Soldiers of Fortune

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We reach Gawng Lang village at dusk. At first, the only signs of life are the smoke of cooking fires seeping through thatched roofs and the muffled clatter of food being prepared. Then we notice the children. Half-naked, their bellies bloated by malnutrition, they watch from beneath the stilt houses with dumbstruck curiosity. Soon the women emerge, dressed in handwoven black smocks and gripping slender, silver pipes between their teeth. They stare and giggle at us, waiting for their husbands, uncles and brothers to arrive. Wearing ragged military fatigues, the men, when they finally materialize, seem without exception to be among the oldest members of the hamlet. Only later do we discover where all the young men have gone.

Gawng Lang sits on a lonely hilltop in northeast Burma, sheltered by gently swaying bamboo. None of its 400 inhabitants has seen a white man before. But then, very few white men have ever seen a Wa, the most fascinating, seldom met and impoverished of Burma's myriad tribes. Until the 1970s, many Wa strayed from their hilltop redoubts only to chop off human heads, which they believed to be powerful totems against disease and bad harvests. Neighboring tribes have long loathed and feared them. Among the Shan, Burma's largest ethnic minority, a mother anxious to hush her restless child might still whisper, "Shhh! A Wa is coming!"

From the nearest Chinese border town, it takes five hours of hiking over hauntingly beautiful mountains to reach the village. Five hours, that is, for a city-softened journalist. Even elderly Wa can cover the distance in less than two. The Wa are so accustomed to climbing steep terrain that they complain of sore feet when walking on level ground. Gawng Lang's inhabitants don't receive many visitors, but after recovering from their initial surprise, they are both hospitable and curious. "Tell me," says Ai Sin, a wiry 42-year-old who serves us rice and vegetables by guttering lamplight. "I have heard that when it is day in the, it is dark in America. Can this be true?"

The Wa no longer chop heads, yet their ferocious and demonic image remains intact. Dawn reveals why: the sloping fields surrounding Gawng Lang are planted with thousands of opium poppies, their fresh green shoots pushing up through the mist-dampened earth. We also learn in the morning why there are no young men around. They have all been conscripted into the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA)a formidable force of tribal soldiers dubbed by the U.S. State Department as the world's "most heavily armed narco-traffickers." Burma in 2001 was the largest producer of opium in the world (Afghanistan ranked second), and the UWSA dominates the country's opium and heroin business. It also controls some 80% of Burma's equally lucrative trade in methamphetamine pills, a cheap and highly addictive drug better known in Asia by its Thai name yaba, or crazy medicine. Together, these businesses earn the UWSA's Elite commanders and their associates up to $550 million a year, according to TIME's research. It's an incomprehensible sum for the people of Gawng Lang, who see little of the spoils and go about their medieval existence much as their ancestors did.

In Thailand, a tidal wave of yaba has ripped through schools, slums and nightclubs, leaving a quarter of a million addicts in its wake. With narcotics experts and Thai army officials expecting a billion pills to pour in next year, many Thais regard the UWSA as the gravest threat to their society and national security since the 1970s communist insurgencies. Sending an aggressive message to Rangoon and its drug-dealing Wa allies, the Thai army last spring staged a troop buildup along the kingdom's border on a scale not seen since World War II. Yet the scourge is anything but contained. The UWSA is now diversifying into gunrunning while also expanding operations geographically into Laos, the Chinese province of Yunnan and the turbulent states of northeast India. Shipments of yaba are turning up in Europe, Australia and America. And in an ominous extension of its military reach, the UWSA has broken out of its traditional territory by forcibly relocating tens of thousands of Wa villagers to strategic swatches of land along the Thai-Burmese bordera Stalinesque forced exodus little noticed by the outside world.

