The former Burmese drug kingpin Lo Hsing Han, an ethnic Kokang who parlayed his influence and earnings from the illicit narcotics trade into a business empire, passed away in Rangoon on Saturday at the age of 80.
Lo Hsing Han died of cardiac arrest at his home in Burma’s commercial capital, according to sources close to the family.
With the blessing of the country’s ex-military regime, Lo Hsing Han accumulated great wealth in the early 1970s as a leading figure in Burma’s notoriously rampant drug trade. His narcotics empire included lucrative opium production in the Kokang region of northern Shan State.
Lo Hsing Han, the father of another Burmese tycoon, Steven Law (also known as Tun Myint Naing), was arrested in 1973 and sentenced to death on charges of treason.
Veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, the author of several books on Burma including “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948,” told The Irrawaddy that the drug lord was often misperceived abroad.
“Many outsiders regarded him as an outlaw, but he wasn’t,” said Lintner, whose “Burma in Revolt” details the life of Lo Hsing Han. “He was a local, government-recognized militia commander who was allowed to trade in narcotics in exchange for helping the Burmese army fight the Communist Party of Burma [CPB], which had, in 1969, taken over his native Kokang.
“He was sentenced to death, not for drug trafficking, which he had official permission to engage in, but for ‘rebellion against the state,’ a reference to his brief alliance with the Shan State Army [SSA]. The death sentence was never carried out and he was treated as a VIP even when in prison,” Lintner added.
Lo Hsing Han was arrested by Thai authorities and extradited to Burma after crossing into northern Thailand in 1973, during a period in which he went underground and teamed up with the SSA, an ethnic Shan rebel group. He was later freed, in 1980, in a general amnesty.
Following his release, Lo Hsing Han returned to Lashio, Shan State, where he built up a new militia force under the pyi thu sit program (government-backed paramilitary forces), sponsored by Burma’s Military Intelligence.
According to Lintner, Lo Hsing Han rose to prominence once again after the 1989 CPB rebellion, when he and Burmese officials Olive Yang and Aung Gyi were sent by the military regime’s former spy chief Khin Nyunt to negotiate an agreement with the rebels in Kokang. They reached a deal in early 1990 and Lo Hsing Han and his family were able to establish a new business empire, Asia World Co Ltd, which is today run by son Steven Law.
Asked by The Irrawaddy about Lo Hsing Han’s legacy, Lintner said the man’s positive contributions to Burma were negligible.
“He [Lo Hsing Han] traded in opium and other drugs and built a business empire on black money,” he said.
Lintner said there would be little impact from Lo Hsing Han’s death, as other Kokang businessmen had eclipsed the former drug kingpin in importance and influence, including his son Steven Law, who heads several major firms. In addition, Steven Law’s wife Cecilia Ng manages Golden Aaron Pte Ltd and nine other Singapore-based companies.
Asia World is involved in a number of controversial hydropower projects in Burma, including the Sino-Burmese pipeline project from Arakan State to southern China and the now-suspended Myitsone hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State.
His brief alliance with the SSA aside, Lo Hsing Han had close ties to Military Intelligence officials, including Tin Oo in the 1970s and Khin Nyunt from the late 1980s onwards, Lintner said.
Lo Hsing Han and son Steven Law were put on the US sanctions lists in February 2008, along with their companies Asia World, Asia World Port Management, Asia World Industries Ltd and Asia World Light Ltd.
The US blacklisting does not seem to have tainted local opinion of the business tycoon, with cars lining the street outside Lo Hsing Han’s villa in Rangoon on Monday as visitors paid their respects. Agriculture Minister Myint Hlaing and Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Thet Naing Win both placed notes of condolence in Monday’s edition of The Mirror, a state-run newspaper.
In an obituary in the state-run newspaper Myanma Ahlin on Monday, Lo Hsing Han’s family indicated that his funeral will take place on July 17. He is survived by his wife, eight children and 16 grandchildren.