Pai History by Thomas Kasper

Here is a fascinating history of Pai, written by local historian Thomas Kasper, excerpted with permission from his local guidebook The Paioneer. You can purchase his book at shops all over Pai and several large bookstores in Chiang Mai such as Suriwong Book Center.

This page is part of, which has lots of information about Pai, a town in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

Thomas's history also includes highlights of the history of Thailand, Burma, Lanna and other kingdoms which have had an impact on modern-day Pai. For example, Pai has a huge number of long-established and recent Shan immigrants from Burma, and this shapes much of the culture and traditions here.

For another important piece of the puzzle that is Pai, see my excerpts of Thomas's coverage of the hill tribes of Pai and northern Thailand.

While excerpting Thomas's book, I have made extensive edits for spelling, grammar, and diction. Any errors introduced in this process are my responsibility.

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Table of Contents

Thailand Timeline: The Becoming of Thailand

900 BC
Thais are populating the area of modern-day Thailand; later coming under threat of invading tartars, they split into 3 groups: One moving to eastern Burma (today's Thai Yais or Shan), one south to the gulf of Tonkin, one to southern China.

550 AD
Founding of the Nanchao Kingdom in southern China, which lasts for about 700 years. Buddhism becomes the religion of the Thais.

733 AD
Chinese pressure on the Nanchao Kingdom has lead a steady trickle of migrants back southwards to Thailand, where they founded the kingdom of Chiang Saen (amonst other kingdoms). Many Thais until today still remain in the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sipsongpanna.

1250 AD
China's successful attempts to absorb Nanchao into China as one of its provinces leads to the breakdown of the kingdom and to the migration of part of its royalty to Chiang Saen, then called the Yonnok kingdom.

1238 AD
Founding of Sukhothai kingdom in the south by its first king, Ramkhamhaeng I, who drove the Khmer out of the area; introduction of the Thai alphabet used until today. 1259 AD Young King Mengrai, successor to the throne of Yonnok, founds the kingdom of Lanna with Chiang Rai as its capital.

1296 AD
After driving the Khmer out of the north, Mengrai founds Chiang Mai as new capital of the Lanna kingdom.

1350 AD
Ayutthya's leader U Thong takes over Sukhothai and becomes King Ramathibodi of the new Ayutthya kingdom; subsequently, ceaseless state of war between the kingdoms of Ayutthya and Lanna.

1556 AD
Burmese troops conquer Lanna and Chiang Mai.

1569 AD
Burmese troops move further south and succeed conquering Ayutthya.

1590 AD
King Naresuan of Ayutthya, after years in Burmese captivity, escapes and succeeds in driving the Burmese out and taking back Ayutthya.

1767 AD
Burmese conquer Ayutthya again and this time destroy it. General Thaksin (later King Thaksin I, residing in Thonburi), drives out the Burmese again. At the same time in the north, a general named Kawila (by then the chief of Lampang) drives the Burmese out and wins Lanna back. Thaksin appoints Kawila as governor of Chiang Mai and becomes the first king of a united Siam (old name for Thailand).

1781 AD
Thaksin is declared insane and beheaded. His successor, Phra Buddha Yod Fah becomes the first king of the Chakri dynasty, whose Rama IX is today's king of Thailand. He moves the capital from Thonburi across the Chao Phraya river to its current site, Krung Thep (today's Bangkok).

1804 AD
The last Burmese stronghold in Thailand's north is taken back. In the century to follow, Lanna was mostly an unnoticed backwater of Thailand. After General Kawila, mostly weak governors, who still had their nobility roots in the north, ruled Chiang Mai. The Lanna kingdom thereby kept its own cultural and national identity until the early 20th century.

Rama IV Mongkut, who had lived 26 years as a monk and had studied western languages and sciences, reforms and modernizes Buddhism and society; increases political and economic ties to Europe, at the same time stressing Siam's independence.

Rama V Chulalongkorn becomes king when 15 years old. He further adopts Western ideas and continues his father's reforms; outlaws slavery in 1905.

Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son officially become provinces of Thailand by royal decree, formally marking the end of an independent Lanna Kingdom.

Rama VI Vajiravudh: achieves legal equality of man and women; founds Chulalongkorn University; introduces family names for all Thais.

Under the reign of Rama VII Prajadibok, Thailand faces the threat of communism: military coup leads to constitutional monarchy. King Prajadibok resigns in 1935 after founding Thammasat University in 1933.

The last genuine ruler of Lanna, King Naovarat, resigns, making place for a Bangkok-appointed governor.

Rama VIII Ananda Mahidol is only 9 years old when his father resigns. Japanese expansion during World War II forces Thailand to pact with the Japanese empire. The Japanese need Thailand to supply their troops operating in Burma; huge railway- and road-building projects (see "Bridge on the river Kwai" and Pai's "World War II Memorial Bridge" in The Paioneer). The 8th king of the Chakri Dynasty dies under mysterious circumstances in June 1946.

Rama IX Bumiphol Adulyadej was studying natural sciences in Switzerland when he heard of his brother's death; takes new orientation in politics and law before returning to Thailand and taking the throne in 1950.

Reform of constituency and free democratic elections after about 40 years of military rule in Thailand.

Military overthrows democratic government in a coup d'état; new elections in 1974; subsequently, repeated attempts by the military to win back power, eventually leading to army's participation in government.