How did a once isolated hill tribe grow so powerful, so quickly, transforming itself into an international crime syndicate to rival Colombia's drug cartels? The man we hoped might answer this question is the UWSA's commander, Bao Youxiang. Little is known about "Chairman Bao," as he prefers to be called, and few Westerners have ever met him. But his reputation, fueled by rumor, is gaudy, befitting the lord of a narco-fiefdom. Bao is reputedly so rich that he would need two trucks to carry around all his money. He is rumored to have once had four of his own men pistol-whipped to death for conspiring against him. Also, he likes bowling.

To meet Bao, we plunged into the lawless hills of northeast Burmato the heart of an empire built on guns, drugs and blood.

Even in the old days, not every Wa chopped heads; 19th century Chinese merchants made the potentially lifesaving distinction between the nonhostile "tame Wa" and their bloodthirsty cousins, the "wild Wa." But all Wa cherished the de facto independence their hilltop seclusion granted them and were quick to trade on their unsavory image if threatened. A Wa chief once declared to approaching British troops, "We are a wild people, who eat rats and squirrels raw."

Undaunted, a British colonial administrator named George Scott launched the first expedition into wild Wa territory in 1893. Scott demolished many myths about the hill tribe. They were not, as outsiders had insisted, "habitual cannibals" with a predilection for roasted babies. Nor were they backward, he said. "They are an exceedingly well-behaved, industrious, and estimable race," wrote Scott, "were it not for the one foible of cutting strangers' heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves."

Despite brutal military campaigns by Scott's menone in retaliation for the decapitation of two British officersthe Wa were never brought fully under colonial control. But later, greater historical forces shattered Wa isolation forever and propelled their homeland into the international narcotics trade. The Wa had always grown poppies. Scott himself had marveled at the "enormous amount of opium" they produced even in the 1890s. But the retreat of China's nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) divisions into northeast Burma after the 1949 communist revolution kicked cultivation into high gear. The KMT persuaded farmers to grow more opium, transporting it on long mule caravans into northern Thailand. By the late 1960s, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) had arrived. Bent on overthrowing the Rangoon government through its jungle bases along the Sino-Burmese border, the Beijing-backed CPB quickly formed pacts with Wa guerrilla bands. One was led by a pugnacious 21-year-old named Bao Youxiang.

Born to a chieftain in Kunma, a northern Wa village near Gawng Lang, Bao was the sixth of eight brothers and a natural-born fighter. He rose steadily through the CPB ranks, from battalion commander in Kunma to leader of a crack brigade operating near the Thai border. For Bao and thousands of fellow Wa tribesmen, the CPB provided modern weaponry, combat experience anda first for a people historically made up of squabbling clansa loose political unity. In return, the communists got a pool of tough tribal warriors to fight a bloody 20-year conflict against the Burmese government. The Wa proved fearless in battle and willing to accept appallingly high casualties. As one saying went, "The Wa are good at dying."

At rebelling, too. In 1989 a key brigade mutinied against the aging CPB leadership. On April 17 of that yeara date the Wa still celebrate as national dayBao and other tribal commanders joined the rebellion. Burma's Communist Party split into several heavily armed factions, all of which signed cease-fire agreements with Rangoon. One of these factions, the United Wa State Army, would be dominated by Bao. The cease-fire was a turning point in Wa history. The embattled Burmese military, still reeling from the 1988 democracy uprising, had no desire to fight the heavily armed Wa militia. In return for keeping the peace, the UWSA was given full autonomy over what the regime termed "Special Region No. 2," which Bao christened "Wa state." The UWSA was also granted lucrative business concessions, including tacit permission to deal in the only valuable commodity it knew: narcotics.

By 1994 the wa state army was mass-producing yaba in addition to heroin. Unlike fields of poppies, the tiny pills are immune to bad weather and invisible to U.S. spy satellites. They are cheap to produce in makeshift chemical factories and easier to smuggle than heroin. Thailand proved a ready market: today, more Thais are addicted to yaba than to heroin. And so the UWSA prospered. To defend its enterprises, it acquired a formidable arsenal, largely provided by Chinese dealers in Yunnan. Today the UWSA's weaponry includes heavy machine guns and Chinese-built, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles.

