The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

3. The Colonial Legacy:
Opium for the Natives*

* For a more detailed discussion on opium in China, see the Appendix by Leonard P. Adams 11

WHEN Santo Trafficante, Jr., boarded a commercial jet for the flight to Southeast Asia, he was probably unaware that Western adventurers had been coming to Asia., for hundred of years to make their fortunes in the narcotics trade. Earlier adventurers had flown the flag of the Portuguese Empire, the British East India Company, and the French Republic; Trafficante was a representative of the American Mafia. While he was traveling on a jet aircraft, they had come in tiny, wooden-hulled Portuguese caravels, British men-of-war, or steel-ribbed steamships. With their superior military technology, they used their warships to open up China and Southeast Asia for their opium merchants and slowly proceeded to conquer the Asian land mass, dividing it up into colonies. Sanctimonious empire builders subjected millions of natives to the curse of opium addiction, generating enormous revenues for colonial development, and providing profits for European stockholders. Thus, the Mafia was following in the wake of a long tradition of Western drug trafficking in Asia-but with one important difference. It was not interested in selling Asian opium to the Asians; it was trying to buy Asian heroin for the Americans.

The recent rise of large-scale heroin production in Southeast Asia is the culmination of four hundred years of Western intervention in Asia. In the 1500s European merchants introduced opium smoking; in the 1700s the British East India Company became Asia's first large scale opium smuggler, forcibly supplying an unwilling China; and in the 1800s every European colony had its official opium dens. At every stage of its development, Asia's narcotics traffic has been shaped and formed by the rise and fall of Western empires. (1) Before the first Portuguese ships arrived in the 1500s, opium smoking and drug smuggling were almost unknown in Asia. Most of the traditional Asian states were inward-looking empires with only a marginal interest in sea trade. Their economies were self-contained, and they only ventured abroad to trade for luxury goods, rare spices, or art treasures. (2) Asia's large cities-such as Peking, Phnom Penh, and Mandalay-were inland ceremonial capitals. For the most part, coastal areas were considered undesirable and therefore remained relatively underpopulated. (3) While Arab traders had introduced the opium poppy into India and some parts of southwestern China in the seventh century A.D., poppy cultivation remained limited and opium was used almost exclusively for medicinal purposes.

Europe's "Age of Discovery" marked the beginning of Asia's opium problem. Only six years after Columbus "discovered" America, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the tip of Africa and became the first European sea captain to reach India. Later Portuguese fleets pushed onward to China and the Spice Islands of Indonesia. These early merchants were not the omnipotent conquerors of later centuries, and Asian empires had no difficulty confining them to small commercial beachheads along the unoccupied coastlines. However, from the very beginning of the Western-Eastern encounter the traders were hampered by a factor that was destined to plague these entrepreneuring European merchants down through the centuries: Europe had almost nothing to trade that the Asians were interested in acquiring, except its gold and silver specie.-' Unwilling to barter away the basis of their national economies, the Portuguese sea captains embarked on what one American economist has called "slash and burn colonialism." (4)

Fortifying their coastal enclaves against possible reprisal attacks, the Portuguese proceeded to sortie out into the sea-lanes of the South China Sea, confiscating native cargoes and plundering rival ports. Once the competing Malay, Chinese, and Arab sea captains had been subjugated, the Portuguese took over inter-Asian maritime commerce and paid for the silks and spices with their plundered profits. Medicinal opium had been carried by Asian ships in the India-China-Spice Islands' triangular trade, and Portuguese merchants fell heir to this commerce. Still eager for an enticing exchange commodity to barter for Chinese silks, the Portuguese imported tobacco from their Brazilian colony in the late 1500s.

Although the Chinese frustrated Portuguese hopes by growing their own tobacco, the tobacco pipe itself, which had been introduced by the Spanish, turned out to be the key that unlocked the gates to the Celestial Kingdom's riches. Indian opium mixed with tobacco and smoked through a pipe was pleasing to the Chinese palate. This fad first became popular among the overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia, and Dutch merchants witnessed Chinese smoking an opium-tobacco mixture in Indonesia as early as 1617. By the early seventeenth century the Dutch, who had preempted the Portuguese position in Southeast Asia, were reportedly pushing opium on Taiwan and making inroads into the nearby Chinese coast. (5)

While the "Age of Discovery" introduced a few Chinese to opium smoking, it was Europe's Industrial Revolution that transformed China into a nation of addicts. The expansion of Europe's industrial might throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed a need for new markets and raw materials. European colonies in Asia broke out of their coastal enclaves and began spreading into the interior. With their new military-industrial might, small European armies were able to overwhelm Asian levies and carve Asia into vast colonial empires (6) To defray the enormous expenses involved in administering and "developing" their Asian colonies, the European powers turned to the opium trade. As the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, England emerged as the world's most powerful colonial power and its largest opium merchant.