1976, 6th Oct.
Pro-democracy protesters, gathered in Thammasat University, are attacked by army and right-wing mob. Official body count amongst students is 41, unofficial estimations are much higher. Thousands flee to the mountains and join the guerilla forces of the communist party there.

New constituency ensures political influence of the army.

Thai military offensive against the Mong Tai Army of infamous drug baron Khun Sa who has his headquarters at the northern border to Burma. Khun Sa is forced to retire to Burmese territory after 3 days of fighting.

Another coup d'état by General Suchinda; constitution is suspended, the parliament dissolved.

New elections; parliament split in pro-military and pro-democracy block; subsequently, series of mass protests against Prime Minister General Suchinda; 17-18 May: military shoots, beats up and arrests protesters (official body count once again 40, unofficial numbers much higher); protests become increasingly violent; King Rama IX intervenes and ends conflict; Suchinda forced to step down; new elections end with landslide victory of the democratic party.

More than 50 political parties active in Thailand; constitutional monarchy as source of strong social and also political influence in Thailand untouched; Rama IX highly popular king due to numerous social and development projects including projects improving water distribution, farming techniques, integration of ethnic minorities like the hill tribes in the north and fighting poverty all over the country.

The History of Pai: Waves of Migration

The area of modern-day Pai is said to have been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. We know that about 2,000 years ago, the Lua (or Lawa) Tribe was the dominant ethnic group all over the area of today's northern Thailand. They were thought to be skilled artisans and great hunters who went out for their prey at night. Around Pai, their burial sites have been found all over the western sides of the surrounding mountains. Today they have become about the least noticed of the tribes. There are only about 17,000 of them left in northern Thailand, and they are hardly distinguishable from other Thai villagers. Living such a long time along with the Thais, they have mostly been absorbed into Thai society and have given up on most of the visible signs of their tribal identity, such as their traditional styles of clothing and housing. There are still some Lua villages, many of whose inhabitants still know the old language of the tribe, but since the villagers look pretty much like any northern Thai, they don't make much of a tourist attraction. This may well be a boon for the Lua, enabling them to develop along with the rest of Thai society instead of having to deal with the status of an ethnic minority.

The recorded history of the area starts about 800 years ago with the establishment of the village of Ban Wiang Nua.

Ban Wiang Nua

The original settlement was about 3km north of the site of modern-day Pai, where the village of Ban Wiang Nua is still to be found today. The village was founded in 1251 AD by Shan immigrants from the region of modern-day northern Burma. Even today, the Shan (or Thai Yai) have ethnic preponderance across the province of Mae Hong Son.

Due to the area's remoteness and seclusion, people in those times were mainly cut off from news of the outside world and therefore not much concerned with the politics of Lanna and the rest of Thailand. That changed drastically in the course of the 14th and 15th century, when the first settlers arrived from Chiang Mai. It was part of Lanna policy of the time to send citizens loyal to the Lanna throne to the outposts of the empire, in order to consolidate and affirm Lanna's territorial authority in these regions.

The result was a conflict that eventually led to a series of wars over territorial dominance in the Pai area. The Lanna troops finally defeated the Shan soldiers in 1481, forcing them to retire to Burmese territory. The Shan families who had lived in the area for a long time, establishing households, farming their land and raising their families, were granted permission to stay by the Lanna prince, along with a certain degree of cultural and social autonomy under the law and authority of the Lanna kingdom.

Ban Wiang Nua as a result became a village sharply divided into two parts by a wall: It had two doors ("Dam Door" and "Mahn Door"; remains of both can still be seen at their original sites), one used by the Shan villagers, the other one by the northern Thai villagers to either access or leave their part of the village. Here are some signboards marking the location of Wiang Nua's old village doors. The inscriptions are in Thai, Lanna, Thai Yai and English:

Dum Door in Wiang Nua: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Dum Door in Wiang Nua
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Mahn Door in Wiang Nua: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Mahn Door in Wiang Nua
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Wiang Nua also had two temples, one for each part of the village. Wat Sridonchai in the Lanna part and Wat Pong in the Shan part of Ban Wiang Nua are still to be found at their original sites. Tracing back the roots of the villager's families today still shows the old ethnic division in both parts of the village.

In the second half of the 19th century, colonial powers France and England, who had already established their influence in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, were viewing the area of modern-day Thailand with increasing interest. It is only thanks to the statesmanship and diplomatic skills of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), that Siam (and Lanna) remained untouched by colonialism. To consolidate Siam's influence and authority in the northern border region (claimed by the British, using the argument that there were more Burmese living there than Thais), the royal house encouraged Northern Thais from provinces like Payao, Lamphun and Nan to migrate to those areas.

The result again was conflict: the last fight between Lanna Thai and Shan in Ban Wiang Nua took place in 1869, when Lanna soldiers finally defeated their Shan opponents in a battle that ended with the total destruction of the village. The entire village was burnt to the ground. So today, nothing in Wiang Nua, not even the two temples of the village, is more than 135 years old. All structures are the result of the subsequent rebuilding efforts of the villagers.

The Founding of Pai

There was already a "road" leading from Chiang Mai via Pai to Mae Hong Son in the late 19th century. It hardly resembled our modern idea of a road, but it connected the places somehow anyway. In those times, it took between a few days and a week, depending mostly on the season, to get from Chiang Mai to Pai, either by ox-cart, horse or hiking. Many of the new immigrants, sent from other provinces in the north during the late 19th century in order to consolidate the kingdom's border regions, chose to settle in the area of the connecting road south of the old village of Ban Wiang Nua. They started establishing their households there alongside a few existing Shan households. This is how, only about 125 to 130 years ago, a village that later would become a town developed in the place which we now know as Pai.