With Burma's domestic economy teetering on collapse, the military regime needed Wa drug money and bribes. So Wa entrepreneurs were welcomed in cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, where they set up trading companies and bought real estate. Today the UWSA reportedly controls such companies as the Myanmar May Flower Group and, through it, a large private bank. Inevitably the Wa leaders grabbed a hefty piece of the action for themselves. Bao's family, for example, reportedly owns Yangon Airways, one of the country's two domestic airlines.

Some money from the tribe's business ventures trickled down, changing the landscape of the Wa hills. "In 1993 you could still meet guys carrying spears," recalls a Christian missionary who toured the region. Since then, a handful of larger Wa villages have morphed into towns, and with Chinese technical help a new road has been built to link them. Villagers who live along its winding route refer to it simply as "the road." There is no other one in the Wa hills with which to confuse it. And so, by logical necessity, all roads in the Wa hills lead to one place: Panghsang, population 15,000, the headquarters of the UWSA's empire and the lair of Chairman Bao.

"To get into any Wa village," an earlier visitor once wrote, "you must either fight or be invited." Getting an invitation to meet Asia's most powerful druglord was simpler than expected. A few calls to a Chinese mobile-phone number, a letter of intent delivered through a Wa emissary and then, suddenly, a message from Panghsang: Bao was willing to meet. After that came a great deal of waiting near the Burmese border for this rare audience.

There are worse places to kill time than the Ru Yi Commercial City development in Menglian, a Chinese town only an hour's drive from Panghsang. Locals say the lavish, Thai-designed complex is owned by Li Ziru, a Chinese-born former Red Guard who nowadays acts as Bao's right-hand man. The U.S. State Department claims Li is a leader in Burma's drug trade. He is clearly a very wealthy man. The Ru Yi complex boasts a four-star hotel, shops, a supermarket, karaoke bars andin a country where gambling is still outlawed as one of the "Five Evils"a busy casino. Evidently, Chinese officials are not squeamish about drug money fueling the breakneck development of Menglian and other towns in Yunnan. The Golden Phoenix Hotel in Simao is proudly described in a brochure as a joint venture between "the Wa Federation of Myanmar [Burma]" and Yunnan's Provincial Farming Bureau. And at the UWSA-owned Health and Happiness Hotel in Cangyuan, senior county officials slurp tea in the lobby while Wa prostitutes prowl the upper floors for clients.

The summons from Bao eventually comes. Getting to Panghsang involves a short drive to the border, an immigration check and a trip across the bridge spanning the turbid Namkha River. On the other side, flanked by forbidding mountain ridges, lies Panghsang. Ten years ago it was little more than a village with a rebel army base attached. Today it has hotels, shops, karaoke bars and a 24-hour casino. There is also a bowling alley where, say locals, a lane is permanently reserved for Bao.

In a conference room in one of the hotels, Bao makes his entrance orbited by two of his own cameramen, one of them packing a side arm, both recording the boss's meeting with the Western press. Bao, a squat man in his early 50s with a bulldog face, is also armed. He carries a small-caliber pistol clipped to the belt of his khaki pants, an ensemble jarringly set off by his footwear: a pair of battered, pink Chinese slippers. He listens to our questions with unnerving stillness, staring at us intently, then answers in rapid-fire Yunnanese patois, gesticulating wildly. "These drugs!" he cries, karate-chopping the air for emphasis, revealing the diamond-encrusted gold Rolex he wears on his wrist. "I detest them! You think drugs have been harmful to others? Let me tell you: they have been a much greater disaster for the Wa! Our people are stuck in such poverty they haven't even got clothes to put on their own backs."

