In the 1960's Cowell ventured into Shan state, a remote corner of Burma where much of the world's heroin originates. There, Cowell explored the complex web of insurgency, politics, diplomacy and economics surrounding the Shan opium trade and, at the center of it all, the story of the opium warlord Khun Sa.
(FRONTLINE's Interview with Adrian Cowell in the winter of 1997)
Q: What was it about Burma that led you to spend so many years there?
Cowell: Burma is an unknown place. And the great thing about unknown places is you can locate any myth you want, and that myth cannot be disproved... [A] myth was created in Burma, and that myth was that it was possible to stop the narcotics coming out of Burma by using police enforcement methods, and after 20 years and millions of dollars in military aid against it, we now have to appreciate that that was a myth. All that needs to do is to look at the problem with a little bit of reality, and that's basically what our job as filmmakers are. We go in and we try and add to the reality of the outside world's knowledge of something.
Q: When you went in, all those many years ago, what story were you going in to tell?
Cowell: In 1964, the U.S. Narcotics Bureau, which we had no reason to doubt, said a thousand tons of opium came from China every year through this part of Burma, and was fed into the capitalist world by the Communist world in order to disorient, some felt, the capitalist world. Well, when the guerrillas invited us to go in, we went to make a film about their guerrilla war, but what we were really interested in, what would have been our scoop, was to actually get some evidence of this thousand tons of opium a year coming from China.
The guerrillas we were dealing with were all in the opium business. Obviously, we didn't talk about this openly, but after a bit we would say, "Well, there's a lot of opium here. How is the opium in China?" And they'd keep telling us there wasn't any opium in China, that all the people who grew opium in China had moved to Burma, because China had wiped it out.
And then we spotted that every mule that moved in that area was taxed by various armies. You couldn't move anything without someone turning up with a little book saying, "What do you got and pay a tax." And to me, a thousand tons of opium takes at least 12,000 mules. There was no possibility that you could move that secretly through.
So quite clearly that thousand tons of opium story, which was published in all the official figures, was a propaganda lie.
Q: What was it like? How would a villager or typical farmer in the mountainous region of eastern Burma known as Shan State live?
Cowell: Well, the interesting thing is that [it's] not much different now. What incessant guerrilla war has done is maintain a peasant economy, largely unaffected by the industrial world, and so even now there's very little use of herbicide or pesticide.
So what you're seeing is the type of agriculture that has existed for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years. The Shans had an empire long before the British did. [They] had an empire in the 13th century, and there were great princes and great armies and a great culture. For instance, they are a very literate people. Buddhism educates its people extremely well, so they are a very cultivated people, and though they may be farmers and peasants, there is a great deal of culture there.
Q: When you first went in, describe the army you saw.
Cowell: The Shan army in the 1960's was really just a collection of farming people, peasant people, poor villagers, and a gun. And they really had very little discipline and very little training. They didn't have the ammunition and they were not very effective troops.
Q: What did they think they were fighting for?
Cowell: They didn't know. What happened was that the Burmese government had broken. A lot of this trouble certainly comes from the time of the British Empire, and basically the problem with colonialism. The real problem is the people do not govern themselves. When people do not govern themselves, they do not have the practice of politics between themselves. So they don't know how to conceive of what they're doing. Suddenly you take away the empire, and say, "Here you are. You're all in one nation. Rule yourselves." And it's very difficult for them to conceive [of] what their political aim should be.
They knew that there was something called nationalism. They were Shans who had agreed to join the union of Burma under a constitution and democracy. The Burmese military had destroyed that, and was oppressing them. So they knew they had to react. Part of the problem with these leaders, like Khun Sa and Lo Hsin Han, was that they're actually groping for some vision of what they should be doing... [M]ost of them had started, like Khun Sa, by leading their own defense forces against the Chinese divisions of the KMT, the Chinese nationalists, who had been driven by the Communists into Burma. And there they were being armed and trained by the CIA to reinvade China. And instead of doing that, what they did was build up the opium business.
Q: The revolutionaries take their next fateful step, opium. Explain that.
Cowell: I think when the revolutionaries started with opium, they were all idealists, and they did not want to have anything to do with opium. And that is still so with many of the groups. For instance, the recent group that rebelled against Khun Sa rebelled against him because he was in the opium business. They now are inevitably taxing opium, because actually it's a major source of income for them, and they cannot survive without taxing it.
