A Chinese Lesbian Warlord Used CIA Funding to Traffic Opium in Myanmar
Meet Olive Yang
Sometimes a person rejects the paths in life set out for them by others, defies the pressures of society and becomes exactly the person they want to be — or felt they always have been.
And if that person is a warlord princess and drug trafficker with a thousand loyal soldiers and movie starlets to keep her company, then the CIA and an army of Chinese nationalists just might be able to make those dreams come true.
At least that’s how things worked out for Yang “Olive” Jinxiu, who passed away this year on July 13, 2017 at the age of 90.
Olive’s rise and fall, detailed in interviews and her family’s memoirs, not only reveal a daring individual who challenged the gender norms of her time, but also illustrate how some of America’s Cold War schemes in Asia eventually reached back into the United States with tragic consequences.
Born in 1927 in what was then colonial Burma, Yang Jinxiu was a princess of the Kokang, though she preferred her English school name “Olive.”
The Yang clan held a long and proud lineage in Imperial China based in the Nanjing area. But it had remained diehard loyalists of the Ming Dynasty after its defeat by the Manchurians, who would establish the last dynasty to rule China. Fleeing southeast to the far reaches of Yunnan province, the Yang crossed over into what is today the Shan state of Myanmar during the 18th century.
There they became rulers of a Han Chinese people known as the Kokang, becoming one of more than 135 officially-recognized ethnic minorities in a country that lies at the crossroads between India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos.
As the eldest daughter of 11 brothers and sisters, Yang was expected to make herself as pretty and feminine as possible to attract a worthy suitor, including binding her feet to make them smaller — a practice deemed sexually attractive but which left many Chinese women hobbled for life. She was expected to give birth to royal heirs.
But that life didn’t suit Olive. The Yang family memoirs tell of a boyish girl who cut her hair short, refused to wear women’s clothes and go through with the foot-binding. She became known as “Miss Hairy Legs.” Rather than mooning over male suitors, she developed crushes on her brothers’ girlfriends and wives.
Notoriously hot-tempered and fond of guns — legend has it, she got in trouble for packing a revolver at school — she was by all accounts a skilled markswoman.
Japanese troops further complicated Yang’s teenage years when they invaded Burma in 1941, destroying her parents’ home because of their allegiance to the British. The Yang clan fled to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in China. In fact, Kunming had become the de facto capital of the entire Chinese Nationalist government, the Kuomintang, as Japanese troops had already captured Beijing and other coastal cities.
The city hosted numerous refugees and soldiers including American military personnel, leaving an impression on Olive. One of her brothers even enlisted in the Kuomintang army.
After the war, Yang’s frustrated parents forced her into an arranged a marriage with cousin Duan Sao Wen, son of a chieftain of a nearby clan. However, she nearly clocked him with a chamber pot when he tried to have sex with her.
Though her husband was “afraid of her,” according to her sister Judy, Olive did eventually become pregnant and gave birth to her only son, Duan Jipu, using a name she adopted from the Jeeps she had seen American soldiers driving in Kunming.
But Olive was miserable in the role of a wife and mother. Just a few weeks after becoming pregnant, Yang left her husband behind — they would divorce after two years — swaggering in a gray military uniform of her own design with twin Belgium pistols at her hip and a personal army of 300 Kokang militia under her command. Through connections with her brother, she had received an invitation from the Kuomintang she couldn’t refuse.
At top — Olive, at center, in the 1950s. Above — a Chinese opium den in the 1930s. Photo via Wikipedia
The CIA and opium
In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party secured control of mainland China. The Nationalist troops of Gen. Li Mi’s 93rd Division fought a rearguard struggle against the People’s Liberation Army in Yunnan province, before retreating into Myanmar to continue a guerilla campaign behind the cover of an international border.
Li Mi was familiar with the region as his troops had operated in Myanmar and Thailand during World War II, during which time they had extended China’s opium-trafficking industry into the Southeast Asian states, disrupting the local state-run opium cartels.
Now Li Mi needed money. “I have to continue to fight the evil of communism and to fight you must have an army,” Nationalist general Duan Xiwen put it. “An army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium.”
As the Communist Party was cracking down on the opium industry in Yunnan province, this only made opium cultivation in Thailand and Myanmar even more profitable.
