Lo Hsing Han: the life and crimes of Asia's heroin king


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Lo Hsing Han: the life and crimes of Asia's heroin king

Lo Hsing Han, who was buried in Yangon last week, led three exciting lives in his 80 or so years.

Published: 21/07/2013 at 12:42 AM

He not only excelled in each, he reached the top - as a national revolutionary, a cross-border drug trafficker and finally as a businessman who proved that you can buy respect from some bankers and governments, no matter how little you've done to earn it.

And while each of these careers seemed to contradict the others, Lo brought an often evil but unique creativity to each of his lives, integrating them into a smooth flow.

Lo was born around 1935 in the Kokang area of Shan State - no birth certificate has ever been seen. The area has close ties to China, and Lo's name at home is probably more correctly written as Law Sit-han (old style) or Luo Xinghan in pinyin.

He died of heart failure at home in Yangon, and his family said he was "about 80". In between, he had a remarkable life.

"Some days I almost admire this son of a ####################," a senior US anti-drug agent said. That was in the early 1990s, when Lo was the "Godfather of Heroin", as the wanted posters put it, but as Lo was outwardly transforming himself into a serious property developer.

This was his last metamorphosis, a symmetrical, successful power play that allowed the odious military junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council to pretend it was building a tourist industry, while Lo poured some of his billions in drug profits into the purchase of stature.

It worked. His funeral was attended by hundreds of respectable people in Yangon, instead of a quick cremation out behind an anonymous pagoda upcountry like other drug dealers and cross-border drug traffickers.

Through it all, from the time of John F Kennedy and Sarit Thanarat, coup-maker and Thai prime minister for six years to 1963, up until his death, Lo claimed to be a freedom fighter for the Tai Yai, or Shan.

In the 1960s, he proclaimed himself head of the Shan State Army, a group that ultimately had more factions than Christianity, but more futility than pounding sand.

Much has changed in Shan State in 50 years, but not its status as a territory, often a vassal, of the central government in Nay Pyi Taw. While this could mean Lo failed as a freedom fighter, the truth is more opaque.

For 25 years, he fought the Myanmar army to a standstill, and inspired the Shan people to believe that they could achieve independence through righteousness, if not military might.

When the time came - and Lo knew the right time - he parlayed what was essentially a military stand-off in Shan State into a degree of self-administration, accepted by both former dictators and the new government of President Thein Sein. At the same time, Shan State remains the trafficking centre of East Asia's opium and heroin trade.

This, more than his two other important achievements, is Lo's true legacy.

No matter what future history books may say about Lo the negotiator, Lo the luxury-hotel builder, Lo the business mogul, the real truth is that Lo was a drug trafficker like no other, ever.

When Lyndon Johnson was US president, pressing for victory in Vietnam, Lo was a young criminal on the verge of turning illegal drugs into a ruthless global business.

Johnson's successor as president, Richard Nixon, watched helplessly as Lo's No4-purity Double UO-Globe brand of heroin ravaged the US army in Vietnam.

Nixon lashed out by declaring a "war on drugs", which now, at 44 years and with no end in sight, is the longest declared war in US history. It has consumed many young, eager US Drug Enforcement Administration agents, none of whom ever got very close to the man who instigated the war.

If Lo threatened a generation of the US military, which he did, the threat to Thailand was worse by a magnitude.

His entire career as a drug trafficker depended on exploiting, corrupting and undermining Thailand. It is difficult to realise today just how much of Lo's business constantly threatened the very fabric of nation-religion-king.

From enslaving peasant farmers to controlling key figures near or at the top of successive military juntas and governments, Lo's money not only bought a network of drug traffickers that built unheard of profits, it also purchased or intimidated traitors to the nation who actually threatened for a historical moment to turn Thailand into a narcocracy.

If Lo had built a worldwide market for rice or cotton or widgets, he would arguably have been lauded by fellow tycoons and workers alike as a new Carnegie, Rockefeller or Ford. His business methods were not so different - "lobbying" of governments and thousands of agents through lavish spending, a constant search for new markets, ceaseless refinement of his own products, and completely unpitying elimination of competitors to assure and expand his power. Lo's methods were the epitome of naked capitalism.

To visualise how Lo achieved power, one must go back five decades in time. In the early 1960s, Shan State was in rebellion against a brand new military dictatorship in Yangon. The state and next-door northern Thailand were poor, riven with criminals in and out of government. There were no roads, virtually no government programmes. Gangs were so powerful that there were areas where national armies, Thai and Myanmar alike, could not go.