But most of the people got into it without really realizing what they were getting into. And gradually, as opium dominates your taxation system and your military system more and more, that begins to twist what you're fighting for and who you are. And it's a dangerous thing. It's like any source of finance.
Q: How prepared were they for the reality of what it meant to tax, guard, defend mule teams full of opium?
Cowell: That was an extremely skilled form of warfare, and this comes from the fact that in that part of Asia, when tea went from China to Thailand, or something went from Thailand to Tibet, it was moved by mules. And the mules were all handled by mostly Muslim Chinese. And these Muslim Chinese were scattered all along these ancient routes, and they lived in towns and they had mule breeding farms. So what we saw was not only this ancient system of transport and trading, but of course those traders were regularly attacked by people on the way who would try and take a tax off them. So there was also an ancient system of defending those convoys. And so that they had a lot of experience in.
Q: In this early period, what is the Burmese army's role?
Cowell: The Burmese army is in the towns, and it controls the motor roads. And that's very similar to most guerilla wars, that the military control the towns and the roads. And what the Burmese did was when they found they could not defeat the revolutionaries in the mountains, they offered any revolutionary group that was prepared to go over to the Burmese side...the right to transport opium along the roads in trucks. And gradually a lot of the revolutionaries went over to their side, and that was what had happened to this man Lo Hsin Han, who was the first so-called 'king of opium', who controlled most of the traffic.
So when we joined the revolutionaries in the seventies, actually most of the opium was being moved along the roads. And there were a variety of reasons for moving it in mule convoys through the country, because of course the revolutionaries tried to tax it on the roads. So you only needed to concentrate your troops there.
Q: Tell me who Lo Hsin Han is, and how he finds his way into the story.
Cowell: There were many princedoms in Shan state. One of them is the princedom of Kokang, which is the second biggest opium-growing area. When the Burmese military seized [Kokang]...they abolished democracy and imprisoned the princes. The brother of the prince of Kokang joined the revolution. But Lo Hsin Han, who was one of the prince's officers [and] controlled quite a number of the soldiers, split from the princely side, and joined the Burmese. [This] faction still exists in Kokang, and there's still this sort of power balance between them.
Q: Describe the first time you crossed paths with Lo Hsin Han. What was he like?
Cowell: Well, he was surprisingly direct. He'd been fighting only two months beforehand, and our lot had killed a hundred of his soldiers. But when the Burmese tried to prevent him [from] continuing as a military force, he went into the jungle, and there he met us. [T]he first thing we asked him was how much of the opium trade he controlled and he replied in the interview quite openly. [H]e obviously was a man of power and a dangerous man....We heard a lot of bad things about him from the revolutionaries we were with when they were attacking him. They told us everything bad about him that they could. Obviously not all of that was true, and we had to reserve judgment on it. But I think he played a legitimate role in the confused politics of his country. He was a leader who represented part of the economy, and part of the population, and I think he therefore has a legitimate role....
Q: How much of the opium trade did he acknowledge that he controlled?
Cowell: He [acknowledged that he] controlled more than half, and then a large part of the rest was controlled by people who worked with him. Now when I say controlled, it's not like the DEA talks of it as a cartel. He was providing the protection for that half....He at that time had the biggest army protecting the opium traffic...He actually didn't have the capital to buy up all the opium. He obviously did have some capital, and did buy and sell some of his own opium. But he was by no means one of the biggest sort of merchants in the business.
Q: What was the impact of the Shan revolutionaries' connection to opium ?
Cowell: The connection to opium isn't the cause of the guerrilla war. The connection to opium basically led the guerrilla forces, who were all united in principle, to become divided. Therefore you got a lot of fighting between themselves, and the Burmese did that deliberately. Once they found that they couldn't stop these guerrillas up in the mountains, they offered the right to traffic opium along the roads to the guerrilla forces that went on to their side, and that divided the guerrillas in two, and put them fighting each other. And that went on and off for the last 30 years.
Q: Was there an incongruity for you, coming from a civilized world and finding opium being moved around, people growing this?