Ask Bao who runs Burma's narcotics trade, and he grows intensely agitated. "It's all done by businessmen!" he fumes. "Businessmen operating outside the law are refining opium into heroin and manufacturing yaba." The Wa peopleand, by extension, their leaderare simply "victims," he says. This is disingenuous, to say the least. Many of these unnamed businessmen are Bao's own field commanders. His brother, senior UWSA commander Bao Youhua, runs what an official with an international narcotics-monitoring agency calls "industrial-scale" cultivation of opium poppies in the Nam Lwi Valley southeast of Panghsang. Another notorious trafficker is the shadowy leader of the UWSA's southern command, Wei Xuegang. Half Wa and half Chinese, Wei was indicted in absentia on heroin-trafficking charges in 1993 by a New York federal court. The U.S. is offering a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Wei is also named by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Thai army as the boss of the booming methamphetamine trade into Thailand, where a court has already sentenced him to death in absentia.

But Chairman Bao will not be drawn on this. He prefers to portray himself as a heroic enemy of the narcotics racket, a man dedicated to the banishment of opium from the Wa hills. "Our objective is to eliminate the cultivation of opium poppies by 2005, and I intend to achieve that," he declares. Only 40% of Wa farmers now cultivate opium, claims Bao, down from 60% in recent years. "We've also developed a range of substitute industries," he says, listing what he calls "decent, regular businesses"rubber and tea plantations, gem and zinc mines, liquor distilleries and a brand of cigarettes called Golden Triangle. This is just a start, promises Bao. "If the international community is willing to support us," he offers, "we'll get this work done. But we need help." The international community has shown little inclination to trust the UWSA leader. But Bao cites what he believes is irrefutable proof of his good intent: the great Wa migration.

In 1999, Bao launched a grandiose relocation scheme that he says is intended to solve the intertwined problems of opium cultivation and the chronic rice shortage in the northern Wa hills. "People in the north can break their backs for a year to grow enough rice to last them just six months," Bao says. "But those who have moved south can work for one year and harvest enough rice to eat for two years." A sense of historic destiny is also at work. By moving south, the Wa are reclaiming land they have regarded as their own since the 12th century. The migration is Chairman Bao's Long March.

Mass relocations from six northern Wa districts began in 1999. Some villagers were given a month's notice, others only 24 hours. All were told to leave their livestock and possessions behind and bring only what they could carry. Lured by the promise of land, some Wa left willingly; many did not. "Some people were happy to go, some people were crying," recalls Sam Kap, 60, of Gawng Lang, where almost half the population was forced at gunpoint to leave and head south. "Nobody had any choice."

Most villagers walked to the nearest Wa town, then continued south on overcrowded trucks. Many had never seen motor vehicles before. Some traveled the whole distance on foot, a three-month journey. Upon arrival in the lowlands, the Wa were given 1,000 baht ($23) each, a monthly rice ration and new military fatigues. Otherwise left to fend for themselves, with little shelter and no medicines, the bewildered migrants soon fell prey to epidemics of malaria, typhoid, dysentery and anthrax. Despite the belated arrival of Chinese doctors, up to 8,000 people are thought to have died during the first year of the relocations alone.

The influx also had a devastating impact on the region's original inhabitants, mostly Shan and Lahu hill people. Wa settlers stole livestock and drove hundredspossibly thousandsof them from their fertile lands. In some cases, according to a Thailand-based NGO, the UWSA forced locals into slave-labor squads.

Chairman Bao is unmoved by such reports. As tea is served, he denies that the Shan were driven out of their homes, insisting that the resettlement area was "empty" before the Wa arrived. He also vows to continue the relocations. "Altogether we're planning to move 100,000 people," he says excitedly. "We ought to be able to finish this within two or three years." Wa farmers who stay behind in the north and are still cultivating poppies in 2005 will be stopped by what Bao terms "executive measures"a chilling phrase that doubtless spells further misery for his long-suffering people.

The Burmese government has heralded the relocations as a bold opium-eradication measure. But old habits die hard, especially among starving people who have no other source of income. Upon arrival in the south, some Wa migrants began planting poppies again, allegedly with the blessing of UWSA druglord Wei. Nor is there much evidence that the exodus has caused a drastic decline in poppy cultivation back in northern Wa state. At Gawng Lang, those ordered south usually owned the least land; and this land, if used to grow poppies, was quickly taken over by industrious relatives and resown with the same crop. "Poppy is still the easiest thing to grow," says Sam Rung, a somber 45-year-old farmer working the fields with his wife and daughter. "The earth's just not good enough for corn."