The newly-formed CIA, looking for ways to destabilize communist rule in China, was happy to assist Li Mi as he gathered strength in a bid to invade Yunnan province — especially after Chinese troops intervened on behalf of North Korea in the Korean War.
Pres. Harry Truman gave his blessing to Operation Paper, authorizing the CIA to airlift weapons and supplies for Li Mi’s troops — and Olive’s militia — via an airstrip at Mong Hsat. Soon Li Mi’s troops were sporting new American Garand rifles, heavy weapons, bazookas and flak guns. Taiwan also began funneling hundreds of reinforcements to Li Mi by air, as well.
“Olive’s Boys” worked in tandem with Li Mi’s army in establishing what would eventually become the Golden Triangle of opioid trafficking in the states of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.
One of Olive’s early missions for Li Mi’s “Lost Army” was to use her militia to escort a heavily-laden mule train on a four-day journey. When an inebriated local policeman shook her down for bribes, there was a “misunderstanding” and she ended up kidnapping the man. This was “a very careless” thing, she later admitted in an apologetic letter to the Shan state commissioner.
Eventually, Olive became the first to introduce motorized transportation of opium, instead of the mules, pioneering new drug running routes that would be used for decades. Opium production multiplied 10 or 20 times to 600 tons a year.
Li Mi’s small force would eventually swell to 12,000 troops, often brutally press-ganging local minorities. In 1951 and 1952, Li Mi launched three invasions of Yunnan province, getting as far as capturing Gengma county before being repelled with heavy casualties by more than 40,000 communist troops.
By that time the Burmese government had tired of Li Mi’s antics and invited the general to vacate its territory, even complaining in the United Nations that an American C-47 transport was seen delivering arms to Olive’s troops. When Li Mi refused, the new Burmese military — the Tatmadaw — drove him first out of his base at Tachilek, then from Mong Hsat.
While the “Lost Army’ withdrew deeper into the territory of the Shan State, Olive Yang was arrested while driving across the Thai border by government forces. Sitting beside her at the time was her henchman Luo Xinghan, a former classmate who helped her do the books and kept her supplied with smokes from a jar he held for her.
Olive was sentenced to five years in prison. However, her brother Lord Edward Yang remained the ruler of the Kokang. After her release from custody, she soon became his rival in political power, and resumed her opium trafficking activities.
Nationalist Chinese pilots prepare for a mission against the communists. Photo via Wikipedia
Movie stars and coups
In 1959, Olive’s brother Edward, along with other princes in Shan state, abdicated his title as as part of an agreement to unify with the Burmese state. In the power vacuum, the 32-year old Olive assumed control of her brother’s 1,000-man militia, the Kokang People’s Defense Force, and effectively made herself ruler.
She was loved by her soldiers, and perceived as being more willing to stick up for the Kokang against the authority of the Burmese state. Money soon flowed into her coffers from taxes she collected on the drug trade, as well as from gambling and gold mining.
During this period, Olive first competed with her brother for the affections of Louisa Craig Benson, a Burmese actress and two-time Miss Burma of Jewish- and Karen-minority descent who had returned from studies in the United States.
A remarkable woman in her own right, Benson ended up marrying Lin Htin, the leader of the Karen National Liberation Army, and after his death assumed command of a splinter unit, the 5th Brigade. After living two years with a price on her head, she returned to the United States, where she later became a human-right’s activist.
Moving on, Olive went on to strike up an affair with the glamorous teenage actress and Wah Wah Win Shwe, courting her with expensive gifts including rare teas, fancy textiles and bacon. They grew so close that Olive added the actress’s name to the deed on an enormous mansion she bought in the capital of Rangoon. Wah Wah continues to live on the property into 2017, but she married in 1971 and in later interviews denied that she and Olive had been more than friends.
In March 1962, the Burmese military under Gen. Ne Win overthrew the government in a coup and began a crackdown on the ethnic minority regions. This included banning Chinese-language education — re-classifying many Chinese in Burma as only partial citizens without a right to higher education — and stoking violent race riots against them. This led to even further resistance and militancy from various minority armies, including those associated with the Shan and Karen people.
