Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia (SE1101E/GEK1008/SSA1202)


This paper will discuss on the effects and impacts of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, particularly on how the opium trade affects and defines the society in Burma (Myanmar). In addition, this paper will hold an in-depth discussion on the positive and detrimental effects on Burma should the opium trade collapse in golden triangle. Lastly, insights on the survival and growth of opium trade despite efforts to prevent it. 

Golden Triangle is a region covering eastern Burma (the Shan and Wa state), northwestern Laos and northern Thailand. Boyes and Piraban (1991) described “a land whose inhabitants are principally farmers, and a place where a force of one hundred armed men constitutes an army, where rebellions against the state, whether against communist Laos, socialist Burma or democratic Thailand are a way of life” (p.2). However to many others who have not visited the place would have known it as the land of poppies. The notorious Golden Triangle has the largest production of opium in Asia in particular to Shan state in Burma. The further refinery of opium into heroin takes place mainly in areas near Thailand where it acts as a distribution park for the heroin trade. This is because Thailand is a capitalism state and provides a better infrastructure of imports and exports.

The opium trade in Asia did not occur overnight, so as for the creation of Golden Triangle. To understand the Opium Trade in Asia, one has to understand the history of opium. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia first discovered opium poppy around 3400BC. The principle approach to use Opium was in liquid form; it being a painkiller and sometimes together with other medicines. The cultivation technique was later pass on to the Egyptians. From 460BC to AD400, the opium trade begins. Opium moved into India and later on into China by the Arab traders. Initial trade was slow in Asian waters due to Arabs little interest in sea commerce, but the pace of trade start peaking after European traders entered into Asia with the introduction of tobacco and tobacco pipes. Chinese in the East Indies mixed opium with tabacoo and started smoking the mixture through the tabacco pipes. At this juncture, opium was no longer used for medical purposes but for recreational and entertainment. This created a rising demand for opium in China, which in turn result in increasing influence and power of the English. In the early trade, opium was traded for Chinese tea and silks. As opium demand increases, the situation got out of control in China. The English demanded more resources and soon the Chinese realized their resources were depleting and its people were addicted. This was also the period known as the opium war in 1839~1842. The Chinese suffered a terrible defeat during the first opium war and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking and the cession of HongKong. In 1956, another Anglo-Chinese war broke out, between the Chinese, French and English. After the struggle, China was forced to pay another indemnity and the importation of opium is legalized. But 1860 southwestern China was already crowed with poppy cultivation, and the migration of the tribal groups into the highlands of Southeast Asia also brings with them the birth of Golden Triangle. 

The main cultivation of opium poppy within Golden Triangle takes place in Shan state (Burma). Jelsma, Kramer and Vervest (2005) described Shan State is “an area inhibited by a wide range of ethnic minorities, who have suffered badly from decades of civil war and governmental neglect. ” (p.vii). The two important factors that shaped Burma to be the largest producer of opium poppy are, first the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang-KTM) and second the notorious Khun-Sa, the opium king of Golden Triangle. In 1949, KTM lose their foothold in China to the armies of Mao Zedong, major nationalist soldiers fled to Taiwan and some retreated into Yunnan and later into the Shan States. It is believed that KMT used profit from opium cultivation to fund them in the war against China. This had certainly brought opium cultivation deeper into the roots of Shan states and the impact of migration.

After KTM rule, General Khun Sa, further flourish the opium trade between Burma and the rest of the world. Khun Sa was also directly responsible for a major percentage of heroin production of the Golden Triangle. During that same period, civil wars were taking place within Burma. The Burmese Road to Socialism took place as by Ruler, Ne Win wins his war. His ideology cut off foreign trades and brought poverty to its people. Khun Sa, on the other hand wanted to bring wealth, prosperity and independence to its people in Shan state, with that its achieved its objective with opium trade and support from the locals tribes. The tribes who supported Khun Sa also learned about Khun Sa’s politics. He was able to build an army with the tribes support and rebelled against the Government. He taxed every section of the opium trade supply chain and with the profit he support his army. However it was never clear what was Khun Sa’s motive, was it to control the opium field or was it to bring true independence to Shan state. However there were evidences I believe showed Khun Sa’s motive was to control the opium field. With reference to the video[1] and readings shown, it was obvious that Khun Sa’s military direction was heading towards Thailand border instead of the Burmese government. This action could implied that he wanted to use the military force to clear the path of opium trade in Thailand and he had no intention of rebelling against the Burmese government. Furthermore, he was not a true Shanese and in earlier days he joined Ruler Ne Win before going against him. And making use of the politics and the peace that people were chasing after, he created a big impact on the society especially in the Shan state.