While excavations in Wiang Nua provide evidence of a long history of settlement and culture, Pai is a rather young town which nevertheless quickly developed to become a central marketplace and center of trade.

Pai and World War II

The story of how the Japanese built a railway and a bridge in Kanchanaburi is well known. There was a railway line connecting Bangkok with Chiang Mai since 1927, which, together with an extensive road building program, sped up development there and made Chiang Mai and the whole north an integral part of the Siamese kingdom.

In order to transport troops and equipment via Thailand to Burma, the Japanese army needed not only that piece of railway in Kanchanaburi, but also the route from Chiang Mai via Pai and Mae Hong Son into Burma. Siam had been under high pressure from Japan (military and otherwise) and was finally forced by the Japanese to sign a pact of alliance with the Japanese empire and declare war on The United States of America and Great Britain. The Thai ambassador to the US refused to hand out the war declaration, which spared Thailand from reparation payments to the US later, but Thailand did have to pay 1.5 million tons of rice as reparation to the British empire.

With the help of Northern Thai villagers, who, it is said, were paid generously by the Japanese, the already existing "road" was improved and bridges were built. A wood and steel bridge built by the Japanese still stands about 10 km from Pai on the road to Chiang Mai, just parallel to the bridge later built in the course of more recent road improvement projects by the Thai government.

Japanese WW II Bridge in Pai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Japanese WW II Bridge in Pai
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Japanese WW II Bridge in Pai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Japanese WW II Bridge in Pai
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[Note from Chris Pirazzi of some recent research reveals that the bridge standing in 2009 and visited by many tourists is not of Japanese construction as most people think, nor was it previously installed as the Nawarat bridge in Chiang Mai: see this page for more.]

As it turned out, just about when the Japanese supply-line reached Burma, the war was over.

Needless to say, after the war, the local villagers took advantage of the improved road, although it still took them at least two days to make the one-way trip from Pai to Chiang Mai.

Waves of Migration

Meanwhile, a third wave of migrants arrived in Pai. Only a hundred years ago, various tribes from areas of southern China began trickling in. At that time, the only tribe established in Pai were the Karens, who had come in the 18th century. The newcomers were Lisu and Lahu tribal families, who quickly discovered that the altitude and the climate of the mountains around Pai was a great match for their style of life, housing, hunting and farming.

Dancing Lisu: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Dancing Lisu
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From the 1950s on, the first Muslim families started coming to Pai, driven by trading opportunities offered by a relative wealth in the area coupled with a lack of available goods. The older people in Pai's Muslim community, which has been growing steadily ever since, can still recall the time of their first arrival. An old Muslim woman who arrived here with the first group of Muslim settlers when she was just a child, 60 years ago, describes how they travelled from Chiang Mai across the mountains with donkeys packed with their wares. They arrived at the Pai market and they were able to sell all their goods in no time, so they decided to stay and establish regular trade.

In the early 1960s, some Kuo-mintang (KMT) Chinese, leftovers of Chiang Khai Chek's 93rd army that had been defeated by Mao Tse Tung's Communist Party, finally found new homes in Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao and Pai districts. They were driven out of Burma, from which they had been attacking China, and then scattered over Northern Thailand from their headquarters in Doi Mae Salong.

Dancing Chinese: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Dancing Chinese
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Looking at Pai's history, it seems that nearly everyone who passes through the region (except the Japanese soldiers) gets stuck here. People from different ethnic and cultural origins came here to stay, enjoying the gift of mild climate, rich nature and fertile soils. It would only take some further improvement of the road from Chiang Mai to bring people from all over the world to Pai, mainly as tourists. A closer look at today's foreign community in Pai clearly shows that many of those who originally intended to stay here for a night or two ended up stuck, just like the migrants before them. They were captivated by the unique atmosphere of this place, provided not only by nature's wealth, but also by the variety of cultures and traditions that have met and melted together here like nowhere else (at least in Thailand!).

The most recent wave of mass immigration comes from Burma's Shan State, bringing in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan refugees who suffered the loss of their homes and livelihoods in their homeland from the inhuman measures and practices applied on them by the military junta ruling Burma.

Dancing Thai Yai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Dancing Thai Yai
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The Road to the Rest of the World

The Thai government started developing the road leading from Chiang Mai via Pai to Mae Hong Son, known today as Highway 1095, in 1967, but didn't finish until 1980. I talked with a local who could still clearly recall his first trip to the "big city" in 1975 (well, 30 years ago, it wasn't yet that big). It took the then-10-years-old boy and his family two full days to reach Chiang Mai, traveling along with an army jeep, which had to be pulled up parts of the hills with ropes.

Along with the concrete road, some further "blessings" of civilization like electricity reached Pai, preparing it for the first backpackers to arrive in the mid 1980s. Ever-increasing numbers of tourists have come to Pai since, slowly changing the appearance of town's main roads, which are not as quiet these days.

Lanna: The Northern Kingdom

Mostly kept unmentioned in the history of Thailand as it is taught in the schools throughout the country today, the kingdom of Lanna has ruled and dominated Thailand's north for nearly seven centuries. Thailand's tough sense of unity and thereby suspicion and hostility towards all possible sources of separatist ideas has led to the virtual negation of Lanna's history. Despite that, local traditions and culture and the historical development of the area cannot be explained without admitting the influence of the Lanna kingdom, which (like other Thai kingdoms) had its roots in the Thai kingdom of Nanchao in southern China. The written form of the Lanna language, today only to be found in temples, is said to have been the original Thai writing and is in fact very similar to that of the Thai Yai. It also clearly reveals its relationship to the Thai language, which changed during the Sukhothai period.