Nevertheless, drug-monitoring agencies say it's undeniable that Burmese opium production has dropped significantly of late. The U.N.'s estimate for this year's harvest is 748 tons, down from more than 900 last year. The U.S. governmentwhich is currently mulling greater cooperation with Burma's military regime in the war against heroincites an even lower figure of 560 tons. Bao's relocation scheme and substitute industries may well have contributed to the decrease, although Wa farmers say two years of bad weather have also hurt crop yields.

Whatever the reasons for the reduction, Bao's chances of meeting his 2005 deadline for the eradication of poppies as a cash crop look increasingly dicey. Opium will remain "the economic backbone of the villagers," predicts a bleak U.N. report on the Wa hills, so long as new economic ventures in the area benefit only UWSA leaders and Chinese investors. Meanwhile, Bao's bombastic declarations on opium reduction have drowned out a more alarming development: since the relocations, the UWSA's production of methamphetamine has skyrocketed. "Maybe the Wa have it in their minds to scale back opium production," notes a senior Western antinarcotics official. "But they're not making any pledges to get out of methamphetamines." Bangkok police recently seized a record consignment of 3 million yaba pills. That's just a fraction of what is now streaming into the country from the Wa hills. Indeed, experts monitoring Southeast Asia's drug trade say Bao's Long March is not about eradicating opium production. It's about expanding the sphere of Wa influence and gaining greater access to the Thai border, which will facilitate methamphetamine distribution.

From Mong Yawn, the southern UWSA headquarters, the yaba trade is spreading in all directions. To the southwest, the UWSA has set up several factories around the Burmese border town of Myawaddy to pump pills into central Thailand. To the east, where UWSA troops are now firmly encamped on the Mekong River, drug running has surged across the poorly policed waters into Laosa perfect place for further Wa expansion, notes an antinarcotics expert in the capital Vientiane. And hundreds of miles north, at the hardscrabble Burmese frontier town of Tamu, the arrival of Wa businessmen has coincided with a rising tide of yaba into the adjoining Indian state of Manipur.

What's more, the UWSA's freedom of movement around Burmaa nation bordering on five othershas also enabled it to launch a menacing new trade: selling weapons to Asia's ethnic insurgents. According to intelligence sources, the Wa army in the past two years completed deals that sent rifles and other munitions to Naga rebels in northeast India.

"If we have any more opium here after 2005," Bao once declared, reaching for a classic Wa metaphor, "you can come and chop my head off." But these days, as the cash-rich UWSA continues to expand unchecked, Burma's neighbors have much more than an opium problem. They have a Wa problem.

Darkness falls on Gawng Lang. There is no electricity in this tiny village, but the sky is brilliant with stars. Suddenly, a bright light arcs across the Milky Way. "A plane," declares village elder Ai Sin. No, too fast for a planeand too slow for a meteor. Perhaps it's one of the satellites that the U.S. government routinely deploys to monitor the poppy fields surrounding Gawng Lang and hundreds of Wa villages like it.

What satellites can't monitor is the misery of the poppy growers living under the UWSA's unquestioned authority. In a typical year, Sam Rung, a wounded veteran of Burma's now defunct Communist Party, produces about 1.6 kilograms of opium, which he then sells for about $12 to the UWSA. "We're not allowed to keep any for ourselves," says Sam Rung. Nor are farmers allowed to smoke it. Opium is too precious to be consumed at the source. "If they catch you they put you in a pit for one or two years," says Ai Sin. The pit is a traditional Wa punishment: a three-meter-deep, two-meter-wide square hole in the ground where addicts go cold turkey in their own waste.

