Saturday, May 5, 2018

Part 1. The Lost Army

Olive would spend endless, sunless afternoons in the stone courtyard with her father, an authoritarian in the Confucian tradition, receiving the complaints and petitions of the Shans, Lisus, Miao, Kachin and Wa tribes who lived in the mountains.

In Lashio the other children would say, 'Stay away from Olive, she has a revolver in her handbag.'

She was declared princess at 21 and exiled a year later. She threw a chamber pot at her husband on their wedding night, and rumours circulated about her affairs with women.

In the moonlight, villagers whispered about dead, bodiless women they saw around her house, floating through the jungle with beautiful luminescent faces and long black hair, leaving trails of blood along the forest floor.

In 1950, as the Communists moved south of the Yangtze, Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomingtang forces conceded defeat by retreating to Taiwan loaded with a millenniums worth of Chinese history. Under the command of General Li Mi, the last 93rd Division of the Nationalist army in Yunnan decided that rather than surrender they would slip quietly across the border into Northern Burma.

Appealing to her vanity rather than her politics, they invited Olive to lead an army of 300 men to continue their guerrilla war against the Communists in China. Dressed as a man with a Belgian pistol in each holster, she funded her military excursions by controlling the opium grown by the hilltribes living in the mountains of Kokang, managing its production, distribution and consumption.

Locals complained that since the Chinese came, they would find their drying clothes soiled with blood and excrement. An opium farmer saw the whole jungle lit up with the glowing faces of young women, moving like will-o-wisps through the darkness. He described the trachea, heart, stomach and lengths of intestine hanging below their necks dripping with liquid black opium.

When her opium caravans approached a village, all the women and children would run into the forest.

In Tachilek, the raw opium was traded at the markets for pure gold bars, where the Mekong meets the Ruak river and the intersections of the Burma, Thai and Laos states form a perfect triangle.

Part 2. The Anarchist State of Zomia

Olive's kingdom sits within the borders of Zomia, a state not defined by rivers or cattle paths, mountain ranges or the convergence of ethnic polity, but rather a narrow range of altitude between 400 to 4000 meters. Stretching across the mainland of Southeast Asia, China, India and Bangladesh it is not a state but how people organize themselves living in between, at the edges of, or far above the state. If it is a state at all, it is an anarchist one.

In these mountains, every step was either up or down. You could create a model of it by crumpling a piece of paper in the hand, relaxing the pressure, and tossing it on a table. Folds and creases, mountains and valleys but try to find a level surface.

The light of the sun shines bright, and reveals a terrain of grass plateau, pleasantly dotted with patches of jungle and streams which run across a range of limestone mountains, reappearing on the other side as coffee coloured rivers.

'To have the tribes, one must buy their opium.'

The mountain peoples of Zomia are nomadic, and would rather slash and burn the forest to grow their sweet grasses and tubers than raise rice in the valleys. The myths they tell over the hearth always mention that they lost their writing in their travels and never bothered to learn it again. In their mountain transience, the state was unable to pin and mount, coerce and tax. Without the Word, there were no names, families and houses to fill the ledgers of the succession of Burmese, Chinese and British administrators who dared venture into those vertiginous peaks.

Their nomadism was also expressed in their colourful, intricately embroidered dress told the history of written their people, written on their shirtsleeves and the hems of their skirts. The rings of necklaces they wore around their necks which made them seem strangely opulent was in fact a consequence of having to carry everything they owned on their person in case they had to abandon their villages.

Zomia could be thought of as a Southeast Asian Alps that sprawls across several nation states, a mountain kingdom like Switzerland at the periphery of Germany, France, and Italy that became its own nation state.

The highland farmers of Zomia earned a pittance for their poppies, but the un-natural capitalist relations the Chinese brought with them into the mountains turned opium into cash above and below. The poppy was another weapon of the weak against their fate, where craggy mountain passes above 1000 meters can bloom with the powder pink bulb, and its perfume can become a form of dreamy resistance against the state.