Lo was thus able to encourage or intimidate the poverty stricken farmers to grow opium for him. He sent agents to buy the crop each year. It also meant that Lo could set the price for his product, and keep the peasants in abject poverty for another year. But it also meant that the farmers did not have to trek for days to market.

Instead, Lo had to make the trek. And for this he invented, or rather adapted the Tai Yai tradition of mule trains. One of the stunning, lasting images of Adrian Cowell's stunning British TV documentary The Opium Warlords (1974) is the sight of the pack animals, hundreds of them in a line, trekking towards the jungle heroin refineries or the Thai border. Each is loaded with kilogrammes of opium.

The Opium Warlords documented events filmed for nine months behind the lines of the Shan State Army resistance to the government.

Years later, the royal-inspired crop substitution programme would break the hold of the Lo cartel over impoverished farmers in Thailand. But the true key to the success of crop substitution in the late 1970s was not simply putting tulips and coffee and oranges and Idaho potatoes where opium grew.

It was building the roads that enabled the farmers to get those attractive cash crops to market, quickly and securely.

Follow the history of road building in northern Thailand, and see the armed opposition and sham outrage of all the government's enemies and their fellow travellers, Lo's successors included.

Lo bought opium dirt cheap. But what came next revolutionised the very concept of drug trafficking.

He was the first to hire Thai fishing boats to haul tonnes of opium at a time to Hong Kong where it was refined into heroin.

Then, he was the first to import chemists-for-hire, mostly from Taiwan, to work for weeks at a time in small, jungle-based refineries. They churned out high, "No4 grade" product, bagged in plastic bags of 700g apiece, and embossed with Lo's brand, the Earth icon, lions rampant, the trade name "Double UO Globe", and, for good measure "100% pure" in Chinese..

In 1969 and 1970, Lo's trafficking ring took heroin to Vietnam, where it found almost no local demand - but became hugely popular with the US military forces, whose morale was already low because of the slow pullout from the war ordered by Nixon.

An estimated 10% of US troops used heroin to the point of addiction. It had severe knock-on effects, including the beginning of the all-volunteer army.

The war on drugs continued, but the enemy prospered. Lo was making billions, corrupting Thais up to the very top of government, and ruining millions of lives as the number of addicts swelled in Asia, Europe and the US.

These were the bookends of degradation - opium farmers in slavery, heroin addicts in thrall. But heroin mules, drug dealers, corrupt customs agents, army officers, police commanders and government officials mostly did well. And ruling them all was Lo Hsing Han.


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The US and Thailand declared Lo social enemy No1 and brought the infinite resources of government to bear. In Myanmar, Lo was untouchable, designated as a militia leader by the dictator Ne Win.

But in 1973, honest police trapped Lo inside the Thai border and arrested him. Quickly, however, in a jaw-dropping decision defying law and justice, Thai authorities released the continent's top drug dealer to the Myanmar government. Authorities there ran a show trial, put Lo away for treason for his stint with the Shan State Army, and then freed him in 1980 under the guise of a general prison amnesty.

Lo continued running his drug cartel from house arrest in Yangon, but was slowly losing control of the operation to a young up-and-coming Shan-Chinese crook, Khun Sa. Lo faced a crossroads: Battle the young upstart, or leave the business and change himself.

So he made a deal with the generals of the junta - his money, in exchange for their agreement to treat him with the respect due to a businessman. By the mid-1980s, Lo "emerged from the cocoon as a legitimate businessman", as a Singapore diplomat put it in an interview with the Bangkok Post at the time.

Into this new, respectable life, Lo brought his son Stephen, who prefers to spell the family name as Law. Stephen Law began moving the family fortune across borders, but instead of the direct bribery used by his father, Stephen Law used the velvet touch of huge bank deposits, promises of foreign investment. He found willing allies in the business communities and even governments of Thailand, but especially in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Partners emerged from these countries, who put their money into big projects in Myanmar, always under the watchful eyes of the ruling military junta. Luxury hotels, an entire port, a mobile phone company, business condominiums, car imports - these were just some of the new, upstanding businesses generated by the almost limitless funds available to Lo and his son.

But if you have visited Yangon, you have almost certainly used facilities provided by the profits of Lo's former business activities.

Freedom fighter, heroin trafficker, business mogul: Lo Hsing Han was all of these. But at his death, he was proof that for some at least, crime pays rather well.

This graphic prepared in 2008 showed some of the major family and business connections of Lo Hsing Han, most of them blocked or sanctioned by the US government, which called Lo the "Godfather of Heroin". (Reuters graphic)