The Heroin Wars

This series looks back from the mid-1990s over a period of thirty years. In the 1960s, Adrian Cowell and Chris Menges started filming with two successive "Kings of Opium" – Law Sit Han (Lo Hsing Han) and Khun Sa - as they fought for control of the opium trade. At stake was a third of the world's narcotics in the Shan State of Burma. In three parts, The Heroin Wars cracks open this torrid and explosive world. It tells a story with many bizarre twists and turns, capped with Khun Sa's outrageous surrender to his sworn enemies, the Burmese government, which finally thwarts the US campaign to capture him.


The film which opens the series picks up the story in the 1960s when the Burmese Army seized power in a coup and, subsequently, abolished democracy. The initial traffic in drugs was a way to finance revolution against the ensuing dictatorship, and the film follows various guerilla armies as they fight for control of the huge mule convoys which export the opium to the outside world. It also shows how the US joined in an all-out attack on the convoys and how they sent an invitation to the first "King of Opium" to negotiate, only to have him arrested.


This is an in depth look at Hong Kong, drug capital of south-east Asia. It examines the thirty year War on Drugs, from the viewpoint of the consumer and pusher, by following the Triad gang which controlled the selling of heroin on one street in Hong Kong. Over the course of twenty years, some of the gang evade the police, but others are arrested and jailed. One gang member, AH SING, tries to kick his addiction to heroin, but fails. When his wife leaves him, he becomes so depressed that he dies from an overdose of heroin and tranquillizers. The other side of the battle, the Hong Kong police, are featured too, as they raid heroin factories and distribution centres. It appears a futile battle, since the police seldom reduce the amount of heroin reaching the gangs at street level. Ironically, it was the success of their anti-opium efforts that foreced the 10% of Hong Kong's working male population - who were smokers of opium in the 1960s - to become smokers of heroin by the 1970s. For though heroin is much more harmful, it is much easier to smuggle. And thus, the greater the police success, the cheaper heroin became relative to the price of opium.


The final programme returns to the Shans' war of independence led by Khun Sa, the second "King of Opium". After a series of vicious battles, he is eventually brought to his knees by the first "King of Opium" diverting the narcotics traffic away from him. At the end of the film, Khun Sa - with a $2 million US government price-tag on his head - is forced to betray his cause and make a dramatic surrender.

At various times during the 1970s and 1990s, both 'Kings' made proposals to the US to negotiate an end to the opium crop. At one point an offer was made to hand over all of Burma's opium for $12 million. The White House rejected the offer on the grounds that it would be more effective to give the Burmese Army Planes and helicopters to attack Shan convoys in an all-out War on Drugs. But though $80 million in aid has been poured into Burmese coffers, not one drug convoy has ever been halted or captured.

At the time of broadcast (1996), Law Sit Han and Khun Sa are infinitely richer and more powerful and the amount of opium produced in the Shan State has increased ten times, flooding Europe and the United States with cheap heroin. Police enforcement has never captured as much as 1% of the narcotics in Burma, raising into question both the overall policy of the War on Drugs and its effectiveness.

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