Myanmar’s Warrior Princess: Opium Queen Olive Yang

By Tony Waters 11 May 2023

Olive Yang is legendary in Myanmar history. Now she has an actual English-language biography written about her life, and her role in the chaotic wars in the north of the country in the 1940s and after. The Opium Queen: The Untold Story of the Rebel who Ruled the Golden Triangle by Gabrielle Paluch tells Olive’s story, acknowledging the hyperbole, but backing up what she says with copious footnotes to archival sources in English and Mandarin Chinese, and interviews conducted in Chinese dialects, Burmese and English. The book supplements the press stories, novels, legends, and general gossip about Yang that still circulates in Myanmar’s myriad communities as well.

Olive Yang was born in 1927 into the noble Yang house of the Kokang region in northeast Myanmar that borders China’s Yunnan Province. The second daughter of the ruling prince, Yang was destined for matrimony and even had her feet broken and bound as a child in preparation for this role. But she defied her parents and became known for taking pistols to the Catholic school in Lashio. By the 1940s she was known as a ‘warrior princess’ commanding “Olive’s Boys”, an army of hundreds, and eventually more than a thousand, until she was imprisoned after Ne Win’s 1962 coup.

As a cross-dressing commander using male speech patterns, she entered into agreements with the Nationalist Chinese forces in northern Myanmar who were seeking to retake southern China from the recently victorious Communist forces there. She played a very dangerous game, managing an alliance with the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which provided her army with weapons and materials in the context of the Nationalist Chinese soldiers which occupied parts of the then Burma from about 1950 until the 1980s. She also jousted with U Nu’s army, communist forces, and even Wa warriors seeking to preserve their independence.

In the 1950s, Olive turned to the opium trade as her taste for gold and money increased, sending caravans of pack mules loaded with the drug to Thailand and then onto the rapidly expanding global markets. She is credited with organizing the first deliveries of opium carried by truck out of the Golden Triangle into Thailand.

Then there were the love affairs, the occasional arrests, and finally imprisonment following Ne Win’s 1962 coup. Released in 1968 she lived mostly in Yangon before moving back to northern Myanmar around 2003, supposedly to become a Buddhist nun. She died in 2017 in the border town of Muse, Shan State.

Olive Yang and the Golden Triangle

The Yang clan were the traditional Chinese-speaking rulers of the Kokang region along the remote border between Shan State and China. Her father was the Prince of Kokang and ruled under the British, the then colonial rulers. In this context Olive was destined to be used as a bargaining chip in the marital maneuverings between highland families. Her family pushed her into an arranged marriage in 1947 to a neighboring noble who she rebelled against. Nevertheless, she became pregnant following legendary knock-down fights and so fulfilled her family’s wishes by giving birth to a son named Jeep, named after the American vehicles she had seen in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province.

Known for her marksmanship and horse-riding skills, she organized a traditional militia, in order to protect family interests in the brief period between the end of World War II and Burmese independence in January 1948. So, after Jeep’s birth, Olive left her husband, and assumed her role as the head of a well-armed militia which would be used by the forces of Nationalist China and the CIA as they sought to invade southern China in a so-called secret war which took place between 1950 and 1953. The combined forces were easily beaten back by China’s military. But a pattern was started, and such ‘secret wars’ would later be conducted by the CIA in Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately Afghanistan.

After the U Nu government raised objections in the United Nations in 1953, the Americans and Taiwanese made a show of evacuating the nationalist Chinese forces to Taiwan. But of course Olive and her militia, as well as others, did not go. For that matter the CIA continued to have an interest in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands because of their proximity to China.

Yang and her private army became one of several militias that established the opium production capacity that would make northern Myanmar the largest producer of heroin in the world in the 1970s, and later a major methamphetamine producer in the 2000s. Olive and others transported the drugs via pack mules, introduced vehicles, the occasional aircraft, and even at one point floating hollowed-out logs down the Salween River.

Olive’s active personal reign in the Golden Triangle continued only until about 1962 when the new Ne Win regime imprisoned her. She was released to a comfortable retirement in Yangon around 1968. There she would enjoy the company of the city’s elite and in 1989, help broker the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) on behalf of Myanmar military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. This in turn led to the emergence of Wa State and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that exist in the Shan State borderlands today.

The ungovernable northern lands and Uncle Olive

Her troops called Yang “Uncle Olive” in deference to her propensity to dress like a man, and seek out beautiful young women as mistresses. A fine shot and a skilled horse rider, Yang was already famous enough in the 1950s to be fictionalized in the novel Opium Venture by British judge Gerard Sparrow, who himself apparently reigned in a Thai consular court until the 1930s, and then bragged in his own books about protecting Shan opium smugglers of the 1950s.