The Thai Kingdom of Nanchao

The Thai Kingdom of Nanchao was founded in the 5th century AD by migrants from the area of modern-day Thailand who were driven out of their territories by invading tartars. Nanchao withstood the threat of Chinese aggression for about 700 years, but China finally succeeded in making Nanchao a Chinese province in the 13th century AD. Even to this day, there are many ethnic Thais in the Chinese southern provinces of Sipsongpanna and Yunnan. In the middle of the 13th century, parts of the royal family of Nanchao finally gave up on the kingdom and migrated back to Thailand, following many of their people who had started moving there in a steady trickle some hundreds of years ago. Those migrants had already established a kingdom on northern Thai soil in the 8th century AD, called the Yonnok Kingdom, with Chiang Saen as its capital.

The Yonnok Kingdom of Chiang Saen

Founded by migrants from the Thai kingdom of Nanchao in 733 AD, the Yonnok kingdom of Chiang Saen became the first Thai kingdom in the territory of modern-day Thailand. The Yonnok throne was eventually inherited by the young King Mengrai in 1259, who was a son of the royal family from Nanchao and who had entered Thailand as a young boy with his parents, fleeing the Chinese occupation there. Mengrai set out to drive the Mons from the north of Thailand and founded Chiang Rai and then Chiang Mai as capital of his new kingdom, which he called Lanna.

Lanna: Million Rice Fields: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lanna: Million Rice Fields
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The Founding of Chiang Mai

The founding of Chiang Mai in 1296 is history and legend at the same time, and a key event in a series of historical events that would eventually lead to the united Thailand we know today.

When Mengrai was to choose the site for his future capital, he invited two good friends of his to approve of his choice. Those two happened to be the first king of Sukhothai, Ramkhamhaeng I, and the king of Phayao, representing the two most influential powers in the area and both of ethnic Thai origin.

The story goes that the three kings were standing together at the very spot where the "Three Kings Monument" can be visited today in the centre of Chiang Mai's old city. According to legend, each of them cut a slit into his wrist and spilled some blood into a cup. Subsequently the three kings joined in ritually drinking the contents of that cup, swearing that their kingdoms would always respect and never attack each other and rejecting all other claimants for control over northern Thailand. That pact was in fact respected until the Sukhothai kingdom was sacked by Ayutthya, more than half a century later.

3 Kings Monument in Chiang Mai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
3 Kings Monument in Chiang Mai
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The Rise of Lanna

In the time to come, Lanna would enjoy great prosperity and wealth. Mengrai succeeded in enlarging the empire, for example adding the Kingdom of Haripunchai (today's Lamphun) with the help of the Lawa tribesmen as his allies. The king preferred to reside in Chiang Rai. King Mengrai supposedly lived to be 80 years old, being killed only by a lightning bolt in the streets of Chiang Mai while he was visiting his son there.

The Mengrai dynasty is represented by 18 Lanna kings altogether, of whom the most important (other than Mengrai himself) was King Tilorokarat (1448-1480), who hosted the 8th Buddhist World Council, held in Chiang Mai in 1455 AD. The Lanna Kingdom had by then further added the kingdoms of Phayao, Phrae and Nan to its empire.

Buffalo: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
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Decline and Burmese Occupation

In the late 15th century, after the reign of King Tilorokarat, fighting between different pretenders to the throne of Chiang Mai weakened the nobility of the kingdom and thereby the strength of its administrative structure.

Chiang Mai suffered a devastating earthquake in 1545 and was conquered by the Burmese empire of Pegu in 1558. For more than 200 years, the throne of Chiang Mai was occupied by Burmese puppet lords, although the loyalty of the Lanna people in those times is said to have stayed with themselves and their own cultural and national identity.

The Burmese weren't to stay forever: In 1774, the leader of Lamphun, General Kawila, succeeded in reconquering Chiang Mai and driving the Burmese troops out of their northern Thai strongholds. Kawila became the next governor of Chiang Mai, appointed by King Thaksin I, who had driven the Burmese out of Thailand's south.

Chiang Mai itself was left devastated by the fights and became a virtual ghost town, deserted by its inhabitants for about 15 years.

The End of Chiang Saen

The city of Chiang Saen was under permanent threat from Burma and it was very hard to defend. In 1804, King Rama I ordered Chiang Saen's demolition, with 25,000 villagers watching their city burning after being told to take their belongings and go to settle in Chiang Mai, Lampang and Nan.

For that reason, today's Chiang Saen is nothing more than a small town that reveals none of its vivid past at first sight.

The Gradual Loss of Independence and the End of Lanna

The nine rulers of Chiang Mai from Kawila's line still had their nobility roots in the north, so Lanna could maintain its northern identity while also paying tribute to Bangkok. At that time, Lanna also enjoyed far-reaching political independence. The last Lanna king was Naovarat, in whose honor a bridge crossing the Mae Ping river in Chiang Mai is named. Naovarat finally resigned in 1939 and was replaced by a Bangkok-appointed governor. Already in 1897, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had begun to incorporate all of his tributary states into one united Siam. In 1911, under the reign of Rama VI, Chiang Mai (and also Mae Hong Son and other northern areas) officially became Siamese provinces by royal decree.

