Monday, March 5, 2012
When Taiwan Had a Secret Army in Burma
Deep in the heart of Southeast Asia, the Golden Triangle is notorious for opium production and lawlessness. Straddling the three nations of Thailand, Burma and Laos, this area was also the scene of low-key but tense and complex geopolitical and military struggles involving Taiwan, China, the United States and the three Southeast Asian nations.
“The Secret Army” by Richard M. Gibson and Wen H. Chen is the story of the fugitive forces of the KMT (Kuomintang) that fled to Burma from the Chinese province of Yunnan after the Communist defeat of the KMT in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Southeast Asia was a cauldron of turmoil and instability during the early 1950s. Post-World War II Burma was newly independent and struggling to keep itself together in the face of various ethnic insurgencies. Neighboring countries, such as Laos, were coping with domestic communist threats and coups, as well as with American, mostly CIA, interference. The KMT forces took advantage of this precarious state of affairs to set themselves up, establishing bases and recruiting local militias.
The main goal was to retake Yunnan and help the KMT invade and regain mainland China. Despite aid from the United States and Thailand, they failed miserably in two attempts, being pushed back easily by mainland Chinese troops without ever winning a battle. But they proved adroit in exploiting Burmese instability, as well as getting into the bustling local narcotics trade.
Taipei and the leaders of this Southeast Asian “army” were also adept in exploiting the regional geopolitical web. They constantly refused to leave Burma, which launched several campaigns against them and threatened several times to bring this issue before the United Nations.
Forced out of Burma eventually by a joint Burmese-Chinese campaign in 1961, many of these soldiers went to Laos to fight as mercenaries in the civil war. Others went to Thailand, where they helped end a communist insurgency and founded villages in the sparsely populated northern highlands.
Taipei loosely controlled these forces, which were at times almost autonomous. For all their tenacity and adaptability, these forces were generally a nuisance, incapable of doing much to fulfill their original mandate of invading China. The refusal of Taiwan to remove its troops from a sovereign country (Burma) because of a stubborn aim to maintain a presence against China on its southern border is a black mark on the foreign policy of Taipei of that era.
“The Secret Army” is meticulously researched and footnoted, with the authors having drawn from English and Chinese-language material. This extensive research means the book is full of detail on battles, campaigns, high-level meetings and political maneuvering. Unfortunately, the details overshadow the story itself as readers are overwhelmed by facts, statistics, and minutiae. In contrast to the detailed writing, the simple black-and-white maps do not provide much help in understanding local terrain or troop movements during battles.
The book also provides little historical background or insight into any of the main people described and only limited narrative of what is a fascinating story. The drug trade features less prominently than the “drug warlords” in the book’s subtitle would lead one to expect.
The last few chapters provide some detail on the soldiers’ involvement in drug smuggling, with commanders forming drug armies with their troops. Even then, readers are not provided with much knowledge of how the drug lords built up their armies or came to take control.
Readers will nonetheless come away with insights into the duplicity of the Taiwanese leadership, which took advantage of corrupt Thai officials and the threat of Communist China to maintain its army in Southeast Asia.
Also striking is the CIA’s use of its own airline (the predecessor to its Air America that became famous in Vietnam) to provide supplies and arms to the KMT force and assist in drug smuggling. More pertinent to current geopolitics is the use of ethnic militias and conscripts in Burma by the KMT forces. At that time, several ethnic minorities were engaged in conflicts with the Burmese state, which the KMT exploited by recruiting and training minority militias.
“The Secret Army” is an impressive addition to the historical record but fewer details and more narrative and personal profiles would have given it more impact. The existence of the KMT army in Southeast Asia might be an interesting piece of recent Asian history, but this book unfortunately does not fully convey why.
The Asian Review of Books
Hilton Yip is a writer based in Taiwan and former book editor of The China Post.
The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle
By Richard M. Gibson and Wen H. Chen (John Wiley & Sons, October 2011)