Appendix 1

A long time ago a very elderly woman died of old age. Before she died she asked that she be buried near a busy crossroad. About three months after her funeral, two brightly coloured flowers bloomed with greenish, tubular stems on the grave above her loins. As the petals fell away from the flowers, it exposed an egg shaped seedpod.
When a farmer saw these strange plants, he extracted the sap by slitting the pod vertically in parallel strokes with a special curved knife. As the sap oozed out, it turned darker and thicker, forming a brownish-black gum. The farmer collected the gum with a scraping knife, bundled it into bricks, cakes and balls, wrapped them in leaves and brought it back to the village.

They mixed the gum with lime in boiling water and let the waste sink to the bottom. On the surface a white band formed, which was drawn off, reheated, filtered and boiled again until it was reduced to a brown paste. The villagers
smoked the paste in their pipes and liked the taste more than the tobacco so they planted their fields and began selling it to the other villages.

Part 3. Three White Men

‘The joint chief of staff have noted the evidences of renewed vitality and increased effectiveness of the Chinese Nationalist Forces. We recommend the implementation of a program of special covert operations designed to interfere with Communist Activities in South East Asia.’

Three white men entered the mountains.

Bill Young was a missionary’s son born in Burma who spoke Shan, Burmese, Laos and the local dialect of Lahu, who worshipped him as the white deity jamaw. As a CIA operative, he recruited men from the Hmong, Lahu and Akha villages he passed between Thailand and Northern Laos, skirmishing with the Pathet Laos and Viet Cong they encountered along the way.

Young and his hilltribe militia travelled up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, between the smoking craters and uninterrupted supply lines to the muddy women and children who emerged from the darkness of the jungle to fill those mortared trails with earth.

Pop Buell was a retired farmer from Indiana. He came to teach the Hmong tribes how to pray and how to grow, even if the crop happened to be opium. The quantities of opium from those swidden forest plantations increased as Pop Buell streamlined their agriculture and substituted opium with US branded morphine.

'If you're gonna grow it, grow it good. But don't anyone smoke the stuff.' 

Later, CIA paramilitary officer Anthony Poeshepny led the Hmong in lightning advances that leapt from mountain to mountain, capturing comrades and cadres, offering money to the villagers for the ear of every communist soldier they could bring back. Often, he would send an envelope of these ears to the embassy in Vientiane, marking his body counts. To echo fear through the valley and mountain passes, Poeshepny dropped the severed heads of captured soldiers into communist villages.

Pregnant women feared the wandering spirits of all those headless bodies left behind in Poeshepny’s midnight raids. Lonely cries from the forest would signal the presence of hungry ghosts with glowing red viscera and lupine fangs, attracted by the placenta of unborn children. The villagers would build spiky bamboo fences around their huts, convinced that its trailing intestines would be caught in the spines.
To fight an invisible war, you need invisible soldiers, and in those poppy covered mountains and impenetrable green valleys, the Hmong tribes invisibility in the eyes of the state allowed it to become a shadow army for the CIA.

The Pathet Laos captured the Plain of Jars cutting off supply lines to the villages. To feed their invisible army, the CIA dropped rice, chickens, pigs and water buffalo to the isolated soldiers and transported raw opium back to their corrupt allies.

On the slopes of Mong Hsat, the blackness of night absorbed the sound of the C-47 aircraft as Olive waited for the weekly deliveries of 'hard rice'; rifles, machine guns and ammunition with US markings to arm her rebel army. From the dying heat of the afternoon emerged a cold war order which made brothers and sisters of opium farmers, drug lords and states.

Appendix 2

Long ago on the banks of the Mekong lived a shaman. A rat shared his hut. Since the rat was afraid of cats, he requested the shaman turn him into a cat. On becoming a cat, dogs started troubling him and so he sought another transformation, but now into a dog.

This wish too was granted. However, his troubles continued which he tired to overcome by seeking further transformation into a monkey, boar, elephant and then finally, into a beautiful maiden. This beautiful maiden married a king, but soon after fell into a well and died. The aggrieved king turned to the shaman for solace. The shaman promised to make his wife immortal, and converted her body into a poppy plant.

The shaman said, “A capsule of this plant will produce opium. Men will take it greedily. Whosoever partakes of it will acquire a particular trait of each of the animals into which opium was transformed. In other words, the consumer of opium will turn out to be as sneaky as a rat, as lazy as a cat, as unclean as a dog, as quarrelsome as a monkey, as savage as a boar, as strong as an elephant and as spirited as a queen.