The Shan (Thai Yai) in Burma and Thailand

Most of the inhabitants of Mae Hong Son province and Pai district are ethnic Shan (also called Thai Yai). Like the Thais, they migrated from southern China's Nanchao kingdom into the area now called Burma in the middle of the 13th century AD, escaping the pressure of Chinese expansion. Some of them also settled on the Thai side of today's border between Burma and Thailand, for example founding Ban Wiang Nua nearby the site of modern-day Pai. The history of their settlement in Burma in modern times has become the history of the Shan State, which, despite of being mentioned on most maps, never achieved international recognition. The Paioneer will try to tell the tragic story of the Shan people's struggle for independence and expose the key events in Burmese (and international) politics to be held responsible for today's status quo of the Shan state region and the Shan people.

The Shan Settlements in Burma

When the Shan migrants arrived in Burma they first spread over most of it, their communities organized in so-called "mongs." Those were small city-states which established and existed independent from each other in the beginning. Soon, some stronger Shan chiefs would succeed to unite the mongs within their reach into some smaller kingdoms.

The most important of those was the kingdom founded by King Wareru. At first serving as a stable boy at the court of King Ramkhamhaeng I of Sukhothai, he eloped to the site of his new kingdom with the king's daughter, and eventually married her, thereby ensuring stable relations between the two empires. King Wareru compiled one of Burma's first law books, the customary law written in Pali, and was succeeded by 15 kings of his line, who managed to establish early trade relations with Europe.

The Shan dominated Burma for about 250 years. During this period, Burma became the "rice bowl" of Southeast Asia due to the farming skills of the Shan people. In the 16th century AD, the power of the Shan kingdoms declined, mostly because they had scattered so much over all of Burma and mixed with other tribes and races, that it became virtually impossible to keep any form of unity.

Map of Shan State: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Map of Shan State
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Burmese, British, and Japanese Rule over Burma

In 1555 AD, a powerful Burmese king of Bago, named Bayinnaung, finally wiped out the feudal power of the mongs. The Shan kingdoms became Burmese tributary states with some autonomy concerning their internal affairs granted by the Burmese kings.

The 19th century AD brought three big Burmese-British wars in 1824-1826, 1852 and 1885, which had a grave impact on the Shan population: The Shan territories had to send contingent by contingent of soldiers to the aid of the Burmese troops, which in the end couldn't stop the British invaders from conquering Burma despite the bravery and heroism of the Shan soldiers. A Shan leader named Sao-Weng stood up with a few thousand soldiers against the British rule in 1887 when all other Shan lords had already submitted to the invaders. After his last ally in Burmese territory, the city of Keng-tung, had surrendered, he had to seek refuge in China with his family and followers, where he lived further on until his death in 1896.

To make the task of administrating the Shan territories more convenient, they were carved up by degree of the British government in 1893, confining the Shan state to its current borders.

When the Japanese invaded and conquered Burma during World War II, they mostly adopted the administrative structure of the British: An elected Shan representative served as counselor to the occupation powers.

U Aung San: A Taste of Democracy, Part I

During the war, a former student leader named U Aung San had formed the Burmese Independent Army (BIA). The BIA first helped the Japanese troops to defeat the British army, and after fought along with the British to kick out the Japanese again. After the war, renamed to AFPFL ("Anti-Fascist-People's Freedom League"), Aung San's army became a strong and influential factor in Burmese politics. He achieved gradual unity between most ethnic groups and succeeded in forcing the British empire to grant Burma political independence.

Meanwhile, British and Japanese occupation had aroused nationalist

tendencies and a strong desire for independence amongst the Shan people. At this point, the Shan leaders were only willing to join a federal union of Burma if they could expect the Burmese union government to either promise full political independence for the Shan State later, or at least grant it far-reaching autonomy.

A big conference was held in Panglong in the Shan State, to which representatives of all Burmese ethnic groups were invited. The Panglong conference led to unity between the leaders of the border areas in their bid for autonomy. The government led by U Ang San not only understood this bid but was also ready to act on it.

This led to the Aung San-Atlee-agreement in January 1947, which formally ended British rule in Burma and established a Burmese interim government, which was supposed to hold a Constituent Assembly soon. The Constituent Assembly finally met on the 10 June 1947 with the aim of forming a federation that would respect the claims of many different ethnic groups on far-reaching autonomy and independence within their genuine territories, organized under a democratic elected union government. But on the very night before it could happen, U Ang San, the man who had made it all possible and was trusted by all the ethnic groups involved, was assassinated along with six other members of the Constituent Assembly by murderers hired by the leader of opposition.

The Shan leaders subsequently kept cooperating with the Burmese government, then represented by U Ang San's successor U Nu, who had been a student leader and a follower of Aung San's.

BCP, SLORC, SPDC: Drug Money and Burmese Politics

In 1962, when U Nu's government was still engaged in the preparations for the new constituency, General Ne-Win overthrew the elected government in a coup d'état. Prime Minister U Nu was imprisoned for the next 4 years and a military dictatorship was installed, which has ruled the country under changing names until the present day. First they started as the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). When the BCP faced massive international pressure for their Human rights record and total failure to achieve democracy, they became the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1997, once again as a response to mounting international pressure, the SLORC changed its name again, this time into State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). On both occasions, the military dictatorship changed neither leadership nor policy.

