battle and Khun Sa is clealy the consesus choice to lead them.  Unlike other revolutionary and insurgent groups with whom I have dealt, including the PLO and Fidel Castro in his early years, I found a remarkable degree of openness with people willing to criticize their system and even Khun Sa with no sense of fear that they would get into trouble if they spoke their mind. Similarly I was allowed to see anything I asked to see, and to photograph anything I wanted including their military installations at the front line on the Salween river.

There is currently one Christian church in Homong used by the small Karen community. Khun Sa arranged for me to visit a carefully prepared site overlooking the town where, he said, he hoped an American Christian congregation would come and build another church. He and others stressed their commitment to religious freedom and pluralism. The Mong Tai Army is impressive.  During my visit the latest batch of recruits, 3,200, finished their training and marched out to the front and to fight as guerrillas in the Burmese held areas. They were well trained and disciplined. They were equipped with new uniforms and they had an adequate supply of light weapons, although from many different sources and with no artillery. These weapons included M-16s, Ak-47s, rocket propelled grenade launchers, a few 50 caliber machine guns, and mortars. Both the army and the civilian administration had a highly sophisticated communications system using the latest technology.  I looked at videos of the three passing out parades for recruits which in all totaled eleven thousand. Khun Sa says he has 40,000 troops in the field, which may be an exaggeration, but not by much. The training is primarily by instructors trained in Taiwan, and the director of the training programis one of Khun Sa’s sons who himself was trained in Taiwan. If they can obtain the necessary equipment they are talking about doubling the size of the army during the next twoyears.  While their military strength is impressive they are no match for the concentrated power of the Burmese army and are destined to go on fighting a guerrilla war of attrition for some time to come. On the other hand, unlike the Burmese forces the morale Mong Tai Army, like most liberation forces is very high.

During the course of my visit I was taken to the front line on the Salween river. Here Shan and Burmese troops oppose each other in a string of camps along the towering palisades above the river gorge. On the Shan side slit trenches fronted by mine fields guard against any Burmese attempt to cross the river.  Actually substantial Shan guerrilla forces are deployed behind the Burmese lines and their forts could be cut off at any time. The reason, Mong Tai Army commanders told me that they have not done so is the fear that it might precipitate an overwhelming Burmese counterattack, which they might repel but which could cost many lives. They are counting on a war of attri t ion.

I also visited a Pa-o village an hour and a half drive from Homong, where opium cultivation was their primary source of income. I talked with the headman and several of the farmers. They described a life of extreme hardship centered primarily around obtaining enough rice to stave off starvation. Few crops would grow on the stoney mountain top where they have traditionally lived. They could not grow rice which was their primary food source and were forced to buy it. The opium they grew yielded the average family the equivalent of about $350 per year. Of this $200 was spent to buy a year’s supply of rice. The remaining $150 was used to buy clothes and all other needs they had. Even then, in bad years, the rice often ran out before the new crop of opium came in and they were left with little or nothing to eat for weeks.




They were now beginning to grow melons because with the development of Homong there was suddenly a market that had not existed before. I asked the villagers how they would feel if they were forced to give up the growing of opium. As long as they were guaranteed enough rice to feed themselves they would happily give it up they said. It was an uncertain crop with backbreaking demands involved in weeding and collecting the opium from the poppies. Although no one in the village knew of a time, even hrough their oral history, when their ancestors did not row opium (actually it was probably about two hundred yars) they seemed to have no cultural attachment to its ontinuation. It was clear to me that economic development of the area, not merely some simplistic crop substitution ffort, plus an administration determined both to see that pium was no longer grown and that the villagers did not starve would quickly end the opium crop in this and probably many other similar villages.

I also had a chance to address the Shan State Congress (People’s Assembly). After listening to a history of its establishment, the democratic procedures for election to the body and the development of the interim constitution I had the opportunity to address them. I talked about nation building, democracy, human rights, and the need to start reaching out to the rest of the world so that people could begin to understand what they were achieving.

 I realized once I was in Shan State what a trivial part of the lives and activities of those leading the Shan independence movement has to do with the opium trade. However, this issue was one of the major justifications for my trip. This was not the season for opium cultivation and all the opium caravans had also passed through to the Thai border and the heroin factories in the border zone. So there was not that much to see. Everyone I talked to was completely open about the taxing of the opium trade. Estimates ranged from 50% to 65% of the administration’s revenue being derived from this source. The balance was derived from taxes on precious gems, jade, cattle and other commodities. The taxing of opium was a practice started by the British, which the Shan feel they are merely perpetuating. The leadership, including Khun Sa, have always denied any direct involvement in the trade. Given the complexities of their lives and their intense involvement in other activities both military and administrative as well as the way the opium trade is structured it does not make much sense for them to be participating directly. I do not know for sure that they are not, but in deriving substantial revenue from its taxation they would seem to be getting what they need with a minimum of effort. It does not seem very different from North Carolina or Kentucky except that tobacco causes so many more deaths than opium.

