Ethically, people are not born fully formed. They cannot be defined at the beginning of their lives the same way they can be at the end. Sometimes a moment can change things. Sometimes in an instant our choices are made for us. The betrayal of a trust. The revelation that our truths are ours alone. In the context of this truth my father cannot be judged or summed up by a single act. Yet in lives public and private, we see time and time again that a single moment can define what others think of us. Was my father rebuked at the end of the Vietnam War because he was not as accommodating to the CIA as General Vang Pao? General Vang Pao is considered a hero among the Hmong people. He was also identified as the mastermind behind the 2008 plot/coup to overthrow the current Laotian government. I tell you this because headlines like "Crown Prince Sopsaisana's Opium Bust" are not very flattering.
IMAGE CREDITS: The collage is made up of the head of Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the poppies from a photo by Pierre Arnaud Chouvy.
ethics |ˈeθiks| |ˈɛθɪks| |ˈɛθɪks|
1 [usu. treated as pl. ] moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior : Judeo-Christian ethics. The moral correctness of specified conduct : the ethics of euthanasia.
2 [usu. treated as sing. ] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.
When I was younger, and we lived in Laos, our house was gated. I always assumed it was for privacy, in retrospect I imagine it was also for our safety. The exterior walls were concrete, three feet thick and the circular driveway ended in steel gates 10 feet tall. Maybe not 10 feet tall, they could have been shorter, but when you're nine years old everything is very imposing.
Back then I always noticed that people either loved my father or hated him vehemently. Maybe hated is too strong a word. I should say despised — in the way all politicians are despised. I could never understand why. He tried to explain it to me once. He explained how he had contracted with an organization much like Doctors Without Borders to provide additional support and healthcare for the Laotian people. Some of these doctors were Filipino. If you know how xenophobic most Asian cultures are, you know what is coming. The native Laotian doctors saw this as an afront, a commentary about how well they were caring for their own people. They became very offended. I'm making a generalization here, I'm sure many native Laotian doctors welcomed the help. Regardless, my father was used as a scapegoat, a whipping boy if you will. He was damned if he didn't get the needed help and he was damned if he did. Sometimes you have to make the shitty call.
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How long do you have to read this post? Seriously, I'm trying to save you some time. If you're not a reader and you just want something to scan while you drink your coffee skip this post. Or wait until lunch. This is what I meant when I wrote "long-form narrative" in the ABOUT page of this blog. Buckle-up because this one requires commitment.
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It is very hard to judge this situation once you realize that my father was not doing this for personal gain but on behalf of the CIA. Does the end justify the means? Also, just because you may not believe this blog entry doesn't mean it didn't happen. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure my Dad's history was one of the possible reasons I didn't get that design job in '09 at Langley.
SOURCE I: Political Friendster provides this context:
The Laotian prince, Sopsaisana, was the head of the Asian Peoples Anti-Communist League, the chief political advisor of Vang Pao, military commander of the CIA's Laotian Hmong army. The heroin itself was refined from Hmong opium at Long Tieng, the CIA's headquarters in northern Laos, and given to Sopsaisana on consignment by Vang Pao. The consignment made its way from Vang Pao in Long Tieng to Sopsaisana in Vientiane via General Secord's Air America. That, apparently, was an alternative Richard Nixon was willing to accept.
SOURCE II: Wikipedia has this short five sentence missive:
The Laotian prince Sopsaisana was the head of the Asian Peoples Anti-Communist League, the chief political advisor of Vang Pao, Vice President of the Laotian National Assembly and military commander of the CIA controlled Laotian Hmong army. In April 1971 Prince Sopsaisana, then Laos's new Ambassador to France, arrived in Paris. After a tip-off, customs at Orly airport intercepted a valise containing 123 pounds of pure heroin, then the largest drug seizure in French history with an estimated value of $13.5 million. The Prince had planned to ship the drugs to New York. CIA stationed in Paris convinced the French to cover up the affair; Prince Sopaisana returned to Vientiane two weeks later.