Cowell: [I]t is partly a thing in our minds. You're talking about the minds of those farmers out there. Opium has been a medicine used by their societies and cultures for thousands of years....So that we have banned it here, they regarded it as normal. Heroin only really started to be taken by the people there in the seventies, but it wasn't widely spread. But in the eighties it became very widely spread, and they can see themselves destroying their own society with heroin.
Q: What was the feeling about the creation of the DEA?
Cowell: [T]he Shans thought that the Americans really were against drugs, and really did want to solve the problem. And all their proposals were basically to take in American experts and DEA to help them replace opium with other crops, and to have DEA people there, watching what was happening and certifying if they were breaking down on the agreement....They all hoped that the Americans would recognize the threat of Communism, which was very active. It was gradually moving away from the Chinese border into Thailand, into Shan state, and it was threatening Thailand, and the Thais were worried about it. They thought that possibly they could all become client groups of the Thai-U.S. connection there.
Q: So somebody said, "You know, we ought to do what's going on in Thailand and make this offer to sell opium to the United States," Where does an idea like this get currency?
Cowell: Well, the actual buying of opium, the U.S. had already done. They had these client armies who built up the opium trade, which were the two KMT armies....And this was an embarrassment to the U.S., and they wanted these people to get out. Now all the KMT did was escort the Chinese merchants who were carrying the stuff. So the KMT armies gradually got out and basically handed the merchants over....Now the U.S., to sugar this deal, bought 12 tons of opium from the KMT and it was all burnt publicly in Shangmai....But I think the reason that those sort of deals never went through were political, not basically to do with enforcement.
Q: So.... the DEA enters into the fray.
Cowell: The problem was, it wasn't just [the] DEA. I think a lot of their intelligence operators came from the CIA Taiwan intelligence operation up there, which was very big....And therefore they had a lot of intelligence people...collecting information. The problem was that the analysts in Shanghai, whether they were CIA or DEA, had never been in Burma.....They had no concept...of the social conditions and the political reality that the information they were getting was about.
So they very frequently drew wrong conclusions. Very often they knew of the actual detail or if the ex-convoy moved from there to there, but they didn't know, for instance, what would happen when...it seemed to be the best thing to give the Burmese army airplanes and helicopters to attack these convoys. And they thought that with that they would solve the problem. If they'd known and understood the situation, they would have realized it could have no effect whatsoever...
Q: Why haven't the Burma narcotics enforcement been more successful in dealing with the opium problem?
Cowell: I think it's an illusion to say you can resolve any problem related to a place that doesn't have the consent and the active participation of those people.The enforcement system is not related to the power structure in that area. So in one way it's a universal problem. In another way there's no question that the international policeman in Burma faces a far more difficult problem than the U.S. policeman because the U.S. policeman has the support of quite a large percentage of the population. Not all of it. [But] the international policeman has the support of zero part of the population in Burma.
Q: Could you give me the genesis of how you found yourself carrying the 1973 proposal to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok--in which the Shans offered to sell five tons of morphine base to the United States for $12 million and a pledge of foreign aid, what role you played in it, and why you did that.
Well, this proposal was second best to what the Shan armies originally had planned. The most idealistic army was called the Shan State army in the early 1970's, and this was founded by eight students from Rangoon University. And they controlled the center of Shan state. And even now everyone looks back on them as the people who are the most idealistic, and they had a very small proportion of the opium trade which they could tax. A very small part of their income came from opium.
They were trying to figure out how to resolve this problem, whereby opium was basically supporting the guerrilla armies which had gone over to the Burmese. And their plan was to take in us, and their officers were going to take concealed cameras into the bases of the opium trade, which were at that time KMT and gradually passing over to people like Lo Hsin Han. They were to film the lot. When the KMT convoy then came across their territory, their plan... was [to] grab one of those convoys, rush down to the border, and try and sell it to the U.S. government. So that's why we were taken in.
That plan went desperately wrong when they and the KMT started fighting. Which meant that their officers couldn't go into the KMT bases to photograph the opium business. Secondly, the KMT would not tell them when a convoy was going, cause they were going to pay them tax.
So there we were, up in the middle of Shan state, and that's how we got involved in this group....They then failed to capture a convoy. But because of partly DEA pressure on the scandal, that most of Burmese opium was being moved by forces who were on the Burmese side, the Burmese ordered Lo Hsin Han and all those irregular forces to lay down their arms.