The BCP had evidently been involved in the taxation of drug transports since the beginning of its rule in 1962. From about 1968, it also got involved in the manufacturing, marketing and sale of heroin. This made the BCP many friends within the party's assembly. The further the party got into it, the more they became dependent on the financial rewards of that business. It's reasonable to assume that the lasting power of Burma's military junta, which in the course of its reign has shown little respect for either human rights or democratic principles, has mainly been built and financed by the country's best selling cash crop—opium. Subsequent wars and fighting between the junta and ethnic minority groups have, besides their political implications, always also been fights over control of the drug trade.

In the 1960s, each ethnic group, namely the Shan, the Wa, the Karen and others, had its own little insurgency army, most of whose leaders were rather preoccupied with trying to get a piece of the cake rather than seriously acting for any political goals. The best known of those drug warlords was the infamous Khun Sa, a man with as many faces as names. He was a political leader, a warlord, a drug baron and a businessman. Born under the name of Chang Chi Fu, he later styled himself Khun Sa ("Prince Prosperous"), while the Americans called him "The prince of death." After his "surrender" he took on an everyday Burmese name.

Khun Sa: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Khun Sa
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The Rise of Khun Sa

To cope with communist insurgents and the unrest in the northern Shan State, the Union government in the 1950s had invented the so-called "kakweyes," which were local militias of villagers, originally trained and equipped by the BIA. After the BCP's violent takeover in 1962, they were pretty much left on their own.

The Kuomintang Chinese (KMT), who had fled China's communist revolution and further on attacked Mao's troops from Burmese territory, had been the first ones to take advantage of the financial opportunities provided by the drug trade. The kakweyes soon followed their example, initially only by taxing drug transports through their territories, thereby financing their existence and military operations.

In 1960, U Khun Sa, born 17 Feb. 1934 in the Shan State from Shan-Chinese parents, became the leader of such a kakweye. Not much is known about the early stages of his life. He had just returned from Taiwan when he started his career as a Shan leader. He first cooperated with the KMT forces, but later in the 1960s switched to fighting them over dominance in the drug transport and taxation businesses. In 1969, the Burmese government captured and arrested Khun Sa, accusing him of establishing ties with rebel groups in the area.

At that time, the biggest figure in Burma's drug trade was the Chinese Lo Hsin Han, who later got arrested in Thailand by the Thai authorities under pressure from the US government. He was extradited to the Burmese authorities and put in jail until some years later, when the Burmese junta would have some further use for him.

In 1974, Khun Sa's fighters managed to kidnap two Russian doctors and secure Khun Sa's release as ransom. When he got back onto the scene, Khun Sa seized the former position of Lo Hsin Han as a main figure in the drug trade. By the end of the 1970s, he had reputedly become the world's biggest drug smuggler, providing most of the heroin sold on the US market and being in charge of about 75% of all drugs leaving the Golden Triangle.

Until his "surrender" in 1996, Khun Sa always preferred to portray himself as a freedom fighter rather than a drug warlord. He never admitted to any charges of drug production or drug trade, only to taxation of drug transports. Since he never appeared in any court on drug-trade-related charges, the real extent of his involvement is still not known. He might have stepped into the same trap that evidently caught many other political and military leaders of the region during the drug-trade history of the Golden Triangle: First, the opium money comes in very handy to finance the achievement of lofty political goals and moral causes, but inevitably the dependence on that financial source twists the original aims and ideals of the people involved.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Khun Sa reportedly had some 3000 to 4000 soldiers under his command and, especially in the US, had achieved some fame and recognition. A group of US congress officials visited Khun Sa in his Thailand HQ near the Burmese border, where he made an official proposal to the American government: In return for US military help for his fight for the independence of the Shan State against the Burmese junta, he would not only freeze all drug exports, but also help to develop a strategy that would prevent the trade from resurfacing. The Carter administration instead reacted by further arming the Burmese military for the war against Khun Sa and his troops. This event marks the start of a prolonged cooperation between the US and the Burmese junta with the supposed aim of eradicating the drug exports from the Golden Triangle. In fact, the project turned out to be a complete failure. Even though DEA agents would frequently track down heroin shipments, providing exact places and times, the Burmese junta strangely "wasn't able" to find and seize even a single shipment. Still, instead of blaming the Burmese junta, the US preferred to boost Khun Sa's image as the big boogey man.

In January 1982, again under pressure from the American government, the Thai army succeeded in driving Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army (MTA) out of Thailand after three days of fierce battle. The MTA subsequently retired to Burmese territory, there first to Ko Lang, soon after to Ho Mong, which would be Khun Sa's HQ until his "surrender" in 1996.

In 1985, Khun Sa achieved a merger with two other major insurgency groups, making his army a considerable military force in the region. At that time there were reputable civilian politicians (members of the official Shan parliament) active on the political stage, but Khun Sa, providing and financing the military, was the undisputed leader of the Shan people and of that parliament. According to his own estimation, at that time he controlled 80% of the Shan state, about one third of all of Burma.

At the end of the 1980s, the MTA had to face its first defections. The defection of the Wei Brothers, who had been Khun Sa's closest aides since 1975, were particularly painful and disappointing for the Shan leader. At that time, Khun Sa started to write compelling letters to US presidents and senators, not only renewing his offer again and again, but also providing information about high-ranking US politicians involved in the drug trade. However, the American government had already chosen their allies and their enemies.

