The Forgotten Soldiers of Mae Salong

CityNews – The 65th anniversary of the communist victory in China’s civil war was celebrated enthusiastically across the country last week, but residents of a village in Chiang Rai province have mixed emotions about the rise of the Asian superpower.

Mae Salong, high in the rolling hills near the Burma border, was settled by soldiers from a ‘lost regiment’ of nationalist Kuomintang troops who fled there with their families, via Burma, after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

“The communists are better than before,” 85-year-old Zhan Dening, who served as a wireless operator as a teenager, told CityNews. He remains vehemently anti-communist but concedes that “they have improved China, made it stronger.”

Guesthouse owner Somboon Iamvitayakhum, the son of a Kuomintang general, disagrees.

“China has no freedom, like the Nazis,” he said, adding that many Chinese tourists have told him they don’t like the government. “Chinese people don’t like China!”

When Mae Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, ending years of civil war, the defeated Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. But troops continued to fight in some remote areas, including the southwestern province of Yunnan.

In 1950, around 12,000 soldiers of the Kuomintang’s 93rd Division, led by General Tuan Shi-wen, retreated across the border into the jungles of Burma’s Shan state, where they and their families lived a nomadic existence for the next decade, making occasional forays into Yunnan and fighting Burmese troops trying to drive them off their territory.

Among them was Zhan, who was born to a farming family in Yunnan and joined the Kuomintang as a 14-year-old boy. Ten members of his family died in the civil war, he said – either starved to death or killed by the communists, who also took his grandfather to work as a “slave”.

As a wireless operator, Zang became a close confident of General Tuan, whose mausoleum now stands on a hill in Mae Salong. The renegade troops were funded by Taiwan and the CIA, which dropped arms and supplies, he told CityNews. The fighting was often fierce, and 500 to 600 troops died in one battle alone, he said.

During the 1950s many troops died and some resettled in Taiwan, although Taipei urged others to stay and keep fighting – leading old soldiers like Zhan to feel abandoned by their former comrades-in-arms. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the remaining soldiers travelled back and forth across the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos, looking for a place where they could settle down peacefully.

Eventually the remaining few thousand soldiers and their families made their way across the border on pack horses, and settled in Mae Salong in 1961.

The area was very remote at the time, with only a few hill-tribe villages scattered around and lots of wild animals including bears and tigers. Zhan remembers once seeing a tiger eat a soldier’s horse.

Somboon, son of a general and an army medic, was born in Chiang Rai’s Doi Tung area in 1954. He remembers how, as a child, he would have to walk to the nearest town, Mae Chan, and bring back food and supplies in a bag on his back. The journey took nine hours downhill and 12 hours coming back uphill.

Mae Salong is now home to plush resorts and a trendy coffee shop, but at the time there was no electricity, no roads and no school.

The Thai government was initially wary of the newcomers, but allowed them stay on condition they help put down a communist insurgency then raging in northern Thailand.

The battle-weary Kuomintang troops were joined by younger recruits, including Somboon, who took up arms at 12 and was made a captain at 17. He recalls taking part in fierce battles with ethnic Miao communist insurgents around Chiang Khong, in Nan province and elsewhere in northern Thailand.

Mae Salong also because an important centre of the heroin trade in the 1960s and 70s. The town lies at the heart of the famous Golden Triangle, the opium-growing region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, and during those turbulent decades some 93rd army troops won notoriety for their involvement in the drugs trade.

Nowadays, the communists have long been defeated and government programmes have replaced the opium fields with other cash crops – especially tea, which is ubiquitous in town. Mae Salong is surrounded by picturesque tea plantations and numerous teashops line the streets, selling different varieties of the hot drink.

The Thai government has granted citizenship to most of the veterans, and the village has been officially renamed Santikhiri, or ‘hill of peace’.

Most residents trace their forebears to Yunnan or other parts of western China such as Sichuan or Xinjiang. The Yunnanese dialect is spoken on its narrow, winding streets, red lanterns hang outside the town’s teashops, red roofs sweep upwards in the Chinese style, and visitors are far more likely to see pork buns or Yunnanese noodles on the menu than tom yum goong.

Somboon, son of a Kuomintang general, says he feels proud to be Thai and doesn’t like Chinese tourists because they are “very loud and not polite.”

Zhan, the former wireless operator, said he welcomes them as they bring money to the town. He now lives alone following the death of his wife, his three sons having left home – one to work on a construction site in Taiwan, the country he feels abandoned by. He feels lonely, he says, and sometimes cries at night.

He has two big regrets – that the communists weren’t beaten, and that he has had to stay in Mae Salong. “My soul is Chinese,” he says forlornly.