The Left Behind Village: Mae Salong

Mae Salong then...and now.

Mae Salong then...and now.

The village of Mae Salong sits along a winding mountain road in Northern Thailand.  The town is in an isolated valley, the hillsides lined with terraced fields.  30 years ago it would have been nearly inaccessible. Today, a paved road deposits tourists at a crossroads market not far from the town center. Some come for the tea, others for the scenery, but most are here to experience a cultural anomaly: A lost colony of Chinese soldiers from a forgotten war.

At the top of a ridge overlooking the town is the tomb of Duan Xiwen (1900-1980). It was General Duan who led a group of refugee soldiers out of Burma and into the hills north of Chiang Mai. For nearly two decades, Duan Xiwen and his officers ran a small semi-independent fiefdom based in Mae Salong. They survived by working the land and revenue they derived from their involvement in the Golden Triangle opium trade.

Tomb of Tuan Hsi-wen (Duan Xiwen) 1900-1980. KMT officer who settled his troops in Mae Salong, near the border of Burma and Thailand.

Tomb of Tuan Hsi-wen (Duan Xiwen) 1900-1980. KMT officer who settled his troops in Mae Salong, near the border of Burma and Thailand.

At the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, many of the forces loyal to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. But a few divisions, bottled up in the southern province of Yunnan, instead fled south into Burma. With assistance from the Nationalist government and US intelligence agencies, these units established a base area in the hills along the Sino-Burmese border. 

For Chiang Kai-shek, these remnant divisions were his last best hope to retake China by land.  To the United States government, they represented a firewall to slow the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.

But not everyone in the region was so keen on the presence of this exile army of Chinese irregulars. The government of Burma saw the soldiers not as refugees but as an invasion. The Burmese were also anxious about the possibility the KMT interlopers might provoke the People’s Liberation Army into crossing the border into Burma in the name of “counter-insurgency.”

It was not an idle worry. The government of Chiang Kai-shek, with the assistance of the CIA, was actively supporting the KMT remnants in Burma with arms, supplies, and training. In 1951 the CIA proposed a plan known as Operation Paper as a way to divert Beijing’s attention from the Korean Peninsula. The KMT remnants strengthened their forces with recruits from local hill tribes and with the arrival of additional refugees from Yunnan province. That summer, they staged raids into southern Yunnan and made modest gains, controlling four border counties before the People’s Liberation Army launched a counter-attack inflicting heavy casualties and forcing the KMT troops back across the border.  Subsequent operations in 1952 and 1953 also ended in failure.

In the meantime, many of the KMT remnants had turned their attention away from liberating the mainland to taking control of the local opium trade. They built bases and villages along the border with China. Men married into local families, giving them access to resources, land, and labor. As the KMT refugees consolidated their control over vast areas of Eastern Burma, the Burmese government appealed to the Taiwanese government and the United States to repatriate the soldiers back to Taiwan.

About 5000 men and their families finally left Burma for Taiwan at the end of 1953, but many soldiers were unwilling to go. Most of the men were from Yunnan. That’s where many still had families.  There was nothing waiting for them in Taiwan. Moreover, they had spilled blood and lost friends to carve a life out of the hills and jungles of Burma. It wasn’t home, but it was an existence, and with the development of the opium trade, an increasingly lucrative existence.

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In December of 1960, the government of Burma finally ran out of patience. The Burmese army — with the assistance of PLA troops operating in Burma — launched a major offensive on KMT bases in the border regions. Hundreds of KMT soldiers and their dependents were killed, and the remainder fled east to the relative safety of Thailand and Laos.

One of these refugee bands, led by General Duan Xiwen, regrouped in the area around Mae Salong in Northern Thailand. At first, the Thai government wasn’t any happier to have KMT remnants dug into their border regions. But in the 1960s, the government of Thailand faced a Communist guerrilla insurgencies as well as non-Thai minority groups who resented their second-class status. The KMT remnant troops might have come into Thailand uninvited, but they were organized, battle-tested, and staunchly anti-Communist. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, troops based in Mae Salong under the command of General Duan loosely cooperated with the Thai government and other KMT remnant bands in anti-insurgency and border control operations

The results of this collaboration were distinctly mixed. Coordination between KMT units was complicated by personal and business rivalries among the different commanders. Once ensconced in Thailand, Duan Xiwen and the other KMT officers resumed their involvement in the cultivation and processing of opium. Turf wars between rival commanders often led to open fighting.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese community aspired to be something more than just refugees eking out a living or drug traffickers fighting to keep a place in a violent game. The first generation of warrior-refugees were no longer young men and their sons had little interest in carrying on their father’s military legacy.

Duan Xiwen and other community leaders brokered a deal with the Thai government: They would lay down their arms and disband their armies in exchange for citizenship. Today, most of the Chinese communities in Northern Thailand had been integrated into the Thai administrative system.

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The most visible evidence of Taiwan’s assistance in this transition are the tea plantations which surround the village. Wulong tea plants, imported from Taiwan, thrived in the cool mountainous air of Northern Thailand. Thedemilitarization of the communities and the continued instability in the Shan and Wa States in Northern Burma marked a decline in poppy cultivation on the Thai side of the border.  Today many former opium strongholds such as Mae Solong, Mae Chan, and Ban Hin Taek are tourist destinations.

In Mae Salong, Chinese signs still line the streets. The children and grandchildren of the KMT remnants own shops, restaurants, and guest houses. Chinese is almost as widely spoken in the village as Thai. Restaurants serve variations on Yunnanese specialties and local temples blend Thai Buddhism with Chinese icons and deities.

Residents are proud of their Chinese heritage even as their children adopt Thai names and work hard to integrate into Thai society. But the long isolation of the region, along with the organizational structure of being essentially a military camp into the 1980s has resulted in a cultural legacy distinct from other Chinese diaspora communities in Thailand. They are no longer strangers in a strange land, nor are they still exiles. In the last two decades, many former KMT soldiers and their descendants have traveled back to Yunnan to visit living relatives or care for the graves of those passed on. 

Nevertheless, the residents of this Northern Thailand village still retain their own sense of history, a community, and their memories: they are the left-behind children of a forgotten war.



Originally posted by The World of Chinese on March 19, 2017