Until 1989, there had been hardly any combat between the Burmese troops and the MTA, partly due to the strategic advantages of the site of the MTA's HQ, and partly due to the secret deals and agreements which Khun Sa had worked out with top ranking junta officials. But by then, the SLORC had come under growing internal and international pressure concerning the drug trade and came up with a new policy to handle the insurgency groups. One by one, their leaders were invited to Rangoon; shady, unofficial deals were offered and sealed by handshake. The man chosen by the military as a mediator in these negotiations was Lo Hsin Han, who was freed from jail for that purpose. Those negotiations led to a series of cease-fire agreements between the junta and a growing number of insurgency groups, whose leaders evidently adopted a kind of "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" strategy. None of those ceasefire agreements have led to any improvement of the political status of the participating groups to the present day, and the strategy also considerably weakened Rangoon's remaining enemies amongst the insurgency groups, like Khun Sa's MTA.

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Taste of Democracy, Part II

Around the same time, events in the capital Rangoon spun out of the junta's control. University students and other civilians rallied in the streets of Rangoon in a bid for democratic change and free elections. The response of the government wasn't a diplomatic one; it was an exclusively military one. Thousands of protesters were shot, and many more were arrested. Internal and international criticism and pressure for the Burmese government to step down mounted to a such a degree that the military junta couldn't simply ignore it any more. On 20 July 1989, the junta held the first free and democratic elections in Burma since the 2nd World war. The result was a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by national hero U Ang San's daughter, Daw Ang San Suu Kyi.

Ang San Suu Kyi, who was two years old when her father was assassinated, had sworn at her mother's funeral that she would "serve the people of Burma, like my mother and father have done, even unto death." Immediately after the results became known, the SLORC annulled the election and declared its outcome invalid. The official justification was that there couldn't be a non-military government in Burma unless the constitution was changed first. As we hear in the news sometimes, the junta is still "working on" those constitutional amendments today. Aung San Suu Kyi had already been detained and put under house arrest before the election, on charges of causing public unrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi became a Nobel peace price laureate in 1991, and more Human Rights prizes were given to her in support of her cause. She was set free from house arrest for the first time again in July 1995, but the junta made it clear that if she left Burma (for example, to visit her husband and two children in Britain), she would not be allowed back in. When her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, the junta refused to grant him an entry visa. She decided to stay in Burma rather than leave her country to see her husband one last time. She sees this as one of the sacrifices she had to make for her cause of bringing freedom to the Burmese people after more than 40 years of military dictatorship and oppression. Her husband died in March 1999. When it turned out that her popularity was unbroken and people gathered all over the country to declare their support for the NLD and its leader, she was put back under house arrest in September 2000. Released again in May 2002 under UN pressure, she and her group of supporters were mobbed by the government in May 2003, when she was again imprisoned (to "protect her from a possible assassination attempt," according to the junta foreign minister), and later (after undergoing a hysterectomy) put back under house arrest in September 2003, where she has been until the time of writing (August 2007).

Khun Sa's Surrender

In 1993, for the first time, the stronghold of Khun Sa's MTA came under fierce attack from the SLORC. Groups still fighting the junta had joined Khun Sa's force, which reportedly at the time was some 25,000 men strong. On 13 December 1993, Khun Sa publicly declared an independent Shan State with himself as its leader. In 1994, the US pressed the Thai government to arrest 11 of Khun Sa's closest aides and seal the Thai-Burmese border in order to cut off the MTA from its supply lines. A coordinated siege of Ho Mong followed, during which, despite subsequent splits and mutinies within the MTA, the Burmese army suffered heavy casualties.

In 1995, disappointed and depressed, Khun Sa called a meeting of the Shan State parliament, surprising everybody with the announcement of his immediate retirement. He stated that he would leave his weapons "in a Buddhist monastery and go off to grow vegetables." Some believed that he tried to relieve US pressure this way. Others assumed that Khun Sa wanted to provoke a show of loyalty by his allies. In fact, on the day before his announcement, he had already opened a back-channel to the junta in Rangoon.

The details of Khun Sa's negotiations with the Burmese government were, and still are, very unclear. We know that the junta once again chose Lo Hsin Han as mediator. Khun Sa was in a good financial position to negotiate. He had acquired some legal businesses in Burma as well as a significant amount of real estate. It is presumed that some cash changed hands in the negotiations, too.

Khun Sa officially "surrendered" (obviously under many of his own conditions) on January 1st, 1996. The tadmadaw (Burmese army) rolled into Ho Mong, the MTA soldiers were told by their leader to lay down their weapons, while he himself enjoyed a first class ride to Rangoon accompanied only by his closest allies.

The US government was stunned by the unforeseen events; it even took the US a few days before they issued a bid for their arch-enemy's extradition. Despite the million US reward offer for any information leading them to Khun Sa, his exact whereabouts in Rangoon remain a secret to the present day. Protection from US extradition was of course part of Khun Sa's deal with the junta. The junta itself could hardly afford to have him extradited, as he knows far too much about the involvement of high-ranking government officials in the drug trade and human rights abuses. Standing public trial in the US, Khun Sa could take advantage of his knowledge and add further damage to the international reputation of the Burmese rulers.

Meanwhile, Khun Sa has taken on an ordinary Burmese name and sends his nephews to publicly take care of his various businesses. His alleged successor in organizing the drug trade was his former lieutenant, Wei Hsueh Kang, operating from a place not far from Ho Mong (now supposedly controlled by Burmese government troops).