The Wa army metes out similar punishment to soldiers found using yaba. According to the New York City-based Human Rights Watch, repeat offenders are shot. There is a ready supply of replacements. Every Wa family that has two or three sons must send at least one of them to a UWSA training camp; a family with four or five boys must send two. Some 2,000 troops are under 18, and as many as 800 are under 15, claims Human Rights Watch. The Wa are still good at dying. By one estimate, war has killed one in four Wa men in recent decades. "These deaths have been devastating for the villages," says Hideyuki Takano, a Japanese writer who spent six months in 1996 living with the Wa. "With so few young men around, the social fabric of traditional Wa life is unraveling."

At first, the villagers shyly refuse to talk about their lives as serfs of the army. But later, in the gloomy interior of one house, traditional Wa rice wine begins to flow, and so does the anger. "They don't help us at all!" shouts a villager. "They gave us money to pay for a teacher, but that's it. Then some U.N. people came and handed out leaflets promising food and clothing. We saw the leaflets but nothing else. The Wa army took everything." Outside Panghsang and Mong Yawn, there are no hospitals. When asked what happens to villagers who fall gravely ill, Ai Sin replies flatly, "They die." Curable diseases killed five of his nine children in infancy.

Though Wa peasants know little else but poverty, disease and war, their de facto leader Bao is nevertheless revered. They call him uncle. "He's a very good man," says Ai Sin. "If he says he'll do something, he does it." Says another elder: "All the Wa love him." Unconvincing as they might sound to outsiders, these sentiments seem genuine. Bao may have given little else to his beleaguered people, but he has at least given them pride, plus the apparent respect of an erstwhile enemy, Burma. The otherwise spartan bamboo walls of many Wa huts bear a poster of Bao with Burma's much feared military intelligence chief, Lieut. General Khin Nyunt. They are shown walking side by side, like equals.

Khin Nyunt, who brokered the 1989 cease-fire that launched the UWSA, still visits Panghsang annuallya sign that cozy relations with Rangoon will continue. It is no mean feat for the Wa to have achieved this special relationship, which affords them extraordinary autonomy in this despotic nation.

Bao is lord of the Wa, but he is also a player in a larger, Asia-wide game. For Burma's generals, the 10,000 UWSA troops now scattered along the border with Thailand serve as a proxy army in their decades-long fight against Shan rebels. The Wa army is also a self-financing frontier security forceRangoon's very own "600-pound gorilla on the border," as a diplomat memorably put it. In May, the UWSA fought alongside Burmese troops in clashes with the Thai army, which Burma accuses of aiding the Shan. Just last week, Burmese troops were preparing for a fresh dry-season offensive against the Shan in which Wa troops will again participate.

Burma has little incentive to check UWSA expansion, and Thailand seems unable to. Raids by Thai police this year seized an estimated $7.9 million worth of Thailand-based assets allegedly belonging to southern commander Wei Xuegang. The haul included land, gold, mansions and luxury cars. But the UWSA's activities poison relations between Rangoon and Bangkok. The Wa issue has also created a dangerous rift between senior Thai military officers, who urge stronger measures to fight the UWSA and its drugs, and senior Thai politicians, who prefer to improve ties with Rangoon by fostering legitimate business and trade.

China is the one power in Asia whose opinion counts both in Rangoon and Panghsang. It has been suggested by Western diplomats that China backed Bao's relocation scheme in the hope that narcotics smuggling into Yunnan and beyond would decrease. There is evidence the gambit has failed. In April, with help from the DEA, authorities in the mainland commercial city of Shenzhen seized 357 kilograms of heroin that had originated in Wa territory. No wonder a drug official for Yunnan has described Bao's commitment to fighting drugs as "only lip service."

Indeed, Bao has more friends than enemies in China, including the numerous officials who have aided his highly visible enterprises in Yunnan. His interview with TIME ends because he has a business meeting to attend. A feast is laid out on a nearby table, but the Chairman isn't eating. However, he will join his foreign guests in a glass of fiery Wa State Rice Wine, made in his own factory. "Ganbei!" cries Bao, and knocks it down in one. Then he shakes hands and marches from the roompurposeful, confident, a Wa tribesman with his head very firmly on his shoulders.