Doi Mae Salong History

The Colourful History of Doi Mae Salong

The seeds of the Doi Mae Salong community were sown way back at the end of the Chinese Civil War, in October 1949.

This really is an incredible story, set against a backdrop of the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War and The Cold War… Partipants in the unfolding story include; the KMT, Chinese PLA, the Burmese, Laotian, Thai & Taiwanese Armies, the United Nations, the US. State Department, the CIA, Air America, Shan militias, opium warlords, hill tribes, corrupt police & government officials, Chiang Kai Shek, General Douglas Macarthur and Mao Tse Tung!


Defeat, and The Long March

After Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party victory in China, the majority of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) armies led by General Chiang Kai-shek extricated themselves to Taiwan. Legend has it that they took with them substantial volumes of valuables liberated from China’s coffers…
Mao Tse Tung Chiang Kai Shek

The 93rd Division of the 26th Army and General Li Mi’s 8th Army had refused to surrender. Fighting between Communist and KMT troops continued in Yunnan in the southwest of China. The Communist army marched into the Yunnanese provincial capital of Kunming in January 1950. Some 12,000 KMT troops were then left no option but to fight their way across the Yunnan border, into the jungles of Burma’s Shan State plateau. The Burmese were not slow to notice the foreign army encamped within their borders without permission. The 93rd Division’s soldiers had endured their own “Long March” from Kunming in Yunnan, to Mong Hsat in Burma’s Shan State. Mong Hsat is on the Thai/Burmese border, just north of Fang / Tha Ton in northern Thailand. These KMT troops were also joined by remnants of the Chinese army that had fought the Japanese in Second World War, and who had stayed on in Burma afterwards. *Source; letter from Prime Minister U Nu (at left) to Eisenhower, 12th Sept 1953 – FRUS 1952-54 Vol XII, p.135

The Korean War Influence

This event coincided with the outbreak of the Korean war. South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, leader of the anti-communist regime, established friendly relations with Taiwan. Plans to establish a 2nd front in Yunnan against China were mooted. The American commander of the UN forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur (below left) was amenable to this diversion. When China attacked the United Nations Forces during the Korean War, America’s CIA urgently needed on-the-ground military intelligence information on China’s activities. The CIA sought assistence from the KMT generals, who agreed to infiltrate troops back into China on intelligence-gathering missions. In return, the CIA promised military equipment to assist the KMT to retake China! In April 1951 the attempted reconquest of Yunnan began when the 2,000 KMT soldiers of the Yunnan Province Anti-Communist National Salvation Army based at Mong Mao crossed the border into China. Accompanied by CIA advisers and supplied by regular airdrops from unmarked C-47s (like the one below), KMT troops captured Kengma without resistance. However, as they advanced north of Kengma, the People’s Liberation Army(PLA) counterattacked. The KMT suffered huge casualties, and several of their CIA advisers were killed. General Li Mi and his Salvation Army fled back to Burma, after less than a week in China.

The CIA & Air America

The CIA redoubled its efforts on their behalf. Late in 1951 the KMT reopened the old World War II landing strip at Mong Hsat so that it could cope with large 4-engined aircraft flying in directly from Taiwan or Bangkok. In November Li Mi flew off to Taiwan for an extended vacation and returned three months later at the head of a Civil Air Transport (CAT, later Air America) airlift, which flew seven hundred regular KMT soldiers from Taiwan to Mong Hsat. * Source reference + Air America website A mysterious Bangkok-based American company named Sea Supply Corporationbegan forwarding enormous quantities of U.S. arms to Mong Hsat. Burmese Military Intelligence observed that the KMT began sporting brand-new American M-1’s, .50 caliber machine guns, bazookas, mortars, and even anti-aircraft artillery. With these lavish supplies the KMT’s numbers were supplemented by hill tribes, local warlords and opium traders. These traders exchanged opium for arms that were sold to the various ethnic minorities waging mini-wars against the Burmese government. The traders, fearful of a communist victory, sought “protection” from the KMT, whose forces had grown to an estimated 12,000 men under arms. The Burmese launched military offensives against the KMT and the fight for control continued for almost 12 years in all. At least 7 times between 1950 and 1952 the KMT army tried to invade Yunnan. On each occasion, they were forced to retreat back into relative safety of the Shan State.

The KMT – under the command of General Li Mi (at left) – maintained contact with the KMT in Formosa (Taiwan) and in 1952, hundreds of military training school graduates from Formosa reinforced the KMT in Myanmar. By 1953 the KMT had bases in East Thanlwin, Mong Tong, northeast Mong Hsat, Muse and Kyukok.

Funding the Battles

Although the Korean War ended in 1953, the KMT’s battles against the Chinese communists and Burmese armies lingered on. Financial support came from both the USA and Taiwan, with funding augmented by the KMT’s participation in the Golden Triangle opium production era. In January 1961, some 5,000 Burmese and 20,000 Chinese troops swept down on the KMT headquarters at Mong Pa Liao, Kengtung State. Most of the ten thousand KMT defenders fled across the Mekong into northwestern Laos and took refuge at Nam Tha City. Other defeated remnants fled across the border into northern Thailand.