SOURCE III: A more colorful retelling of the incident from the book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred W. McCoy
Published August 1st 1972 by Harper & Row. (isbn: 0060129018) The excerpt:
The Golden Triangle: Heroin Is Our Most Important Product
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," announced the genteel British diplomat, raising his glass to offer a toast, "I give you Prince Sopsaisana, the uplifter of Laotian youth." The toast brought an appreciative smile from the lips of the guest of honor, cheers and applause from the luminaries of Vientiane's diplomatic corps gathered at the send-off banquet for the Laotian ambassador-designate to France, Prince Sopsaisana. His appointment was the crowning achievement in a brilliant career. A member of the royal house of Meng Khouang, the Plain of Jars region, Prince Sopsaisana was vice-president of the National Assembly, chairman of the Lao Bar Association, president of the Lao Press Association, president of the Alliance Francaise, and a member in good standing of the Asian People's Anti-Communist League. After receiving his credentials from the king in a private audience at the Luang Prabang Royal Palace on April 8, 1971, the prince was treated to an unprecedented round of cocktail parties, dinners, and banquets. (1) For Prince Sopsaisana, or Sopsai as his friends call him, was not just any ambassador; the Americans considered him an outstanding example of a new generation of honest, dynamic national leaders, and it was widely rumored in Vientiane that Sopsai was destined for high office some day.
My Dad in dress whites.
The send-off party at Vientiane's Wattay Airport on April 23 was one of the gayest affairs of the season. Everybody was there: the cream of the diplomatic corps, a bevy of Lao luminaries, and, of course, you-know who from the American Embassy. The champagne bubbled, the canapes were flawlessly French, and Mr. Ivan Bastouil, charge d'affaires at the French Embassy, Lao Presse reported, gave the nicest speech. (2) Only after the plane had soared off into the clouds did anybody notice that Sopsai had forgotten to pay for his share of the reception. When the prince's flight arrived at Paris's Orly Airport on the morning of April 25, there was another reception in the exclusive VIP lounge. The French ambassador to Laos, home for a brief visit, and the entire staff of the Laotian Embassy had turned out. (3) There were warm embraces, kissing on both cheeks, and more effusive speeches. Curiously, Prince Sopsaisana insisted on waiting for his luggage like any ordinary tourist, and when the mountain of suitcases finally appeared after an unexplained delay, he immediately noticed that one was missing. Angrily Sopsai insisted his suitcase be delivered at once, and the French authorities promised, most apologetically, that it would be sent round to the Embassy just as soon as it was found. But the Mercedes was waiting, and with flags fluttering, Sopsai was whisked off to the Embassy for a formal reception.
1971 Mercedes 280 4-Door Embassy Issue
While the champagne bubbled at the Laotian Embassy, French customs officials were examining one of the biggest heroin seizures in French history: the ambassador's "missing" suitcase contained sixty kilos of high-grade Laotian heroin worth $13.5 million on the streets of New York,(4) its probable destination. Tipped by an unidentified source in Vientiane, French officials had been waiting at the airport. Rather than create a major diplomatic scandal by confronting Sopsai with the heroin in the VIP lounge, French officials quietly impounded the suitcase until the government could decide how to deal with the matter.
Although it was finally decided to hush up the affair, the authorities were determined that Sopsaisana should not go entirely unpunished. A week after the ambassador's arrival, a smiling French official presented himself at the Embassy with the guilty suitcase in hand. Although Sopsaisana had been bombarding the airport with outraged telephone calls for several days, he must have realized that accepting the suitcase was tantamount to an admission of guilt and flatly denied that it was his. Despite his protestations of innocence, the French government refused to accept his diplomatic credentials and Sopsai festered in Paris for almost two months until he was finally recalled to Vientiane late in June.
