The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY JEREMIAH JENNE

Mae Sa­long sits along a wind­ing moun­tain road in North­ern Thai­land. The vil­lage is in an iso­lated val­ley, the hill­sides lined with ter­raced fields. Thirty years ago it would have been nearly in­ac­ces­si­ble. To­day, a paved road de­posits tourists at a mar­ket at a cross­roads not far from the town cen­ter. Some come for the tea, others for the scenery, but most are here to ex­pe­ri­ence a cul­tural anom­aly: A lost colony of Chi­nese sol­diers from a for­got­ten war. Atop a ridge over­look­ing the town is the tomb of Duan Xi­wen (段希文). It was Gen­eral Duan who, more than 50 years ago, led a group of refugee sol­diers out of Myan­mar and into the hills north of Chi­ang Mai. For nearly two decades, Duan and his of­fi­cers ran a small semi-in­de­pen­dent fief­dom based in Mae Sa­long. They sur­vived by work­ing the land and the rev­enue they de­rived from their in­volve­ment in the Golden Tri­an­gle opium trade.

The vil­lage’s his­tory traces back to the con­clu­sion of the Chi­nese Civil War in 1949, when many of the forces loyal to the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment of Chi­ang Kai-shek re­treated to Tai­wan. But a few di­vi­sions, bot­tled up in the south­ern prov­ince of Yun­nan, in­stead fled south into Myan­mar. With as­sis­tance from the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment and US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, th­ese units es­tab­lished a base area in the hills along the China-myan­mar border.

But not ev­ery­one in the re­gion was so keen on the pres­ence of this ex­ile army of Chi­nese ir­reg­u­lars. The gov­ern­ment of Myan­mar saw the sol­diers not as refugees but as an in­va­sion. It was also feared that the KMT in­ter­lop­ers might pro­voke the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army into cross­ing the border into Myan­mar in the name of “counter-in­sur­gency.”

It was not an idle worry. The gov­ern­ment of Chi­ang Kai-shek, with the as­sis­tance of the CIA, was ac­tively sup­port­ing the KMT rem­nants in Myan­mar with arms, sup­plies, and train­ing. In 1951 the CIA pro­posed a plan known as Op­er­a­tion Pa­per as a way to di­vert Bei­jing’s at­ten­tion from the Korean Penin­sula. The KMT rem­nants strength­ened their forces with re­cruits from lo­cal hill tribes and refugees from Yun­nan. That sum­mer, they staged raids into south­ern Yun­nan and made mod­est gains, con­trol­ling four border coun­ties be­fore the PLA launched a coun­ter­at­tack in­flict­ing heavy ca­su­al­ties and forc­ing the KMT troops back across the border. Sub­se­quent op­er­a­tions in 1952 and 1953 also ended in fail­ure.

In the mean­time, many of the KMT rem­nants had turned their at­ten­tion away from “lib­er­at­ing” the Chi­nese main­land to tak­ing con­trol of the lo­cal opium trade. They built bases and vil­lages along the border with China. Men mar­ried into lo­cal fam­i­lies, giv­ing them ac­cess to re­sources, land, and la­bor. As the KMT refugees con­sol­i­dated their con­trol over vast ar­eas of eastern Myan­mar, the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment ap­pealed to the gov­ern­ment in Tai­wan and the United States to repa­tri­ate the sol­diers back to Tai­wan.

About 5,000 men and their fam­i­lies fi­nally left Myan­mar for Tai­wan at the end of 1953, but many sol­diers were un­will­ing to go. Most of the men were from Yun­nan, where many still had fam­i­lies; there was noth­ing wait­ing for them in Tai­wan. More­over, they had spilled blood and lost friends to carve a life out of the hills and jun­gles of Myan­mar. It wasn’t home, but it was an ex­is­tence, and with the development of the opium trade, an in­creas­ingly lu­cra­tive ex­is­tence.

In De­cem­ber of 1960, the gov­ern­ment of Myan­mar fi­nally ran out of pa­tience. Their army—with the as­sis­tance of PLA troops op­er­at­ing in Myan­mar—launched a ma­jor of­fen­sive on KMT bases in the border re­gions. Hun­dreds of KMT sol­diers and their de­pen­dents were killed, and the re­main­der fled east to the rel­a­tive safety of Thai­land and Laos.