Lo Hsin Han then switched sides. So suddenly that original Shan group that we were with, were suddenly allied with the people who controlled all the opium, and they had a chance of making an international public relations coup by offering to sell the opium to the U.S. government, and by offering to take U.S. officials in to actually inspect the opium areas and to suggest how they should start replanting it.
Now those people were thinking in Vietnam and Laos terms. They were thinking in terms of would it be worth it if the U.S. gets involved in our country on a major scale like it is in that area. That would have meant, in some form or other, arms for them, in some form or other, economic aid to start help solving the problems in the rural areas, and it would have meant basically diplomatic and international pressure on the Burmese to revert to a proper constitution. And it would have staid off the Communist promise which was beginning to creep across.
Now what happened was when Lo Hsing Han was invited to negotiate and then betrayed, the Shan leader who had taken us in was then sacked by his forces, and they all joined the Communists. So it was an alternative to joining the Communists that they were looking for. And when they saw that there wasn't an alternative, they joined.
They had contacts with Thai military intelligence. So they gave a copy [of the proposal] to Thai military intelligence, which went to the Thai government. In addition, Lo Hsin Han's group, which I didn't know until I met him recently, they themselves separately gave it to Thai military intelligence beforehand, but they wanted me to take it to the U.S. Embassy as a sort of formal presentation to the Embassy. [Be]cause the Thai intelligence presumably would have dealt with the CIA....
Us taking it there meant it would become open. And, of course, when the DEA suppressed it, the fact that we had taken it there meant eventually that that would get out. Maybe they didn't think we would have the ability to get it out. It was a complete accident that Congressman Lester Wolff, chairman of the U.S. House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, turned up in Bangkok at that time, and that when I phoned him he was willing to see me. And it was him who made it public what had happened.
Q: So you were an insurance policy.
Q: You said when the revolutionaries agreed to help the "king of opium", they proposed a visionary plan.
Cowell: Yeah, it was a visionary plan. I mean, they are seeking to eliminate opium and civil war from their country, which is a completely better future for their future, so of course it was a visionary plan. And it did catch the minds of many of their leaders, which was how they were able to get an agreement of all the people. [E]ven if selling opium to the U.S. is only a temporary solution, if you've got people who control 10% or 20% [and they're] not part of that solution, they're going to make a fortune [after] you take the rest off the market, the price goes up. So you can't afford to do it. You've got to have everyone who agrees. And they had more or less got that, less.
Q: Do you think Lo Hsin Han believed in this idea?
Cowell: He told me recently he believed it. [W]hen he got into that helicopter, I said, "Why on earth did you get into that helicopter?"...And he said, "Well, I thought I was going to talk to the Americans." In that sense it was naive.
Q: Tell me about [Lo Hsin Han's] capture.
Cowell: He's in the mountains with 200 of his troops, just inside the border of Thailand, and he is expecting to be invited to negotiate his deal. I deliver to the U.S. Embassy [in Bangkok] , to the head of the DEA in the U.S., Lo Hsin Han's proposals. Within a day...a Thai police helicopter with about ten Thai police lands in the village where Lo Hsin Han is. And they invite him to go and negotiate....[A] number of his officers were absolutely against [him] going, including the Shan interpreter who went with him....Rumor was that once he was in the helicopter, he was arrested. He wasn't. He was taken to a Thai police barracks, and they were kept there for a couple of weeks...[H]e said it was really quite a good time. They were given very good food and as much whiskey as they liked, and they thought that this was leading up to [the negotiations]... And within a day they were handed over to the Burmese.
Q: Did you ever really believe that the DEA would buy the visionary plan of the Shan?
Cowell: From all the statements on the radio, it seemed that the DEA was really interested in ending the opium traffic. Since then I've come to realize that actually the DEA provides a very useful service. That once you make a law and say that this is wrong, you have to arrest the people who transgress that....I think where the DEA added to the confusion was that they suggested that they were out to solve the opium problem, that they had a solution to the opium problem. Now anyone who wants a solution to the opium problem has to deal with the people who are growing it. But all the statements that were going out on the radio and everywhere, was talking about, in some form or other, reducing the problem, solving the problem. And of course that's why the Shans thought, well, the DEA would be interested in this...