After annexing much of northern India in the late eighteenth century, English bureaucrats established a monopoly over Indian poppy cultivation in Bengal and began exporting thousands of chests of smoker's opium to China. The average annual British India opium exports grew to 270 tons in 1821 and leaped to over 2,400 tons by 1838. (7)

As opium addiction spread through the imperial bureaucracy and the army, Chinese officials became extremely concerned about the social and economic costs of opium smoking. The emperor had banned opium imports in 1800, but British merchant captains ignored the imperial edict. When the British refused to desist despite repeated requests, Chinese officials threw several thousand kilos of British opium into Canton harbor in a gesture of defiance rather similar to another nation's Boston Tea Party. Britain reacted to protect her interests: from 1839 until 1842 her warships blasted the Chinese coast, winning a decisive victory in what Chinese historians call "the Opium War." Although China was forced to open treaty ports to European merchants and thereby to opium imports, she steadfastly refused to legalize the opium trade.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the tempo of the Industrial Revolution quickened, producing a new burst of empire building. Europe's imperial real estate brokers divided the world into colonies, Protectorates, and "spheres of influence." All the gray, "unknown" areas of the world map became tinted with the pinks, blues, and greens of European ownership. The kingdom of Burma became British Burma; Thailand became a British sphere of influence; and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia became French Indochina.

As the age of "steam and steel" dawned, the clipper ship gave way to the steelhulled steamship and the Suez Canal was opened, ultimately changing the face of Southeast Asia. Eager to tap the agricultural and mineral wealth of this lush region, colonial engineers pushed gleaming steel railroads through the dense tropical rain forests into virgin hinterlands. At the beginning of the rail lines small fishing villages and tidal estuaries mushroomed into Asia's great urban cities-Rangoon, Singapore, Djakarta, Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. At the end of the line, European entrepreneurs dug mines or laid out vast plantations that produced valuable export crops for the motherland's growing industries-including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, jute, hemp, and copra. (8)



The breakneck pace of this economic growth required vast legions of toiling laborers. While Europeans were willing to don pith helmets and bark orders, they had not come to Southeast Asia to sweat in the mines, harvest crops, or load cargo. Although sufficient numbers of Southeast Asian "natives" could be lured onto nearby plantations and dragooned into working on roads or railways, they clung to their ricegrowing villages, spurning the urban entrepots where they were needed as craftsmen, merchants, and "coolies." To fill this labor gap, the European colonialists populated their port cities with Armenians, Jews, Indians, and Chinese. By virtue of their sheer numbers, however, the Chinese were by far the most important. (9)

For, in the early nineteenth century, the population of coastal provinces of southern China (particularly in Kwangtung and Fukien provinces) had reached a saturation point: famine was in the air, and thousands of desperate peasants began migrating. (10) Paced by the tempo of colonial economic expansion, the Chinese migration started off as a trickle in the late eighteenth century, increased steadily through the middle decades of the nineteenth, and reached flood proportions by the early twentieth. While some of the emigrants went to California, where they helped to build the western section of the transcontinental railway in the 1860s, or around Cape Horn to the Caribbean, where they worked the island plantations, most of them went to Southeast Asia, where work was available in abundance. By 1910 there were 120,000 Chinese in Saigon and the Mekong Delta, 200,000 in Bangkok, and over 60,000 in the Rangoon area. (11) The opium habits so diligently fostered and fed by the British warships came along with them. While the habit had first become popular among the upper classes in the eighteenth century, it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that it spread to the urban working classes and rural villages. As living conditions continued to worsen, more and more Chinese turned to something that would dull the increasing misery of their lives. By 1870, in the aftermath of yet another opium war (1856-1858), which forced the Chinese imperial government to legalize the importation of opium, British merchants were supplying the habits of an estimated 15 million Chinese opium addicts. (12)

As Chinese immigrants began settling in Southeast Asia, the profitminded colonial governments decided to set up licensed opium dens to service the Chinese addicts. By the late nineteenth century the government opium den was as common as the pith helmet, and every nation and colony in Southeast Asiafrom North Borneo to Burma-had a state-regulated opium monopoly. (13) The indigenous population gradually picked up the habit, too, thus fostering a substantial-and growingconsumer market for opium among the Thais, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Malayans. While the health and vitality of the local population literally went up in smoke, the colonial governments thrived: opium sales provided as much as 40 percent of colonial revenues and financed the building of many Gothic edifices, railways, and canals that remain as the hallmark of the colonial era. (14)

