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The Godfather of the Golden Triangle: Lo Hsing Han, Obituary

Most crime bosses and drug barons never reach old age, unless they end up behind bars serving a life sentence. More often than not they are eliminated in a hail of bullets fired by either a police sharp-shooters or from a rival gang.

But  Lo Hsing Han ,the former ‘King of the Golden Triangle’ heroin trade  who survived several decades of opium wars in the Shan state and became one of the world’s ‘Most Wanted Men’, amazingly defied the odds to become an octogenarian. He died in Yangon on July 6th 2013 aged 80.

Nor did this legendary drug-trafficker die in lonely obscurity shunned by society. His lavish funeral was a VIP affair attended by former generals, two cabinet ministers, and hundreds of well-wishers from Burmese high society.

They paid tribute to his rare metamorphosis from a notorious drug-kingpin to a respected business tycoon, the founder of the Asia World Group that has become a dominating pillar of the Myanmar economy. He is also credited with being the key player in establishing the nation’s economic dependence on narco-profits in the 1990s.

Lo was born around 1935 into a poor ethnic Chinese family in the Kokang district of the Shan state northern Myanmar.

His career in the opium trade began in the 1960s not as an outlaw, but as the leader of a Yangon–sanctioned militia, the KKY, under the auspices of General Ne Win’s dictatorship.

The militias were supposed to fight Shan rebel armies and the Burmese communist guerrillas but expended most of their energy on taxing and protecting mule convoys carrying huge sacks of opium. Thanks to a complex chess-board of   nationalist rebels, opium warlords, the Burmese army and communist guerrillas backed by China, anarchy reigned supreme in the Shan state.

After the 1967 Opium War, Lo Hsing Han emerged as the big winner and consolidated much of the opium trade under his command, still enjoying the blessings of the Ne Win regime.

But the regime came to realise that their home guard KKY militias were a failure and started to disband them in 1973, prompting Lo to abruptly change sides and team up with his former enemies the SSA rebels –the Shan State Army.

During the next 20 years the Lo Hsing Han real–life story was packed with more intrigues, changing allegiances and betrayals, than a John Le Carre novel.

British film-maker Adrian Cowell filmed his classic ‘Opium Warlords’ (‘screened on ITV in 1974), after spending more than nine months trapped in the Shan jungles. It featured for the first time an interview with Lo, the legendary warlord.

Lo, the drug trafficker warlord, unexpectedly offered a diplomatic deal to end the narcotics trade in Burma, by offering to sell the whole opium harvest to the US government in exchange for a mere $12 million. It was taken seriously in Washington by a US congressional committee.

DEA agents based in Thailand arranged for Thai Police to pick him up inside Burma with a message that high-ranking US officials had agreed to talks in Chiangmai.  However after the Thai helicopter collected him from inside Burma, he was stunned to be immediately arrested upon arrival in Thailand July 1973.

US law enforcement plans were confounded by the sudden deportation of the prize catch to Yangon. Some Thai officials clearly wanted to stop Lo Hsing Han from talking. Many high-ranking Thai police and military officials were on Lo’s extensive payroll, which helped to grease the smooth transportation of narcotics delivery by road from the Shan state to Thai ports, without being intercepted by police checkpoints.

The Ne Win regime promptly indicted him for treason and he was sentenced to death. In another twist to the saga, the verdict was soon set aside in favour of an 8 years jail term, much of it served comfortably under house arrest. Then in 1980 amnesty was granted and he returned to Lashio in Shan state.

The military junta’s intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt had spotted an opportunity to recycle the resourceful man from Kokang, who had contacts with everybody in the ethnic mosaic of the Shan state, to work for the regime in a new capacity.

A 1989 mutiny inside the communist BCP proved to be a major game-changer, which allowed Lo Hsing Han to play his newly assigned role as a broker of ceasefires.

His contacts with all the Shan, Kokang and Wa rebel armies helped General Khin Nyunt to conclude a series of ceasefire agreements, and in return the military junta happily re-licensed Lo to resume the opium and heroin trade in opposition to rival drug warlord Khun Sa, who was still fighting the government under the banner of Shan nationalism.

In 1992 Asia World Corporation was set up in Yangon as a family partnership between Lo Hsing Han the chairman and his son US- educated Steven Law, the managing director.

The company’s portfolio included: import-export business, bus transport, property development and Rangoon’s port development.

But it was Singapore ‘s decision to get into bed with the Lo family’s Asia world conglomerate with a stake in two new luxury hotel through the government’s investment arm GIS, that garnered most international attention.

According to research based on all the available date of Myanmar’s trade investment and revenue in the fiscal year 1995-6, no less than US$600 million income in the state treasury could not be accounted for.

This conspicuous gap in Myanmar’s bookkeeping at a time when their official economy was on the rocks, points to only one plausible explanation–a generous infusion of narco-dollars from the Golden Triangle coming from Lo. One of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs had come to the rescue of a faltering economy in dire straits.

The grand wedding of  Steven Law to Singaporean business partner Cecilia Ng in 1996  clearly helped to cement the growing ties between the military junta, Asia World, and Singapore investors..

The Lo family’s guest of honour was Hotels and Tourism Minister Lieut. General Kyaw Ba, accompanied by four more cabinet ministers, and two planeloads of wedding guests from Singapore. The special charter flights not only carried the bride’s relatives, but also investors from representing one of Asia’s most important financial hubs.

US officials claimed that half of Singapore’s investments in Myanmar have been tied to Lo’s family.

It was far more than a grand wedding bash. It symbolised Lo Hsing Han’s metamorphosis from a drug baron to a corporate respectability, and his acceptance by investors from a key member of the Asean business community.

Asia World established three subsidiaries in Singapore jointly run by Steven Law and his wife Cecilia Ng (Ng Sor Hong) she allegedly also runs an underground banking system facilitating money-laundering and safe tax havens for narco-dollars.

Although Singapore is proud of its mandatory death penalty for small-time narcotics couriers and heroin addicts, both father and son travelled freely in and out of the island city state.

Steven Law and his father had become VIPs in Burma, and welcome business partners in Singapore, but they were forbidden to enter the United States since 1996 on “suspicion of involvement in narcotics trafficking.”

Under new US sanctions imposed in 2008 Asia World and six of its subsidiaries were blacklisted and similar sanctions were applied by the UK.

But these sanctions have done little to hinder Asia World‘s dynamic expansion. The company built on the illicit black economy has thrived,  and currently  partners major companies from mainland China in several mega-projects including an oil and gas pipeline, a deep sea port at Kyaukpyu, and the controversial Myitsone dam project.

Another irony is that Lo was closely connected to Taiwan’s military intelligence for 30 years, and deployed his Shan and Kokang soldiers to fight against Beijing-backed Burmese communist party.

Asia World has its financial foundations built on the law of the Burmese jungle and the 3 Gs :Guns, Gold and Goons. But  Lo’ s legacy will casts a long shadow over the aspirations of many groups to move the economy out of the hands of the cronies, and towards a respect for environment, human rights and the development of a democracy.

This account of the Life and Times of Lo Hsin Han provided the basis for the obituary published in The Economist in July, 2013.

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