The government arrested Olive again in 1963 as part of the clampdown and imprisoned her for another five years in Insein prison. In this facility infamous for its inhumane conditions, she was subject to torture and sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the situation changed swiftly in Kokang lands. Olive’s brother Jimmy Yang was arrested and Luo Xinghan, Olive’s former cigarette-lackey, seized control of the trafficking operation and became an international heroin kingpin. He grew far wealthier than Olive ever was.
At the same time, the rebels in the Communist Party of Burma, led by the brothers Peng Jiafu and Jiosheng, received arms from Beijing and recruited troops in Kokang territory. They pushed the last remnants of the Kuomintang out of Myanmar and into Thailand, and then launched an offensive aiming to capture the Burmese lowlands.
Luo Xinghan would eventually strike a deal with the government, assisting the Tatmadaw in routing the communists in the Battle of Kunlong Bridge. In exchange, he received unobstructed access to roads throughout Burma for his drug trafficking business, and even logistical assistance from Burmese troops in moving the drugs into Thailand.
The success of this enterprise consolidated the Golden Triangle between Thailand, Burma and Laos. However, in the early 1970s, Luo himself had falling out with the Burmese government and was imprisoned until 1980. The Burmese military went on to brutally suppress a civilian uprising in 1988 and shortly afterward renamed the country “Myanmar.”
Olive in 2015. Photo via Public Radio International
Retirement of a drug lord
Olive’s days as a kingpin and militia leader were over. However, the “warlady” of the Kokang had one more public role to play. Peacemaker.
In March 1989, the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma, which still controlled much of Shan state, suffered a mutiny and split into four factions. Myanmar intelligence chief Khyun Nint recruited Olive and Luo to use their influence to negotiate a ceasefire between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Tatmadaw.
They managed to strike a deal permitting the MNDAA to maintain its army and continue governing its territory as long as it didn’t attack government forces. Similar deals were soon arranged with other rebel groups.
Not only did this help curtail the frequent military atrocities plaguing the inhabitants of Shan state, but it enabled the locals to revive the economy by focusing on what by then was their primary means of making an income — heroin production.
In the six years following the mutiny, output in Myanmar nearly quadrupled from 836 tons to more than 2,340. Gun running from China — and into India, fueling ethnic insurgencies there — also became a staple in the economy.
For decades, the Golden Triangle served as the primary source of the opioids consumed in the United States and Europe. However, today the majority of heroin originates from the Golden Crescent in Afghanistan, another country where American Cold War policies fueled drug-trafficking.
Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death of Americans under the age of 50, currently killing around 60,000 Americans per year, a rate nearly seven times higher than the world average. Around two-thirds of the deaths are opioids-related.
Although the recent surge in overdose deaths was initially linked to over-prescription of legal opioids such as oxycontin in the 2000s due to lax regulations, the pre-existing heroin trafficking networks moved in once the government curtailed legal opioids.
Nor has everything been rosy back in Myanmar. Attempts at deeper, long-lasting reconciliation between the government and the ethnic minority rebels have been minimal, despite progress toward democratic governance in the last seven years. Conflicts ostensibly about national identity have been transformed into competitions for control over resources, including drugs.
The 1989 truce lasted a profitable 20 years before the Tatmadaw launched an offensive into Kokang territory in 2009, causing 30,000 inhabitants to flee into China. Fighting broke out again in 2015 and 2017 as Kokang fighters attempted to take the land back.
Democratization has not caused the Myanmar military to abandon its rapacious tactics when suppressing ethnic minorities, as evidenced by the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people today.
Yang, however, lived out her 70s and 80s peacefully in the city of Muse in Shan state, attended to by a small troop of guards calling her “Uncle Olive.” In interviews she would cheerfully recount her adventures and provide historical clarifications, a cigarette always dangling from one hand. She maintained occasional contact with her far-flung family, including her son Jipu, whom she saw only intermittently in his childhood.
Yang’s sister Judy would opine that Olive’s unhappiness with traditional roles led her to find her own version of freedom — as criminal and warlord. According to journalist Gabrielle Paluch, one of the last people to interview the warlord, Olive’s brother Francis eventually apologized to Olive, saying he regretted that his family had been unable to accept the kind of person Olive was in her youth.