Moreover, the growth of mass opium addiction throughout the nineteenth century prompted a rapid expansion of China's own opium production. As China's addict population began to grow in the early nineteenth century, the opium poppy spread out from its original home in mountainous Yunnan and Szechwan to most of the other provinces in southern and central China. Despite the proliferation of the poppy seed, opium was still an illegal crop, and sporadic enforcement of the ban served to limit cultivation even among remote hill tribes. Once opium imports were legalized in 1858, however, many officials no longer bothered to discourage local cultivation. Writing in the October 15, 1858, edition of the New York Daily Tribune, Karl Marx commented that "the Chinese Government will try a method recommended by political and financial considerations-viz: legalize the cultivation of poppy in China..." (15) Chinese provincial officials started encouraging local production and by the 1880s China's biggest opium-producing province, Szechwan, was harvesting an estimated ten thousand tons of raw opium annually. (16) In fact, the harvest in the opium-rich southern provinces was so bountiful that China's second largest opium-producing province, Yunnan, had begun exporting opium to Southeast Asia. In 1901 the governor-general of French Indochina reported that half of the opium retailed by the colony's opium monopoly was from neighboring Yunnan, and a French business periodical noted with interest that Yunnan was harvesting three thousand tons of raw opium annually. (17) In addition, cheap Yunnanese opium became the staple of Southeast Asia's growing illicit traffic. Unable to pay the outrageous prices demanded by the profit-hungry government monopolies, addicts in Burma, Thailand, and Indochina turned to the black market for supplies of smuggled Yunnanese opium. Every year vast mule caravans protected by hundreds of armed guards left Yunnan, crossed the ill-defined border into northeastern Burma, Thailand, and French Tonkin (northern Vietnam) carrying tons of illicit opium. (18)

Southeast Asia's own opium production began in the nineteenth century. At about the same time that opium production intensified in southern China, Yunnanese merchants and migrating Chinese hill tribes introduced the opium poppy into the adjoining mountains of Burma and Indochina. Prodded by the insatiable demands of addicts in China's coastal cities, Yunnanese traders moved into Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region-comprising the rugged Shan hills of Burma, the serpentine ridges of northern Thailand, and the Meo highlands of Laos trading with the opium-growing tribesmen and propagating cash-crop opium farming. (For the Golden Triangle region see Map 5 on page 154.) Many of these tribesmen-particularly the Meo and Yao-had fled from southern China because of a brutal Chinese pacification campaign rather similar to the one launched by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry against the Great Plains Indians fifty years later. Throughout the nineteenth century, wave after wave of Meo and Yao tribesmen migrated into the mountains of Indochina, bringing with them the knowledge of poppy cultivation. Other such Southeast Asian hill tribes as the Lahu, Wa, Kachin, and Lisu straddled the border between northeastern Burma and western Yunnan Province. These Burmese tribes were economically oriented toward southern China and dealt with the same Yunnanese traders as their kinsmen in western Yunnan. When one British explorer traveled through hill tribe areas of northeastern Burma in the 1890s, he saw "miles of slopes covered with the poppy" and noted that the "fields climb up steep ravines and follow the sheltered sides of ridges. (19) Similarly, French colonial administrators traveling through Laos and Tonkin in the late nineteenth century observed that Meo and Yao tribesmen cultivated the opium poppy. (20)

Despite these promising early developments, Southeast Asia's hill tribes failed to keep pace with their kinsmen in southern China, and the Golden Triangle region did not develop large-scale opium production until the 1940s, a full fifty years after China.

The explanation for this half-century delay in the growth of the Golden Triangle's opium production is simple: British Burma, French Indochina, and the Kingdom of Thailand (Siam) did everything in their power to discourage their hill tribes from growing opium. While British India and imperial China generated revenues by producing and exporting opium, Southeast Asian governments gained their revenues from the sale of refined opium to addicts, not from the production and export of raw opium. Through their own official monopolies or licensed franchised dealers, Southeast Asian governments imported raw opium from abroad (usually India, China, or Iran), refined it into smoking opium, and then made an enormous profit by selling it to consumers at inflated prices. Official monopolies and franchises were continually raising prices to maximize their profits, and frequently forced addicts onto the black market, where smuggled Yunnanese opium was available at a more reasonable cost. Smuggling became the bane of official dealers, forcing their government sponsors to mount costly border patrols to keep cheaper opium out and to lower prices to win back customers. It was their concern over the smuggling problem that led colonial governments to reduce and restrict hill tribe opium production. Knowledgeable colonial officials felt that local hill tribe poppy cultivation would magnify the smuggling because: (1) customs officers patrolling the hills would find it impossible to distinguish between legitimate hill tribe opium and smuggled Yunnanese opium; and (2) the hill tribes would divert opium to the black market, adding to the flow of illicit supplies and further reducing government revenues. (21)

These concerns influenced colonial opium policy in the Golden Triangle from the very beginning of European rule in the northern borderlands of Burma and Indochina. After the British pacified northeastern Burma in the late 1880s, they made sporadic attempts at reducing tribal opium production along the Chinese border until 1923, when they launched a systematic campaign to reduce opium production in these areas. (22) Following their annexation of Tonkin (1884) and Laos (1893), French colonists experimented with large-scale commercial poppy plantations but consistently avoided promoting hill tribe production for almost fifty years. (23) Thus, while provincial officials in southern and western China were actively promoting poppy cultivation, colonial officials across the border in the Golden Triangle were either restraining or actively reducing hill tribe opium production. This difference accounts for the retarded development of Golden Triangle opium production.