By Iain Manley, Old World Wanderings
Chinese and Southeast Asian architecture in Mae Salong. A memorial to the Forgotten Army’s dead is on the right, just across from a Burmese-influenced Thai wat.
In 1950, the Kuomintang’s 93rd Division fought its way out of China into Burma’s Shan State. The Chinese Civil War was already over: a year earlier, two million refugees had followed Chiang Kaishek to Taiwan. Mao’s Red Army was celebrating its victory, but the 93rd Division refused to surrender. It survived for twelve years in the jungles of the Shan State, in constant conflict with the Burmese Army. When China entered the Korean War, the 93rd Division was armed by the CIA and on seven occasions, between 1950 and 1953, it tried – and failed – to retake the Chinese province of Yunnan.
In 1961, the by now Forgotten Army was granted asylum in Thailand, on a hilltop in the Golden Triangle called Mae Salong. It had still not surrendered. To fund its military operations, the Forgotten Army grew poppies and turned Mae Salong into Southeast Asia’s largest heroin refinery. It was co-opted by Thailand to fight a Chinese-backed communist incursion and it was not until 1982 that the soldiers of the Forgotten Army put down their guns, after more than 40 years of war. For their service to Thailand, they were granted Thai citizenship. Zhan Dening was among them. We met him sitting outside his family home when we visited the hilltop town, which is now called Santikhiri, “The Hill of Peace,” and asked him to tell us his story.
Zhan Dening in a Yankees cap, with a younger friend.
When did you join Chiang Kaishek’s army?
It was the 29th year of the Republic, 1940.
Why did you enlist?
At that time it was like this: after the Communists took control of the mainland, the average Chinese person didn’t have enough to eat. They had nothing to eat. Because there was nothing to eat, part of the Forgotten Army retreated to Taiwan and part of them surrendered to the Communists. So the rest of us… We didn’t have enough to eat, so we started a rebellion. We came together and started an uprising, but the problem was we had no weapons. Some of our weapons had been sent to Taiwan and some had been seized by the Communists, so we had none. America tried to convince Korea’s army to support us. Then they supported us by air-dropping weapons.
When you first entered the army, what did you think about being a soldier?
Being a soldier? At that time we were very young – underage at that time, mostly 14 or 15 years old.
Aah, very young. It must have been very difficult.
Certainly. Difficult doesn’t come close to describing it. We didn’t even have clothes to wear. No food to eat and no clothes to wear.
So at that time, Chiang Kaishek’s army already had no money.
By then, no money at all. General Lee wanted us to reclaim mainland China, but we didn’t have enough supplies and had to retreat to Burma. Then we started to do military training at an anti-communism and anti-Japanese university.
When did you leave China to go to Burma?
It was in 1950. The 39th year of the Republic.
The first reason was we didn’t like the ideology behind Communism. So if we didn’t like the Communist Party, of course we had nothing to eat and nothing to wear. We wanted freedom and democracy. We didn’t like Communism so that made us anti-communist. These were the two reasons.
When you reached Burma, did your situation get better?
After we arrived in Burma, we built a landing strip for aeroplanes. After we built that, provisions slowly started arriving from Taiwan. Clothes arrived. Money arrived. Things got a little better.
Did all the food you had come from Taiwan?
Taiwan sent money, but we bought everything from the Burmese. Vegetables, rice… we bought it all in Burma. It was like this: the place we were staying had no Burmese soldiers, only ordinary people and we had a good relationship. They were nice to us, and they were very interested in us. We paid cash while doing business with them, so they were happy. At first we negotiated with the Burmese government for a non-aggression pact. Our stay in the country was supposed to be temporary, we wanted to go back to China – we didn’t want to take Burma. But the pact didn’t work and after some time, we started fighting.
Altogether, how long were you in Burma?
We were in Burma for around 8 years – fighting for 8 years.
When you came here the second time, you fought in Thailand against the Communist Miao tribespeople. At that time, Taiwan told Thailand’s government that you would help them. How did you feel about that? The majority of people were already in Taiwan, but you were still fighting here.
We were all supposed to retreat to Taiwan. The government of the Republic of China decided to leave some of us behind. We couldn’t all go. Because we couldn’t all go, they told us to go to hide in the mountains and don’t let the Thais or the Burmese find out. Go somewhere in the mountains where there were no people and hide, they said. After we hid they promised to re-supply us in three months. After three months, we didn’t get any supplies and communication had been cut. We didn’t have any money or food left. General Tuan had to think of something in order for us to survive. Taiwan didn’t want us and we were afraid of the Thai government coming after us. So we cut down trees, cleared some land and grew rice to feed ourselves. Once we had food to eat, we started to slowly make our way towards Burma again. Thailand had starting fighting the Miao Communists, but they couldn’t defeat them. When they couldn’t win, the Thai government started negotiating with Taiwan. ‘That army of yours’, they said, ‘do you want them or not? If you don’t want them, we do.’ Taiwan’s government said ‘We don’t want them’, so Thailand said they did. That’s when we started to fight for the Thais.
Zhan Dening outside his family home in Mae Salong
How did you feel when Taiwan said they didn’t want you?
We were all confused. It was the Taiwanese government who asked us to stay, and it was them who didn’t want to admit our existence, it didn’t make sense. Everyone thought that was unfair. We were anti-communists, we had gone against the Communist party!
Did you want to go to Taiwan?
Not by that time. Taiwan is really small you know. We were in Southeast Asia – it’s big. We could go to Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia – we could go to all those places.
So because you fought the Miao Communists, now you are heroes. When did you start to fight them?
The Thai army could not defend themselves against the Miao Communists. They had already killed a Thai governor. The Thai government asked us to help by fighting them, so when we started helping, that’s when they started winning.
In which year did you start fighting them?
When you started fighting them, what was your morale like?
Our morale was high. You know why? It was because this government had big guns and planes! We had never had fighter jets. We had one in Burma – just a single transporter plane. And that plane shot down three Burmese fighter jets. Our one small plane shot down three of Burma’s fighter jets. One plane shot three of Burma’s fighter jets!
What’s your view of China today?
Today I think of us as one and the same. There’s no hostility. It’s gone. China had changed: it treats its people well and freedom is valued, people are well fed, so our feelings have changed too. Our family in China have adequate food and clothing, so our feelings have changed.
You were anti-Communist before. What about now?
They stopped talking about Communism, so we don’t have anything against them. If they start to promote it again, we will fight against it. Communism does not suit us; we talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, China’s Communist Party doesn’t care about democracy, or freedom or human rights.
Are you satisfied with your situation here, and how everything’s turned out?
Yes, you could say we’re pretty satisfied. We take care of ourselves. Apart from taxes, the country doesn’t ask anything of us. It’s a different story in Burma. Burma has a complex composition of armies, every ethnic group has its own military force. This ethnic group wants you to pay tax and that one wants you to pay tax too. People there don’t have such a good life. In Thailand, it’s like this: if you look after yourself, that’s fine, you’re left alone.
Thank you to Geoff Broz and Chris Zhang for helping us edit and translate the interview.
Iain Manley is the writer of Old World Wandering, a blog about overland travel, about hauling backpacks across borders to find connections within regions and across cultures.