Back in Vientiane the impact of this affair was considerably less than earthshaking. The all-powerful American Embassy chose not to pursue the matter, and within a few weeks everything was conveniently forgotten (5) According to reports later received by the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, Sopsai's venture had been financed by Meo Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army, and the heroin itself had been refined in a laboratory at Long Tieng, which happens to be the CIA's headquarters for clandestine operations in northern Laos.(6) Perhaps these embarrassing facts may explain the U.S. Embassy's lack of action. In spite of its amusing aspects, the Sopsaisana affair provides sobering evidence of Southeast Asia's growing importance in the international heroin trade. In addition to growing over a thousand tons of raw opium annually (about 70 percent of the world's total illicit opium. (7) Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region has become a mass producer of high-grade no. 4 heroin for the American market. Its mushrooming heroin laboratories now rival Marseille and Hong Kong in the quantity and quality of their heroin production.
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L-R: Samples of Heroin, A. W. McCoys two books, map of lab locations, Wattay Airport in the 70s (Wayne Knight), miscellaneous Air America artifacts.
In Laos, CIA clandestine intervention produced changes and upheavals in the narcotics traffic. When political infighting among the Lao elite and the escalating war forced the small Corsican charter airlines out of the opium business in 1965, the CIA's airline, Air America, began flying Meo opium out of the hills to Long Tieng and Vientiane. CIA cross-border intelligence missions into China from Laos reaped an unexpected dividend in 1962 when the Shan rebel leader who organized the forays for the agency began financing the Shan nationalist cause by selling Burmese opium to another CIA protege, Laotian Gen. Phoumi Nosavan. The economic alliance between General Phoumi and the Shans opened up a new trading pattern that diverted increasingly significant quantities of Burmese opium from their normal marketplace in Bangkok. In the late 1960s U.S. air force bombing disrupted Laotian opium production by forcing the majority of the Meo opium farmers to become refugees. However, flourishing Laotian heroin laboratories, which are the major suppliers for the GI market in Vietnam, simply increased their imports of Burmese opium through already established trading relationships.
The importance of these CIA clients in the subsequent growth of the Golden Triangle's heroin trade was revealed, inadvertently, by the agency itself when it leaked a classified report on the Southeast Asian opium traffic to The New York Times. The CIA analysis identified twenty-one opium refineries in the tri-border area where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge, and reported that seven were capable of producing 90 to 99 percent pure no. 4 heroin. Of these seven heroin refineries, "the most important are located in the areas around Tachilek, Burma; Ban Houei Sai and Nam Keung in Laos; and Mae Salong in Thailand." (21)
Although the CIA did not bother to mention it, many of these refineries are located in areas totally controlled by paramilitary groups closely identified with American military operations in the Golden Triangle area. Mae Salong is headquarters for the Nationalist Chinese Fifth Army, which has been continuously involved in CIA counterinsurgency and intelligence operations since 1950. According to a former CIA operative who worked in the area for a number of years, the heroin laboratory at Nam Keung is protected by Maj. Chao La, commander of Yao mercenary troops for the CIA in northwestern Laos. One of the heroin laboratories near Ban Houei Sai reportedly belongs to Gen. Ouane Rattikone, former commander in chief of the Royal Laotian Army-the only army in the world, except for the U S. army, entirely financed by the U.S. government.(22) The heroin factories near Tachilek are operated by Burmese paramilitary units and Shan rebel armies who control a relatively small percentage of Burma's narcotics traffic. Although few of these Shan groups have any relation to the CIA today, one of the most important chapters in the history of the Shan States' opium trade involves a Shan rebel army closely allied with the CIA. (For location of these laboratories, see Map )
Other sources have revealed the existence of an important heroin laboratory operating in the Vientiane region under the protection of Gen. Ouane Rattikone. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics has reports that Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army, has been operating a heroin factory at Long Tieng, headquarters for CIA operations in northern Laos. (23) Thus, it is with something more than idle curiosity that we turn to an examination of CIA clandestine operations and the concurrent growth of the narcotics traffic in the Golden Triangle.
THE FULL CHAPTER CAN BE READ ONLINE.
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by the Staff Survey Team of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives [PDF]
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Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]