Retreat to Taiwan

The U.S. State Department offered to assist in the repatriation of KMT troops to Taiwan, and on March 14 1961 the evacuation began. About forty-two hundred KMT regulars were flown from Nam Tha City to Ban Houei Sai, ferried across the Mekong, trucked to Chiang Rai, and boarded flights for Taiwan. The airlift came to an end on April 12th 1961. Taiwan then disclaimed any further responsibility for the “few” who remained…For reasons never fully explained, Taiwan ordered its senior commander home in 1961 and subsequently cut back financial support for the remaining troops. Once external discipline was removed, personal rivalries between the generals broke the KMT into three separate commands:

  • General Tuan Shi-wen commanded the 5th Regiment with eighteen hundred men
  • General Lee Wen-huan commanded of the 3rd Regiment, a lesser force of fourteen hundred men
  • General Ma Ching-kuo and the four hundred intelligence operatives under his command broke away to form the 1st Independent Unit.

Since Geneneral Ma Ching-kuo’s First Independent Unit remained under the overall supervision of President Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Chingkuo, in Taiwan, financial support for its intelligence operations inside China and Burma was continued. However, within months the CIA began hiring some of the disowned KMT remnants as mercenaries for its secret operations in northwestern Laos.

The Opium Warlords

As a result of his Taiwanese patronage. General Ma could afford to remain above the rivalry between General Tuan and General Lee, and came to act as mediator between the two. After Taiwan cut off their money, Generals Tuan and Lee were forced to rely exclusively on the opium traffic to finance their military operations.

5th Regiment, 93rd Division, 26th Army – Doi Mae Salong

In 1961, General Tuan led his remaining KMT troops out of Burma to the isolated mountain refuge on the uppermost ridges of the Mae Salong ranges in northern Thailand. To this day, much of the village’s population are ethnic Chinese; and direct descendants of the soldiers of the 5th Regiment of the 93rd Division, KMT 26th Army.

3rd Regiment, 93rd Division, 26th Army – Tham Ngob

At the same time, General Lee Wen-huan took the 3rd Regiment and established his headquarters at Tham Ngob. (north of Sinchai on what is now Highway 1340, west of Chai Prakarn, and approx 140 kms northwest of Chiang Mai)

This geographic separation was symptomatic of the internal rifts betwen the two factions.However, the move to Thailand actually increased the KMT’s overall importance in the Golden Triangle’s opium trade. Not only did the KMT maintain their hold on Burma’s opium, but they increased their share of the traffic in northern Thailand.
General Tuan Shi-wen General Lee Wen-huan

By the early 1960s the Golden Triangle had become the largest single opium-growing region in the world! * Source; “The Politics of Heroin”

1967 Opium War

Early 1967, Generals Tuan and Lee began receiving disturbing information about the activities of Chan Shee-fu (aka Shan Shi-fu, Khun Sa – real name Zhang Qifu) in the Shan States. The Shan warlord’s brokers were buying up unprecedented quantities of opium in the northern Shan and Wa states. Chan Shee-fu’s caravan of three hundred mules assembled in June, loaded with 16 tons of raw opium. At wholesale rates it was worth an estimated US$500,000 in Chiang Mai and would enable Chan Shee-fu to purchase at least 1000 new firearms and expand his army from 2000 to 3000 men-a force almost equal in size to the 3200 troops of the combined KMT 3rd and 5th armies. The KMT’s decade-long control was in jeopardy, and the generals formed a combined army to destroy Chan Shee-fu. In June the caravan left Ving Ngun and set out on a 200-mile trek to Ban Khwan, a small Laotian lumber town on the Mekong River.