Traditionally, opium has been grown by the minority tribes living in the most inhospitable mountain land where no rice could be sown. The Pa-o, Akha, Wa and Lahu villagers tended to grow opium. Traders often Chinese, but some Shan would then come and buy it from them. Often sold from one trader to another it would then be taken by mule train to the Thai border, or more recently into China.  It was necessary to go by certain trails through the jungle.  These trails passed through villages that were set up with taxing stations where the traders were charged a fixed percentage based on weight. I visited one such village, Mai-or, where I had lunch with the village chief and local military commander. I went to the taxation office where I was able to photograph the tax collector, who was wearing a Washington Redskins cap, and the tax receipt forms filled out on each tax transaction. The day I was there a herd of cattle were sitting in a corral while their owner was paying the tax. The cattle I was told had come either from Western Burma or, possibly, originally from India. They would be sold in Thailand, with this route providing one of the largest sources of beef in that country.

There are caveats to the opium story. The ethnic Shan’s themselves tended not to grow opium in the past, but many have done so during the war with Burma for reasons directly related to the conflict. In the regions of Shan State where the Burmese still exert significant control their soldier frequently pillage Shan villages taking away grain, cattle and any other tangible assets. By growing opium which can not be stolen while still being cultivated and is easily hidden once harvested, Shan villagers have found a way of protecting what little income they have. In addition there have been several occasions when the central Burmese government has declared all currency invalid^ In other areas of the country they would allow people time to exchange the old for new currency. In the Shan State they would not, thereby wiping out people’s savings. Investing in opium and keeping a quantity hidden has become an important hedg-e against such an eventuality.  The Wa who remain the only other group with any consequential military force in Shan State are almost entirely dependent on opium cultivation to avoid mass starvation, are willing to stop its cultivation if they are provided rice, or approximately $500,000 per month to buy it. (a proposition they have passed on to the Drug Enforcement Administration).  This now appears to be something Khun Sa would be willing to provide, primarily as way of gaining their loyalty.

The central core of my trip to Shan State involved a series of lengthy meetings, both formal and informal, with Khun Sa. The first of these was held at my guest house with all of the senior leaders of the Shan State Restoration Council present. Khun Sa began with an hour long presentation of the history of the Shan people, the morerecent history of the period of British rule, the creation of the Union of Burma in 1948 and the decision of the Shan leaders at that time to join the Union with the provision in the new constitution that they could secede after ten years if they were not happy, the invasion of Shan State by the fleeing 3rd and 5th brigades of the 93rd division of the Kuomintang (KMT) army after the communists took over in China, the collaboration of these forces with US intelligence working with the exile government in Taiwan, who helped them get into the opium and heroin trade as a way of sustaining themselves economically, (recently detailed out from the US side by Hal Ford at a CIA conference on the “CIA during the Truman Administration”), the subsequent military coup in Rangoon and the invasion of Shan State by the Burmese army using the excuse that they were trying to drive out the Kuomintang, the subsequent oppression of the Shan people and execution and imprisonment of their leaders by the Burmese army and the refusal to allow them to exercise the right of secession guaranteed in the constitution, the development of the fragmented resistance groups and their gradual consolidation under his leadership in the last five years, the successful driving out of the remnants of the Kuomintang, the role of the opium trade in helping people merely to survive, but also in helping to finance the independence effort. Khun Sa said that he was committed:

  1. The overthrow of SLORC and the establishment of democracy in Burma.
  2. The freeing of Aung Sang Su Kyi.
  3. The ending of the opium trade in Shan State.
  4. The withdrawal of Burmese troops from Shan State and the establishment of peace as a prerequisiteto his being able to eliminate the opium trade.

He also talked about the influence of the government of the People’s Republic of China in Burma, their desire to establish a military presence in the Indian ocean, and the threat that he felt this posed to the stability of the entire region. In particular he focused on the naval base the Chinese had been allowed to establish on Coco Island in the Burmese Andamans. He is strongly anti-communist and despite his battles to oust the Koumintang remnants from Shan State his chief of staff is a former KMT officer, many former KMT people have come over to the Shan side and are fighting in the Mong Tai Army and he has some connections in Taiwan.

I had many questions to ask and can only summarize many hours of discussion. However, perhaps the most important issue I raised was whether the formal declaration of independence by the Assembly in December, 1993 was merely to create a bargaining position with the Burmese or was it an irrevocable commitment to creating a new nation. Khun Sa responded unequivocally that they were committed to creating a new independent State as promised to them at the time of independence from Britain. In later conversations with his staff it was apparent that this was an important distinction for them which had never previously been declared absolutely.