The Opium Queen is mainly a biography, but the other important story it tells is about the violence and independence of the highlands between China and Myanmar. This was an area never incorporated into Konbaung Burma, British Burma, China, or today’s modern Myanmar. Instead it is dominated by ethnic Chinese, Kachin, and Shan clans seeking their own advantages between the empires and nations. Beyond the obvious importance of Olive to this story, there are other characters worthy of their own biographies.

For example, besides the novelist and judge Sparrow, there is a Kokang general who calls himself Gregory Peck, Lo Hsing Han, the godfather of heroin after the 1970s, and the missionary Harold Young whose family would organize secret wars for the CIA from the 1940s until at least the 1970s.  A ‘pony-tailed bandit’ makes an appearance, too, and so do various Burmese movie stars who Olive romanced. Dr. Tom Dooley, a CIA agent who established a Catholic hospital in northern Laos in the late 1950s, makes a brief appearance, before heading back to America to raise money on the lecture and television circuit, where he appeared on the hit program What’s My Line? Dooley’s approach inspired latter-day missionaries who still blaze trails between wealthy American churches and medical missions in territory controlled by EAOs.

But my personal favorite character from The Opium Queen is the ‘Borderland Poet’, an intelligence agent and captain in the Nationalist Chinese army, whose role [and poetry] the author discovered in Taiwan.

History and journalism combined

Author Gabrielle Paluch has written an impressive book combining the archival skills of a historian, while pursuing interviews as a journalist. Her biggest strength is that she works in Mandarin and apparently has some facility in Burmese developed while living in Myanmar for about six years. Such placement helped her pursue Olive’s story in the Chinese-speaking areas of the borderlands, as well as in Yangon in ways that journalists who ‘parachute’ in cannot. As important, she also did archival research in Taiwan and the United States, about the involvement of Olive with the Nationalist Chinese Army and the CIA.

As for her reporting skills, Paluch accessed people who are normally reluctant to talk to reporters. She is frank about people who avoided talking to her and often stood her up, or cut interviews short. She met Olive Yang briefly in 2015 and took photos which are in the book. But that interview was unfortunately terminated by staff shortly after Olive permitted her photo to be taken, and after she told Paluch to address her properly as “Uncle Olive.”  Paluch had better luck with other family members living in Myanmar, Thailand and London, which enriches the book immeasurably. She also interviewed Yang’s son Jeep, who lives in Chiang Mai.

Northern Myanmar is still all about China, the US and the fight for highland autonomy

Olive Yang’s power was strongest in the 1950s, so the book would normally be primarily of historical interest only. But I do not think that this is the case. Olive’s command, as well as that of others, of highland politics was masterful, gaining advantage with the Nationalist Chinese, Americans, and ultimately the Myanmar military. Despite a weak base, the highland warlords play the Great Game between China and the United States well. Who else but Olive Yang invaded the People’s Republic of China, blazed the trail of the international opium trade, and in the end was still was called in by no less than Khin Nyunt to broker a ‘peace’ after the collapse of the CPB in 1989?

Such shadow games are, of course, still played in Myanmar, where the Chinese still seek to leverage advantages in illicit trade via Muse, Shwe Kokko, and Wa State. Kokang itself still marches to its own Chinese drummer. China does this while seeking to build lucrative dams, ports, railways, and enlarging the Yangon skyline. And just as in the 1950s, the US still seeks to block Beijing by proffering humanitarian assistance and support for democracy, while seeking to encircle China via the black arts of CIA agents operating out of Yangon, Chiang Mai and elsewhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, strange militias pop up today just like they did in the 1950s. Groups like the Border Guard Forces, EAOs, People’s Defense Forces and others still seek sponsors able to provide the weapons and equipment needed to carry on their business, whether it be rebellion or peddling methamphetamines. If nothing else, Olive Yang pioneered a business model which continues to dominate highland Myanmar politics today. Or as the Taiwanese intelligence agent known as the Borderland Poet put it:

The Queen of Old Street became like a celestial fairy, her smile
spreading cheek-to-cheek
Guerillas bowed down.  The beautiful woman from the mountaintop
praised their persistence.

Gabrielle Paluch, The Opium Queen: The Untold Story of the Rebel who Ruled the Golden Triangle, Rowman & Littlefield, 2023, pp.236.

Tony Waters is a professor of sociology, currently at Leuphana University, Germany. Previously he taught at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and California State University in Chico, California.  He is an occasional contributor to The Irrawaddy. His email is [email protected].