The Opium King

South-East Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’ dominated the world’s opium production during the 1980s. David Hutt reveals how a young soldier from north Burma took on the United States government to become the region’s most notorious drug lord.

Poppy Culture: portrait of Khun Sa by an unknown artist, c.1990.
Poppy Culture: portrait of Khun Sa by an unknown artist, c.1990.

In 1977, Khun Sa made the United States government an offer they could – and did – refuse. The Burmese drug lord put it to the Americans that if they really wanted to stop heroin from entering their borders then they should buy his entire opium supply. They could do with it as they wished and he would have the money to support his people. Instead, the United States government indicted him for drug trafficking and slapped a $2 million bounty on his head, making him one of the world’s most wanted men. 

The United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that, in 1990, 45 per cent of the entire global supply of heroin originated from the Golden Triangle, an area of South-East Asia encompassing eastern Myanmar (then known as Burma), northern Laos and Thailand. At the height of his power during the late 1980s, Khun Sa is believed to have controlled as much as 70 per cent of the heroin leaving the Golden Triangle. In a 1977 interview with the now-defunct magazine Bangkok World, the rarely modest Khun Sa dubbed himself the ‘King of the Golden Triangle’. 

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