The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is a Land at the Border of Crime and Development

Close-up of farmer's hands harvesting poppy
Farmer's hands harvesting poppy.


Byba Sepit / Getty Images

The Golden Triangle is an area covering 367,000 square miles in Southeast Asia where a significant portion of the world’s opium has been produced since the beginning of the twentieth century. This area is centered around the meeting point of the borders that separate Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. The Golden Triangle’s mountainous terrain and distance from major urban centers make it an ideal location for illicit poppy cultivation and transnational opium smuggling. 

Until the end of the 20th century, the Golden Triangle was the world’s largest producer of opium and heroin, with Myanmar being the single highest-producing country. Since 1991, the Golden Triangle’s opium production has been outpaced by the Golden Crescent, which refers to an area that traverses the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. 

A Brief History of Opium in Southeast Asia

Although opium poppies appear to be native to Southeast Asia, the practice of using opium recreationally was introduced to China and Southeast Asia by Dutch traders in the early 18th century. European traders also introduced the practice of smoking opium and tobacco using pipes. 

Soon after the introduction of recreational opium consumption to Asia, Britain replaced the Netherlands as China’s primary European trade partner. According to historians, China became the primary target of British opium traders for financial reasons. In the 18th century, there was high demand in Britain for Chinese and other Asian goods, but there was little demand for British goods in China. This imbalance forced British merchants to pay for Chinese goods in hard currency rather than British goods. In order to make up for this loss of cash, British merchants introduced opium to China with the hope that high rates of opium addiction would generate large amounts of cash for them.

In response to this strategy, Chinese rulers outlawed opium for non-medicinal use, and in 1799, Emperor Kia King banned opium and poppy cultivation completely. Nonetheless, British smugglers continued to bring opium into China and the surrounding areas.

Following the British victories against China in the Opium Wars in 1842 and 1860, China was forced to legalize opium. This foothold allowed British traders to expand the opium trade to Lower Burma when British forces began to arrive there in 1852. In 1878, after knowledge of the negative effects of opium consumption had thoroughly circulated throughout the British Empire, British Parliament passed the Opium Act, prohibiting all British subjects, including those in Lower Burma, from consuming or producing opium. Nonetheless, illegal opium trade and consumption continued to take place.

The Birth of the Golden Triangle

In 1886, the British Empire expanded to include Upper Burma, where the modern Kachin and Shan states of Myanmar are located. Nestled in rugged highlands, the populations that inhabited Upper Burma lived relatively beyond the control of British authorities. Despite British efforts to retain a monopoly on the opium trade and regulate its consumption, opium production and smuggling took root in these rugged highlands and fueled much of the region’s economic activity. 

In Lower Burma, on the other hand, British efforts to secure a monopoly on opium production succeeded by the 1940s. Similarly, France retained similar control over opium production in the lowland regions of its colonies in Laos and Vietnam. Nonetheless, the mountainous regions surrounding the convergence point of the Burma, Thailand, and Laos borders continued to play a major role in the global opium economy.

The Role of the United States

Following Burma’s independence in 1948, several ethnic separatist and political militia groups emerged and became embroiled in conflict with the newly formed central government. At the same time, the United States actively sought to forge local alliances in Asia in its effort to contain the spread of communism. In exchange for access and protection during anti-communist operations along China’s southern border, the United States supplied arms, ammunition and air transport for the sale and production of opium to insurgent groups in Burma and ethnic minority groups in Thailand and Laos. This led to a surge in the availability of heroin from the Golden Triangle in the United States and established opium as a major source of funding for separatist groups in the region.

During the American war in Vietnam, the CIA trained and armed a militia of ethnic Hmong people in northern Laos to wage an unofficial war against northern Vietnamese and Lao communists. Initially, this war disrupted the economy of the Hmong community, which was dominated by opium cash-cropping. However, this economy was soon stabilized by the CIA-backed militia under Hmong general Vang Pao, who was given access to his own aircraft and permission to continue opium smuggling by his American case handlers, preserving the Hmongs’ access to heroin markets in southern Vietnam and elsewhere. Opium trade continues to be a major feature of Hmong communities in the Golden Triangle as well as in the United States.

Khun Sa: King of the Golden Triangle

By the 1960s, several rebel groups based in northern Burma, Thailand, and Laos supported their operations through the illegal opium trade, including a faction of the Kuomintang (KMT), which had been expelled from China by the Communist Party. The KMT funded its operations by expanding the opium trade in the region. 

Khun Sa, born in Chan Chi-fu in 1934 to a Chinese father and Shan mother, was an uneducated youth in the Burmese countryside who formed his own gang in the Shan State and sought to break into the opium business. He partnered with the Burmese government, which armed Chan and his gang, essentially outsourcing them to fight the KMT and Shan nationalist militias in the region. In exchange for fighting as the Burmese government’s proxy in the Golden Triangle, Chan was permitted to continue trading opium.

