One-time drug warlord Khun Sa, variously described as among the world's most wanted men and a great liberation fighter, died in Myanmar at the age of 74 last week, an associate said yesterday.
Khuensai Jaiyen, a former secretary of Khun Sa who works with ethnic Shan minority guerrilla groups, said his former boss died in Yangon, according to his relatives.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but Khun Sa had long suffered from diabetes, partial paralysis and high blood pressure.
A Myanmar official in Yangon confirmed the death. He was cremated yesterday morning, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
His body had been kept since last Friday at a cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon called Yay Way where the cremation took place, said a cemetery worker, who asked not to be named.
Khun Sa had lived in seclusion in Yangon since 1996, when he surrendered to the country's ruling military junta, which allowed him to run a string of businesses behind a veil of secrecy. At the height of his notoriety, Khun Sa presided over a veritable narcotics kingdom in the drug-producing Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.
For nearly four decades the charismatic warlord claimed to be fighting for autonomy for the Shan, one of many ethnic minorities who have battled Myanmar's central government for decades.
He painted himself as a liberation fighter for the Shan, heading up the Shan United Army -- later the Mong Tai Army -- in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State.
But narcotics agents around the world used terms like the "Prince of Death" to describe him, and the US offered a US$2 million reward for his arrest.
Born of a Chinese father and Shan mother on February 17, 1933, Khun Sa received little education but learned the ways of battle and opium from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), remnants of forces defeated by China's communists and forced to flee into Myanmar.
By the early 1960s Khun Sa, also known as Chang Chi-fu, had become a major player in the Golden Triangle -- then the world's major source for opium and its derivative, heroin.
He suffered a near knockout blow in the so-called 1967 Opium War, fighting a pitched battle with the KMT in Laos. Laotian troops intervened by bombing both sides and making off with the opium.
For a time he served in a Myanmar government militia, but was jailed in 1969 after allying himself with the Shan cause. He was freed five years later in exchange for two Russian doctors whom his followers had kidnapped.
The wily operator sought a less hostile environment in Thailand, setting up a hilltop base protected by his sizable Shan United Army. But when the Thais got too embarrassed by having a drug kingpin on their soil, he was driven out in 1982 and lodged himself in Ho Mong, an idyllic valley near the Thai frontier inside Myanmar.
There, the chain-smoking warlord entertained visitors with Taiwanese pop songs, grew orchids and strawberries and directed a flow of heroin to addicts around the world. At one point, Washington estimated that up to 60 percent of the heroin in the US was refined from opium in his area.
Khun Sa claimed he only used the drug trade to finance his Shan struggle. Peter Bourne, an adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter, called him "one of the most impressive national leaders I have met."
Khun Sa argued only economic development in the impoverished Shan State, still one of the major sources of the world's heroin, could stop opium growing and its smuggling to the "drug-crazed West."
"My people grow opium. And they are not doing it for fun. They do it because they need to buy rice to eat and clothes to wear," he once said.
He carried out a one-way correspondence with US presidents, offering to sell Washington the entire crop of opium in exchange for funds to implement his development plans for the Shans.
But in 1989, he was indicted for heroin trafficking by a New York court and his extradition to the US was requested.
Khun Sa continued to war with the central government and rival ethnic guerrilla groups like the Wa until 1996 when the junta, which had once threatened to hang him, offered him amnesty. He disbanded his Mong Tai Army of about 10,000 fighters and moved to Yangon.
Although difficult to confirm, reports said he lived a life of luxury in a secluded compound, having been awarded concessions to operate a transport company and a ruby mine and other businesses.
There was speculation that he was still involved in the narcotics trade.
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