The MTA After Khun Sa

Many MTA soldiers and civilians of the Shan State feel that Khun Sa betrayed the national cause of the Shan people, but this remains a question that is impossible to answer. Perhaps surrender at that point on negotiable conditions was the smartest thing to do in order to protect the lives of his men, also allowing Khun Sa to escaped unharmed and protected from US extradition. Khun Sa probably also understood that dying for a just cause leaves one just as dead as dying in a road accident, from cancer or from fish poisoning. There was virtually nothing left to win but survival. The hope that the US or any other western power would eventually change its mind had faded. The Thai government had, pressed by the US, turned against them. Winning the war on the battlefield had become a hopeless option, so what else was left for Khun Sa but to negotiate the freedom of his men as well as his own welfare while this was still an option?

However, many MTA officers and soldiers, organized now in comparably small splinter groups, decided not to give up the fight against the military government, but instead to change strategy. In the remoteness of the jungle of the northern Shan State, they were still able to participate in opium cultivation and refinement as well as transporting the drugs to positions near and across the Thai border where it would still be easy to sell their wares. The financial rewards would be used to further finance a guerilla-style war against the junta.

The Relocation Program of Shan Villages Supporting Insurgency Groups

To eradicate these remnants of resistance and especially to stop civilian support for the insurgency groups, which were supplied with food and shelter by Shan villages all over the region, the SLORC changed its strategy too. In 1996, it invented the "Relocation Program of Shan villages supporting insurgency groups."

In the years to come, thousands of villages were forcibly relocated, about 1400 in only the first two years of the program. The Burmese army would enter villages, telling the inhabitants to move from their homes within 3 to 5 days to some a central location where the SLORC troops would install army posts to supervise and control the villagers' activities and to prevent them from providing any help to the guerilla units. When told to move, the villagers were only allowed to take with them whatever they could carry and forbidden to return to their homes afterwards. They had to leave their rice and crops behind. The cattle, pigs and chickens they had raised were in most cases confiscated by the Burmese soldiers for their own supplies. They were told that if they return to their fields or houses, they would be shot, and that is what happened. Thousands of Shan farmers and their family members have been killed trying to get rice from their fields or belongings from their households, which were usually burnt after the expiration of the given deadline.

Many people were reportedly burnt along with their houses when they refused to leave. Uncountable cases of extrajudicial killings, fatal torture, rape, forced work and portage have been reported since.

Our main sources of knowledge are interviews, conducted by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, of the hundreds of thousands of Shan refugees who have escaped to Thailand. Nothing had been prepared for them in their new locations and no assistance has ever been given by the Burmese authorities in establishing new households and livelihoods. The relocated villagers were left on their own without food, shelter, or any means to make a living. They were forced into unpaid portage for the tadmadaw or into construction work on roads, dams, and railways. The places where they are forced to gather resemble overcrowded and impoverished ghettos rather than towns or villages. The full scale of human rights abuses committed by the Burmese troops on the junta's order cannot be accurately accounted for, because the SLORC, now under the new name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), keeps denying access to the area to all independent journalists or human rights group representatives.

With little information leaving Burma, it is up to everybody who feels concerned with the fate of the Shan people still living there to follow the recommendations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi not to visit Burma as a tourist, thereby putting legal money into the Burmese military suppression machinery, and not to invest into Burmese business projects for the same reason.

The Thai government has always been of two minds concerning the events in the Shan State mentioned above and the mass influx of refugees, who keep arriving from there ceaselessly. On the one hand, there's the duty to act on the state of human emergency of those refugees. On the other hand, Thailand's labor market is lacking the capacity to cope with such quantities of people in need of paid work. Besides that, Burma is a neighboring country and Thailand has always successfully practiced a policy of avoiding conflicts with its neighbors, thereby sparing the Thai people the experience of war. Moreover, the Thai government promised business relationships with the Burmese junta, relationships which it doesn't want to put at risk. Due to this conflict, the Thai government doesn't take a tough stand when it comes to putting pressure on the Burmese government and has not yet been able to provide an adequate legal framework concerning the refugees from the northern Shan State.

And then there's the US, verbally attacking the Burmese junta for its Human Rights record and demanding democratic changes, but at the same time, again and again, helping that same junta to defeat its enemies and stay in power.

The Shan in Thailand

As mentioned above, there have been ethnic Shan people living in some northern border areas of Thailand since the 13th century AD. Since Siam became united at the end of the 19th century AD, the Shan here have very much integrated into the Thai society, although they have kept some of their distinct traditions and festivities alive. As Thai citizens, they are not very concerned with the fate of the Shan people on the other side of the border.

For those hundreds of thousands of refugees who came into Thailand since 1996, the situation is very different. They are generally not given refugee status and the only way to get a permit to work and stay in Thailand for one year is to find an employer. The temporary work permit is bound to that employer and a work place defined in the permit. The employee can only change his/her employer once a year, when the government gives out new work permits or extends the old ones. The hopeless situation of the refugees, and their increasing numbers, have led to much lower average salaries for Burmese workers compared with Thai workers.

Refugees found without a valid permit to stay or working without the required work permit are often sent back across the border. From there they will just look for the next possible way back into Thailand, because there's nothing left for them where they came from.

The only event that could eventually change the situation for the better would be the end of military dictatorship in Burma. Since the generals there already ruined the results of free elections once, they probably won't dare giving it a second try unless there is a sufficient amount of real pressure applied by strong economic sanctions from neighboring countries as well as from the US, the UN and the international community.


Text and images from Thomas's article are copyright 2006 Thomas Kasper.

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