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Chinese National Army and the Golden Triangle

by Stephen Mansfield

The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle, by Richard M. Gibson with Wenhua Chen. Wiley, 2011, 384 pp., $32.95 (paperback)

Anyone who has stared into the devitalized eyes of an opium addict will know how grave the legacy of the narcotics trade continues to be in the region known as the Golden Triangle.

Making sense of the Byzantine history of illicit substances in Southeast Asia requires a finely tuned analytical mind and plenty of reserves of investigative stamina, both of which these two authors possess in abundance.

The remnants of the Chinese National Army, withdrawing into Burma after the communist takeover of mainland China, formed the bricks and mortar of what would become the clandestine Cold War militia known as the Kuomintang, or KMT. As with all covert operations, secrecy was eventually compromised, the existence of troops under the authority of Chiang Kai-shek becoming, at least in diplomatic and journalism circles, an open secret. Visibility would increase with their involvement as mercenaries in the service of rightist forces in Laos and as combatants embroiled in Thailand’s anti-communist insurgent campaign, activities that would distract them from their avowed aim of reclaiming mainland China.

To every narrative thread of this work is attached a number of subplots: tales of near escapes, slight of hand, shameless opportunism, little known battles, and turf wars. The book presents a colorful gallery of master manipulators, some of whom have surfaced in other books and film. Among them the infamous General Phao Siyayon, a figure Gibson describes as “the most corrupt man in Thailand — a title for which there were many deserving contenders.”

American Robert North, a CIA officer acting under a U.S. Information Service cover, was an early example of many such spectral figures sent into the area over the next decades. Already well established in the region were the Young family, a clan of American Baptist missionaries whose fire and brimstone sermons included a coruscating anticommunist rhetoric. The book reminds us how the period provided fertile ground for the rise of strongmen like General Ne Win in Burma and the powerful Shan drug warlord, Khun Sa; how prevailing conditions could allow someone as unscrupulous as Lieutenant General Li Mi to exercise so much authority.

It is a wonder, given the sheer numbers within the ranks of China’s People’s Liberation Army, their proven effectiveness in both combatting the Japanese during the war and subsequently gaining control of the country, that men like Li Mi could still entertain the possibility of retrieving the mainland. With little taste or aptitude for warfare, the KMT would turn their energies instead to profit. One later army commander, Liu Yuan-lin, was known for pocketing the monthly expenses sent from Taipei to provision his army, while his subordinates, not to be left out, dealt in smuggling drugs, timber, gems and other commodities. The KMT’s energies diverted, its priorities muddled by dealership in narcotics and cross-border plunder, it was only a question of time before its role as a liberating army came into question.

By the 1960s, with KMT forces acting independently of Taipei, its leaders would justify their supervision of the narcotics trade by claiming, “In these mountains the only money is opium.” Ultimately, it was the drug and the revenues it generated that corrupted not only lives, but also political ideologies.

Gibson and Chen have pieced together the events of the time with painstaking episodic precision. A muscular historical reconstruction, readers are required to keep their wits about them, however, as the pace is fast, the players and sub-issues multiple. Even a slight lapse of attention can send you back several pages. Fortunately, the text is compelling enough to maintain our concentration. Copious notes at the end of each chapter hint at the degree of research involved in this monumental study, one that is likely to take its place alongside such groundbreaking works on the region as Alfred W. McCoy’s “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” and Bertil Lintner’s “Land of Jade.”

Gibson and Chen have succeeded in negotiating a terrain known to cover not only tracks, but also historical facts.