One of th­ese refugee bands, led by Gen­eral Duan Xi­wen, re­grouped in the area around Mae Sa­long in North­ern Thai­land. At first, the Thai gov­ern­ment wasn’t any hap­pier than their Myan­mar coun­ter­parts to have KMT rem­nants dug into their border re­gions. But in the 1960s, the gov­ern­ment of Thai­land was fac­ing re­bel­lion from com­mu­nist guer­rilla groups as well as non-thai mi­nori­ties who re­sented their sec­ond-class sta­tus. The KMT rem­nant troops might have come into Thai­land un­in­vited, but they were or­ga­nized, bat­tle-tested, and staunchly an­ti­com­mu­nist. Through­out the 1960s and 1970s, troops based in Mae Sa­long un­der the com­mand of Gen­eral Duan loosely co­op­er­ated with the Thai gov­ern­ment and other KMT rem­nant bands in anti-in­sur­gency and border con­trol op­er­a­tions

The re­sults of this col­lab­o­ra­tion were dis­tinctly mixed. Co­or­di­na­tion be­tween KMT units was com­pli­cated by per­sonal and busi­ness ri­val­ries among the dif­fer­ent com­man­ders. Once en­sconced in Thai­land, Duan and the other KMT of­fi­cers re­sumed their in­volve­ment in the cul­ti­va­tion and pro­cess­ing of opium. Turf wars be­tween ri­val com­man­ders of­ten led to open fight­ing.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the Chi­nese com­mu­nity as­pired to be some­thing more than just refugees ek­ing out a liv­ing or drug traf­fick­ers fight­ing to keep a place in a vi­o­lent game. The orig­i­nal war­rior-refugees were no longer young men, and their sons had lit­tle in­ter­est in car­ry­ing on their mil­i­tary legacy.

Duan and other com­mu­nity lead­ers bro­kered a deal with the Thai gov­ern­ment: They would lay down their arms and dis­band their armies in ex­change for cit­i­zen­ship. To­day, most of the Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern Thai­land have been in­te­grated into the Thai ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem.

The most vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of Tai­wan’s as­sis­tance in this tran­si­tion is the tea plan­ta­tions which sur­round the vil­lage. Oo­long tea plants, im­ported from Tai­wan, thrived in the cool moun­tain­ous air of North­ern Thai­land. The de­mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the com­mu­ni­ties and the con­tin­ued in­sta­bil­ity in the Shan and Wa States in North­ern Myan­mar marked a de­cline in poppy cul­ti­va­tion on the Thai side of the border. To­day, many for­mer opium strongholds such as Mae Sa­long, Mae Chan, and Ban Hin Taek are tourist desti­na­tions.

In Mae Sa­long, Chi­nese signs still line the streets. The chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the KMT rem­nants own shops, restau­rants, and guest­houses. Chi­nese is al­most as widely spo­ken in the vil­lage as Thai. Restau­rants serve vari­a­tions on Yun­nanese spe­cial­ties and lo­cal tem­ples blend Thai Bud­dhism with Chi­nese icons and deities.

Res­i­dents are proud of their Chi­nese her­itage even as their chil­dren adopt Thai names and work hard to in­te­grate into Thai so­ci­ety. But the long iso­la­tion of the re­gion, along with the or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture es­sen­tially of a mil­i­tary camp into the 1980s, has pro­duced a cul­tural legacy dis­tinct from other Chi­nese di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties in Thai­land. They are no longer strangers in a strange land, nor are they still ex­iles. In the last two decades, many for­mer KMT sol­diers and their de­scen­dants have trav­eled back to Yun­nan to visit liv­ing rel­a­tives or care for the graves of those who have passed on. Nev­er­the­less, the res­i­dents of this North­ern Thai­land vil­lage still re­tain their own sense of his­tory, a com­mu­nity, and their mem­o­ries: They are the left-be­hind chil­dren of a for­got­ten war.

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