Monday November 2, 2009
Once a child bride
Stories by MICHELLE CHAN
A young girl escaped marriage to drug warlord Khun Sa, but ended up as a bride to the son of his successor. This is the story of her journey from heroin heartland to new-found freedom.
NOTHING in the demeanour of housekeeper Mai, 22, revealed her past. Doe-eyed and perky, the ex-teenage bride from a drug warlord’s empire easily blended unnoticed into the crowd at the busy market in the ancient Thai capital of Chiangmai. Her sweet smile and slim frame gave no hint of her early days in the ruthless opium-churning regime of Indochina – the Khun Sa fiefdom.
Mai was born in the eastern Myanmar border town of Tachileik, the youngest of four daughters of a Shan family. Her earliest memories revolved around the jungle playground of Khun Sa’s infamous narcotics empire in the early 1990s, where her oldest sister was given to the Opium King at 15 years old – as the latest addition to his burgeoning harem.
At almost 60, he was four times her age. That arrangement worked well economically for Mai’s family. Once elevated as relatives of the drug baron, they were not denied any luxury despite the fact they lived inaccessible lives in the jungles of the Thai-Myanmar border.
“We had houses in several cities as well as in the jungle. Our jungle community was equipped with satellite TV, schools and high-tech ammunition. Soldiers became our servants, drivers and gardeners, tending our farms where we reared ducks and fishes, and planted vegetables,” recalled the dewy-complexioned Mai.
Her family also enjoyed dual Thai-Myanmarese identification which gave them access between the porous border and property ownership in both countries.
At the height of his power in the 1980s, military separatist Khun Sa was believed to have controlled at least 70% of the heroin trade in the Golden Triangle – an area straddling the Thai-Myanmar-Laos border. This accounted for an estimated 45% of the heroin entering the United States, which led to a US$2mil bounty for his capture.
The Opium King had once offered to sell 1,000 tonnes of heroin to the US government, proposing that by doing so, the drugs will not enter the international narcotics market. He was indicted in a New York court in 1989.
Khun Sa “surrendered” to Myanmar authorities in 1996 and retired quietly in Yangon until his death in 2007 at the age of 73.
“Even though he was convicted, Khun Sa still walked around like a free man; he roamed the beach and town. He had bodyguards and his car was tinted, while others weren’t. One thing he could not do was leave the country. He was a wanted man all over the world, and he chose to stay in Myanmar because he was powerful there,” Mai explained.
Ignoring the US government’s hefty price on his head, the drug moghul lived in relative peace and luxury during his final years, surrounded by the women of his choice. Mai’s sister was not part of the chosen retinue.
Running out of favour with an ageing warlord in the twilight of his reign, Mai’s family realised their life of comfort was about to end. Khun Sa’s more senior and experienced wives were already eyeing his vast investments, while his henchmen waited for their share of his expansive opium empire.
Ranked low in seniority, Mai’s family was no match for the veteran wives who quickly carved out his fortune and left little for their juniors.
“When Khun Sa died, his other consorts and relatives took control of his estate and my teenaged sister was left with nothing,” said Mai, “even her dual Thai identification was confiscated.”
Meanwhile, another ethnic minority group, the Wa, rose to power forming the United Wa State Army (UWSA), picking up from where Khun Sa left off. However, they “did not have as much authority as Khun Sa, as they operated under the thumb of the Myanmarese authorities”, said Mai.
“After Khun Sa’s ‘surrender’, a successor took over his position. His son came and looked for me. We started a relationship,” she said.
In an effort to salvage their lot and secure their family position, Mai, then 15, was offered as a bride to the son of the new heroin honcho.
“The man’s son went to my mum and asked for me. My mum did not stop him. We hung out and slept together. At that time I was naïve; he was 10 years older. He never mentioned he had a wife in Chiangmai. One day his wife came back, and he started to avoid me. By then I had grown very attached to him.
“I cried for days and contemplated suicide,” said Mai who by then had three older sisters hooked on drugs and a mentally ill father. However, Mai’s attempted suicide came to naught when the sleeping pills she took from her father’s medication stash turned out to be expired and useless.
“My parents discovered my attempt on my life but kept quiet. Later, they sent me to Chiangmai to study. My niece and her adopted sister came along. Since I was the oldest at 16, I was appointed to handle the finances.”
It was a difficult time for the three young girls to start living on their own.
“When we were rich, we did not bother with each other, and when all three of us were forced to live in one room, we could not get along. We could not see eye to eye on when to sleep and clean up, nor did we respect each other.” Her niece returned to Myanmar, while the other girl eloped with a man.
Mai dropped out of university after one semester as she was unable to pay tutorial fees. She started to drift from one job to another. After short stints scooping ice-cream in Haagen-Dazs and sitting behind the city’s many guesthouse receptions, she found solace in Christianity and decided to take stock of her life.
As a live-in domestic helper, Mai is thankful that her employer allows her flexible hours to pursue an Economics course and run a T-shirt business.
“This is my fresh start. God willing, I will use the most of my second chance, and give back to the community,” said Mai resolutely. Related Stories:
Plight of the stateless
Fighting to survive
Loss of innocence