Generals Tuan and Lee sent a 1,000-man force into the Shan States with orders to find and destroy the convoy. Shan See-fu’s main column was ambushed east of Kengtung City, near the Mekong River, but a counterattack enabled the opium caravan to escape. Chan Shee-fu crossed the Mekong into Laos on July 14th / 15th 1967, and proceeded down the old caravan trail from Muong Mounge, reached Ban Khwan on the 17th July 1967. The Shan opium-runners made their defensive stand at a sawmill built on a long sand embankment extending a hundred feet into the Mekong, separated from the surrounding forest by a lumberyard. They parked their mules along the embankment, scoured the nearby towns for boats, and used cut logs lying in the lumberyard to form a great semicircular barricade in front of the mill. The KMT forces reached Ban Khwan on July 26 and fought a brief skirmish with the Shans. When several hundred KMT reinforcements arrived from Mae Salong, the KMT troops attacked on July 29. Both sides were armed with .50 caliber machine guns, 60mm mortars and 57mm recoilless rifles, making for an intense fire-fight. At noon on July 30th the rapid fire from automatic weapons was interrupted by the ominous roar of six Royal Laotian Air Force T-28 fighters flying low up the Mekong, followed by the deafening booms from the 500 lb bombs that came crashing down on Shan and KMT alike. Laotian General Ouane Tattikone, the owner of the mill and intended recipient of the opium, had decided to play the part of an outraged commander defending his nation. With Prime Minister Souvanna Phourna’s consent, he had dispatched the squadron of T-28 fighters from Luang Prabang and airlifted the crack 2nd Paratroop Battalion up to Ban Houei Sai. A couple of days of bombing at the rate of 4 squadron missions a day, forced a reassessment of the situation from both sets of combatants! The 400 surviving Shans boarded boats and retreated across the Mekong into Burma, leaving behind eighty-two dead, fifteen mules, and most of the opium. The KMT troops fled north along the Mekong, but only got six miles (8kms) before their retreat was cut off by two Laotian infantry battalions moving south from Muong Mounge. Immediately the Shan and KMT had abandoned Ban Khwan, the 2nd Paratroop Battalion swept up the battlefield, gathered up the opium and sent it downriver to Ban Houei Sai. Reinforcements were flown up from Vientiane, and superior numbers of Laotian army troops surrounded the KMT. Following two weeks of tense negotiations, the KMT finally agreed to pay General Ouane Rattikone an indemnity of US$7,500 for the right to return to Thailand. According to Thai police reports, some seven hundred KMT troops crossed the Mekong into Thailand on August 19th 1967, leaving behind seventy dead, twenty-four machine guns, and a number of dead mules. Although the Thai police made a pro forma attempt at disarming the KMT, the troops clambered aboard eighteen chartered buses and drove off to Mae Salong with three hundred carbines, seventy machine guns, and two recoilless rifles. * Source; “The Politics of Heroin”NB: It is not reported as to whether or not Khun Sa ever received any of the $500,000 for the successful opium shipment delivery.

Under Thai Military Control

The KMT army was transformed into the Chinese Irregular Forces (CIF) and placed under the supervision of Special Task Force 04, overseen by the Supreme Command in Bangkok. After the soldiers reached Mae Salong, an agreement was struck to transfer the administration of the group to the Thai government. The Provincial governor of southern Thailand, Pryath Samanmit, was reassigned as the governor of Chiang Rai, to oversee the KMT division, but upon taking up his position, Samanmit was killed by communist insurgents. Soon afterwards, the KMT division was ordered to assist the Thai government to counter the advancing armies on Thailand’s northern borders and the internal threat from the Communist Party of Thailand. Fierce battles were fought in the mountains of Doi Laung, Doi Yaw, Doi Phamon and Mae Aabb, and the communist uprisings were eventually quelled. The Thai government attempted to integrate the KMT regiments and their families into Thai society, but the inhabitants of Doi Mae Salong were drawn deeper ever into the opium trade. In a 1967 interview with a British journalist, General Tuan said:

We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.

Gen Tuan Shi-wen, Weekend Telegraph (London), 10 March 1967

The KMT were initially used by the Thais to patrol the border and in return were given unofficial permission to trade across it in any goods they chose, including opium. Their fighting days continued and they fought against communist insurgencies in both Thailand and Laos. Eventually much of the region came under the control of the infamous “Prince of Death” – the opium warlord Khun Sa of the Shan United Army, from his base in Ban Hin Taek (Broken Stone Village) – now known as Thoed Thai. Gen. Khun Sa (aka Shan Shi-fu) commanded his private Mong Tai Army of 20,000 armed men, and controlled large-scale opium plantations in the Burmese jungles. A CIA report circa 1971 stated that Doi Mae Salong was one of the biggest heroin refineries in S.E. Asia. On 10 December 1970, a bloody five-year long campaign was launched that claimed over 1,000 lives, many from landmines. Not until the 1982 was the Thai army able to defeat Khun Sa’s armyand muscle them across the border into Myanmar.

Cherry Blossoms & Peace In The Mountains

Finally, the KMT soldiers were able to give up their arms and were discharged to settle down to a normal life at Mae Salong. As a reward for their service, the Thai government gave citizenship to most of the KMT soldiers and their families. The KMT had endured more than 3 homeless decades of endless skirmishes, battles and campaigns. Some men had fought through;

  • Four years of the Chinese Civil War 1945-49)
  • 12 yrs of Burmese & Chinese efforts to dislodge them from the Shan State.
  • Communist insurgencies
  • Ongoing turf battles with the Shan that results in Khun Sa’s presence on their doorway

The final peace that was achieved in 1982 must have seemed very attactive indeed! The Thai government was then able to make progress in controlling the region. Effective crop substitution projects, implementing roading networks, and police and military presence tamed the badlands and brought peace and quiet… The replacement of the town’s name of Doi Mae Salong with the new “Santikhiri” does not seem to have caught on. The new name’s meaning is “Hill of Peace” – an effort to disassociate the area from its former image. It seems that the tough old soldiers and their descendants preferred that wilder image, as it ties them to the past history of hardships and adventures. Few people refer to the town as Santikhiri! To encourage reconciliation and peace, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and other members of the royal family have made regular visits to the region.

Chinese Martys Museum – Doi Mae Salong


  • Wikipedia
  • The Politics of Heroin – Alfred W. McCoy – 1972
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