In informal discussions over meals at his residence and elsewhere I talked to him about his life and involvement with the Shan independence struggle. He talked about his five years in prison at the hands of the Burmese and he said that had he been released after three years he would have still been so angry that he would have blown everything. After five years he came out with cool determination and a precise strategy in mind for building an independence movement. I was very much struck by the similarity with Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, and the several of the post independence African leaders. Khun Sa and others frequently mentioned “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” the history of a Chinese emperor and his chief lieutenant in their struggle to hold power the moral of which is that large goals can be lost by becoming preoccupied with minor objectives.  It was my sense that this was a guiding text for the leadership of the movement and that reading it, (which I have not yet done) would yield a great deal of understanding about their thinking and their objectives.

As a person I found Khun Sa deep and thoughtful with a grand, rather ‘than petty, vision. I asked if he ever doubted the ultimate success of his cause to which he replied, “Not once since I came out of prison.” He is charismatic and obviously adored by his followers who consider him a patriarchal figure who will bring them independence and a dramatic uplifting in their quality of life.  He is also promising what they ultimately want which is peace after thirty years of bitter war and oppression.

At the end of my week in Shan State I had another long meeting with Khun Sa involving just the two of us and the interpreter (Khern Sai Jaiyen). He wanted me to give him my observations based on what I had seen and advice as to what I thought his future strategy should be. He had prepared letters for President Clinton and President Carter which he asked me to deliver. Included in the advice I gave him, I urged that he focus heavily on the relationship with Thailand. Obviously it is crucial to their access to the rest of the world and their ultimate international recognition, I said I would meet with the Thai ambassador in Washington. I stressed the need to prevent any further internal conflict with the minor ethnic groups especially the Wa. I agreed to meet with a representative of the Wa in Mae Hong Son on my departure. I did this and the attached “preliminary agreement” was signed. I stressed to Khun Sa the importance of having the full support of the Wa and the advisability of meeting their entire rice need or whatever other concessions were necessary to keep their loyalty.  I recommended that they consider taking their case to the World Court, and that in addition to applying for recognition by the UN, which they have already done, that they also begin building relationships with the other UN agencies such as WHO, UNICEF, and UNDP all of which have a good deal more flexibility in relating to them. We also went over a lengthy strategy on which I agreed to help through which they would try to build access to the rest of the world and begin establishing a network of support.


After a week in free Shan State I left with a vastly different impression than that which I had brought with me. I had closely followed events in Burma for twenty years and had made at least ten visits to the country through Rangoon. I now realize the absurdity of the policies I had instigated with the Rangoon government when I was in the White House. Well intentioned at the time, we had provided helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to the Burmese military so that they could attack the opium trade. We had too easily dismissed the legitimate claims of the minority groups, especially the Shan. The Burmese leadership, itself benefiting financially from the opium trade elsewhere in Burma used the military hardware we gave them merely to try to suppress the independence movements.

What is most important in reassessing United States policy are the changes that have occurred on the ground. 1) The Burmese government has proven itself one of the most egregious violators of human rights and an adamant opponent of democracy, 2) The Shan State independence movement is no longer fragmented, but is now consolidated under unified leadership with a potent military force that is likely to grow substantially in the next three years. It also espouses, in contrast to the Burmese all of the values the United States claims its foreign policy is based on, democracy, freedom of the press, free enterprise, respect for human rights and freedom of religion, 3) Khun Sa and his administration is going to launch a major campaign to establish the legal and moral basis of the Shan independence movement in the international community, 4) The current policy of interdicting opium and heroin at the Thai border under the efforts of DEA have been, for all practical purposes, a failure.

Defining US interest in Shan State as being solely the drug issue has meant conveniently ignoring the reality of what is really going on there. It has also meant in practice turning over US foreign policy in the area to the DEA, where the ability to address the broader geopolitical issues is not only beyond their competence but outside their legitimate mandate. There is also a problem that the agency is now so wedded to outdated policies that even their own internal intelligence reports that conflict with that policy are being ignored. Similarly continuing to dismiss Khun Sa merely as a “drug war lord,” equating him with people like Pablo Escobar, is a self-delusion that subverts any serious attempt to formulate a rational US policy. As someone who has contributed to just that sort of simplistic approach in the past, I see clearly the need to begin focusing on the true situation that now exists. I believe also that if one wants to improve the drug situation, the proposition being put forward by Khun Sa that with peace and the withdrawal of the Burmese forces he would undertake to end the cultivation of opium seems to offer a far greater possibility for success than our present policy. Even if he did he did not honor the pledge, which I think is highly unlikely, we could hardly be worse off.

Peter Bourne


© Peter G. Bourne - 2009