**For more information on the prompt that inspired this piece please visit here**
Dear Khun Sa, or as your parents would have called you, Chan Chi-fu,
I don’t often write love letters to dead drug lords, but after conducting some research on your life for an article I had to write about the opium economy in Southeast Asia, I realized that I have a lot to say to you.
Aside from the death and destruction that lie in the wake of your opium smuggling operations, you led the kind of life I would want to emulate. A child of Chinese and Shan descent, the direction of your life swung in tandem with the pendulum of your identity. I have experienced similar shifts, as the various aspects of my ethnic heritage vied for prominence in my life.
No one can ever doubt your manliness. You seized opportunities as if your life depended on it, especially when your life did depend on it. When the Burmese government was outsourcing local militias to fight its enemies, you formed your own gang, broke into the heroin business, and counterbalanced American and Chinese foreign interests to remain a major player in the global drub trade with impunity for decades. When the Burmese government turned on you, you learned that your loyalty would be better placed in Shan separatism, and you committed your army to fighting for the liberation of your people. In a region that receives little international humanitarian aid and is kept in poverty by interminable war, you built a society with the scant resources available to you. You may have gone down in history as a self-interested opportunist, but what people often neglect about opportunists is that they can still be community-oriented; they are not necessarily excluded from the possibility of helping people through their sly creativity.
In a way that I try to mimic every day, your legacy blurred the lines between ideal types. Hundreds of pages of scholarship have been dedicated to evaluating your model of narco-development (development through the illegal drug economy), creating one of my favorite kinds of conversations. I like to believe that nothing is all bad or all good; there are positive lessons to be learned from even the most destructive phenomena. Sure, you produced half of heroin that entered the United States for a good amount of time, but it’s worth thinking about what impact that had on the communities that produced that heroin. You did not create the American drug market; you capitalized on it to alleviate poverty in your community, for better or for worse. The recognition that some gain and some lose as a result of your work casts you into the realm of global politics.
I doubt the U.S. State Department will ever have any reason to dub me “the most evil man in the world” as they did you, but if they do, I know I’ll have a clever comeback. The People-In-Charge are often blind to the structure that they create, which shapes the options available to the rest of us. The same government that accused you of evil also armed you, funded you, and ensured that your drugs made it to market for as long as they needed your partnership in the fight against communism. Your life is a testament to the artificially constrained reality in which we all live, as well as to the danger of questioning this reality too brazenly. Like you, I enjoy the challenge of living on the outskirts of normalcy, and I am committed to testing the limits of my agency.
If all goes well, my life will end as yours did, in a big house in Yangon, surrounded by my family, a defeated yet respected warrior who gave thought-provoking meaning to the idea of leading a diverse, messy, productive life.
With a mixture of feelings that includes much respect,