Q: Tell me about Khun Sa...[He] is handed on a silver platter the opium world, thanks to the arrest of Lo Hsin Han.
Cowell: Khun Sa has a very quick and bright mind, and most of his tactics were run by his Chinese chief of staff. But I think he did have an ability to project his political ideas, and [was] politically more capable of being a national Shan leader than others....Khun Sa was from an area where basically he had very little chance, and he had this reputation of being linked to the narcotics traffic, which a lot of people resented.
But he was, at the end, building up an image of himself, and I think he certainly hoped to be a savior of his country. That doesn't mean that all the other things that you say against him weren't true equally. This was one side, one thing that he was trying to do, and failed to do.
Q: When Khun Sa gets the virtual monopoly, does this visionary idea of selling off the crop to the United States continue?
Cowell: Khun Sa continued repeating it endlessly, and we were the first journalists to persuade him to talk to journalists, which was us. And that was when we took the congressional committee up to see him....He believes that just by taxing narcotics he's not doing anything bad. And what he is saying is he's part of the taxation system, he's not part of the actual manufacturing system.
Q: At the time the chief counsel of Lester Wolff's committee,[Joe] Nellis, is up there with Khun Sa, does Khun Sa believe it?
Cowell: Yes, I think Khun Sa hoped that this would be another possible solution...he had all ... [of the opium] traffic in his hand. That was the time when he was making a lot of money. He maybe controlled 80% of the trade. And he only had 3000 soldiers, so he wasn't paying a huge military establishment. At the end, when he had a lesser percentage of the trade, he was paying 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers. So you see there's a different game. His troops then, you could say, were just an opium army.
So when he had a large percentage of the trade so that he can control it, but too that looked like no solution to the political problems in his country. So if the United States could come in-- I mean, they have a completely erroneous view of the United States, but it is true that when the United States interfered in Asia and various times, it did interfere, and was able to change situations. Sometimes you afterwards think it was a bad thing, but there was no question the U.S. had demonstrated that it could change situations in Southeast Asia.
Q: What happened to Lo Hsin Han?
Cowell: There was only a court trial in Rangoon, and he was condemned to death. That was then remitted to a long prison sentence, and after eight years an amnesty was given to many prisoners...and he was let out of jail after eight years.
Now during that period, he had got to know quite well the head of Burmese military intelligence...who is now the leading political figure in Burma. And he negotiated for Khin Yunt the cease-fire of the regional forces who had been fighting for the communists. These were from his own state, Kokang, and the neighboring one, Wa. And that meant that the actual Communist political leaders, that their theoreticians, were all thrown out., because the regional people really weren't interested in Communism. Now they didn't actually have the sort of mental ability to know about the advantages and disadvantages of Communism. They were just local tribal guys who had taken up guns because the Communists said so.
They threw out the Communists, they made a cease-fire with the Burmese government, and the deal was that they would be allowed to transport opium along the roads. By this time it's already heroin, by the way, not opium, that's mainly being transported. And that is the deal that governs the narcotics traffic in Burma today, and that was the deal that gradually diverted heroin away from Khun Sa, because before it would be bought from these Wa and Kokang areas and would go down to Khun Sa's area and out into Thailand. But once the deal was made with the Burmese, they could actually truck it into China, or a lot of it was actually trucked into Burma and taken out in different ways.
Q: So he wins.....he's in the cycle....
Cowell: He is now a very wealthy man, controls big hotels, big trading group. He's accused by lots of people of money laundering for the Burmese government. I'm sure he wouldn't regard it as money laundering, I mean, he would just regard it as dealing with money in some form or other, but a lot of money in Burma, there's no question it comes out of drugs.
Q: This must have been the great question you were wrestling with often. Nationalistic leader, drug war lord, brutal soldier, [a] man who's necessary for the survival of the state.
Cowell: Not only true, but true in history. I mean, a lot of the people who have brought peace to their country out of civil war are usually the most ruthless military leaders. And they impose a military peace, and that peace is eventually a good thing for that country. That doesn't mean that their particular tactics are things that one admires. You could say what else could that particular man have done, and then you enter into a debate. I mean, Khun Sa was a legitimate player on the Shan national and narcotics and political field, and we as journalists treated him as that.
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