Opium agriculture is very much different across the mountain tribes in Shan state, yet they share elements of similar lifestyles. They practiced shifting cultivation that leads to viral spreading of opium growing and they also grow rice for personal consumption. Rice is the staple food for Southeast Asia, it has also grown to be involved with Southeast Asia culture, for example using rice for spiritual rituals. Tribes in Shan State practice the same culture, however it differentiates itself with the use of opium for spiritual rituals too. If opium is so bad as we know it to be, why are the mountain tribes still growing the opium? Civil war has been ranging in Shan state for many year, it is only logical for people in Shan state wants to seek a peaceful life. Opium was the only cash crop that could seek high value in the market. In 2003, an average household earns about US$250 on opium. Moreover farming pigs, chickens and rice give opportunity Burmese soldier to loot, in the case of opium; it was too much of a trouble for the soldier to harvest. Rice is a symbolic item in Southeast Asia; it was also the reason behind the peak in opium productions. In the time of chaos, rice was in demand and it was much safer for the tribes in Shan state to cultivate opium and sell it or even exchange it for rice with the Thais near the border.

However, if the opium trade was to stop, what will happen to the farmers and people in Shan state? While the most positive impact is a drop in opium or even heroin exploitation in Golden Triangle, there is an even higher cause of concern, where the people in Shan will suffer further. c. In the 1990s, a kilogram of opium was worth US$650 and moving on to 2002, it was worth US$1400 a kilogram. As of 2003, opium was banned in northern area of Shan state, this caused farmers to leave their home and migrate across borders resulting in social problems. Furthermore, without the income, they will have to send their daughters to brothels and their sons to join rebel armies for survival, which in turn create more troubles in the region. 

Politics also plays a majority role in opium trade and an even bigger role in heroin trade. Corruptions were the root of the problem. Consider if the government from all the three border nations work together to stop the opium trade, why did the opium trade still soared after their continuous effort. Not to mention that Thailand have been receiving monetary aid from US – Drug Enforcement Administration to stop the opium from Shan state in crossing over to Thailand. Furthermore, with reference to the video on Khun Sa – The Opium Warlord of the World, he mentioned “They can arrest me (Khun Sa) anytime, they can kill me but this would not stop the production of Opium. This would just mean that there is another need for a new drug king” Could there be a deeper meaning into his statement? In addition, the arms that Khun Sa used was purchase from both the Americans and Thailand. So the issue kind of contradicts the goal of stopping Khun Sa and his opium trade. This could actually be a conspiracy in the making with government’s officials creating wealth and power for themselves. In addition, the Burma’s national company – Myanma oil and Gas enterprise (MOGE) was very much involved in the laundering the revenues of heroin trade in Burma. It was also the channel for Khun Sa to laundered his money and it was estimated at Us$60 Million. Therefore it would be difficult even for the humanitarian organization to offer their help because they are working with a government that has direct contribution to the opium trade. So I urged in the movement to stop opium trade only appears on the surface and the media, the truth is the trade would never stop because when there is demand, there is supply. 

In conclusion, the history of opium trade had certainly created a special region in Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle. The opium trade had also shaped Burma into a land where there are no human security and where the poor suffers and the rich benefits. This highlights the typical scenario in Southeast Asia developing countries. Migration has also shown to have a big impact on the creation of Golden Triangle and opium trade. If KTM did not bring with started the cultivation of opium, it might have been a different story. In addition, the opium trade certainly had brought positive and negatives impacts to the life of the mountain tribes in Shan state. Without the opium trade, the tribes could have even suffered more than what they are experiencing now. Moreover they could have move around the borders and creating social tensions in the regions. Without theses income, tribes will not be able to achieve their basic needs and might lead to greater social problems and migration. Finally, we understand that there are political issues behind the growth of Golden Triangle where Government’s officials indirectly benefit from demand in opium and heroin. While on the other hand, the people suffered because of the corrupted government. I believe it will continue to grow even with the government showing strong resistance on the surface.

[1] – Lord of Golden Triangle Part 4 retrieved on 23 October 09

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