However, over time, Chan grew friendlier with Shan separatists, which aggravated the Burmese government, and in 1969, he was imprisoned. Upon his release five years later, he adopted the Shan name Khun Sa and devoted himself, at least nominally, to the cause of Shan separatism. His Shan nationalism and success in drug production garnered the support of many Shan, and by the 1980s, Khun Sa had amassed an army of over 20,000 soldiers, which he dubbed the Mok Tai Army, and established a semi-autonomous fiefdom in the hills of the Golden Triangle near the town of Baan Hin Taek. It is estimated that at this point, Khun Sa controlled over half of the opium in the Golden Triangle, which in turn constituted half of the world’s opium and 45% of the opium that came to the United States.

Khun Sa was described by historian Alfred McCoy as “the only Shan warlord who ran a truly professional smuggling organization capable of transporting large quantities of opium.”

Khun Sa was also notorious for his affinity for media attention, and he frequently played host to foreign journalists in his semi-autonomous narco-state. In a 1977 interview 1977 with the now-defunct Bangkok World, he called himself the “King of the Golden Triangle.”

Until the 1990s, Khun Sa and his army ran an international opium operation with impunity. However, in 1994, his empire collapsed due to attacks from the rival United Wa State Army and from the Myanmar Armed Forces. Furthermore, a faction of the Mok Tai Army abandoned Khun Sa and formed the Shan State National Army, declaring that Khun Sa’s Shan nationalism was merely a front for his opium business. To avoid punishment by the government upon his impending capture, Khun Sa surrendered on the condition that he be protected from extradition to the US, which had a $2 million bounty on his head. It is reported that Khun Sa also received a concession from the Burmese government to operate a ruby mine and a transport company, which allowed him to live out the rest of his life in luxury in Burma's main city, Yangon. He died in 2007 at the age of 74.

Khun Sa’s Legacy: Narco-development

Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner claims that Khun Sa was, in reality, an illiterate frontman for an organization dominated by ethnic Chinese from Yunnan Province and that this organization still operates in the Golden Triangle today. Opium production in the Golden Triangle continues to fund the military operations of several other separatist groups. The largest of these groups is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a force of over 20,000 troops nestled in the semi-autonomous Wa Special Region. The UWSA is reported to be the largest drug-producing organization in Southeast Asia. The UWSA, along with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in neighboring Kokang Special Region, have also expanded their drug enterprises to the production of methamphetamine known in the region as yaa baa, which is easier and cheaper to manufacture than heroin. 

Like Khun Sa, the leaders of these narco-militias can be seen as both business entrepreneurs, community developers, as well as agents of the Myanmar government. Nearly everyone in the Wa and Kokang regions is involved in the drug trade in some capacity, which supports the argument that drugs are an essential component of the development of these regions, offering an alternative to poverty. 

Criminologist Ko-Lin Chin writes that the reason why a political solution to drug production in the Golden Triangle has been so elusive is because “the difference between a state-builder and drug kingpin, between benevolence and greed, and between public funds and personal wealth” have become difficult to delineate. In a context in which conventional agriculture and local business is stunted by conflict and in which competition between the United States and China deter long-term successful development interventions, drug production and smuggling have become these communities’ path toward development. Throughout the Wa and Kokang special regions, drug profits have been funneled into road construction, hotels, and casino towns, giving rise to what Bertil Lintner calls “narco-development.” Towns such as Mong La attract over 500,000 Chinese vice tourists every year, who come to this mountainous region of the Shan State to gamble, eat endangered animal species and partake in the seedy nightlife. 

Statelessness in the Golden Triangle

Since 1984, conflict in Myanmar’s ethnic minority states has driven approximately 150,000 Burmese refugees across the border into Thailand, where they have been living in nine UN-recognized refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. These refugees have no legal right to employment in Thailand, and according to Thai law, undocumented Burmese found outside of the camps are subject to arrest and deportation. The provision of temporary shelter in the camps by the Thai Government has remained unchanged over the years, and limited access to higher education, livelihoods and other opportunities for refugees has raised alarm within the UN High Commission for Refugees that many refugees will resort to negative coping mechanisms for survival.

Hundreds of thousands of members of Thailand’s indigenous “hill tribes” constitute another major stateless population in the Golden Triangle. Their statelessness renders them ineligible for state services, including formal education and the right to work legally, leading to a situation in which the average hill tribe member makes less than $1 per day. This poverty leaves hill tribe people vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers, who recruit poor women and children by promising them jobs in northern Thai cities such as Chiang Mai.

Today, one in three sex workers in Chiang Mai comes from a hill tribe family. Girls as young as eight years old are confined to brothels where they may be forced to service up to 20 men per day, putting them at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Older girls are often sold overseas, where they are stripped of their documentation and left powerless to escape. Although the government of Thailand has enacted progressive laws to combat human trafficking, the lack of citizenship of these hill tribes leaves this population at disproportionately elevated risk of exploitation. Human rights groups such as The Thailand Project assert that education for the hill tribes is the key to solving the human trafficking issue in the Golden Triangle. 

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Your Citation
Goldberg, Jacob. "The Golden Triangle." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Goldberg, Jacob. (2021, February 16). The Golden Triangle. Retrieved from Goldberg, Jacob. "The Golden Triangle." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 24, 2021).