This is the final part of a New Mandala series. Readers are warned that some of the content in this series is graphic and there is occasional coarse language. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 were published in recent weeks.
Downtown Rangoon in March was hot and humid and dirty.
I hadn’t been back for more than eight years and the place was filthy and absolute hell for me after living so many years away in clean and fresh Sydney, with the beautiful harbour. People were scrawny and their clothes dirty and everywhere I looked piles of rubbish clogged the streets.
Rangoon CBD was full of cars and the never-ceasing, blaring horns were unbearable as every driver seemed to be beeping all the time. I felt like I had made a serious mistake coming back to do business there. But I promised myself I would make this business a success so that I wouldn’t need to work for anyone ever again.
I was lucky as one of my close friends was the manager of the semi-government corporation involved in the prawn processing and exporting business. Through him and many of his business contacts I managed to get a US$90,000 quotation for a 20-foot refrigerated container load of prawn meat from a small but reliable processing plant. I faxed the quote to Mr. Woo and he immediately replied that he was opening a LC for that amount.
As soon as we received the LC confirmation from an Australian Bank through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank the processing company started buying tons of freshly caught prawns from the trawlers and processing them. It took about three weeks for my first container to be filled and finally the container left Rangoon on a feeder ship for Singapore. A proper container ship heading for Australia from Singapore would carry my container all the way to Sydney.
I left Rangoon a month after I landed there. We received the first container in 4 weeks and I was paid my first commission the next day after the container was opened and Mr. Woo was happy with the prawn boxes inside.
I didn’t ask, but I knew Mr. Woo made double his money after selling his first ever batch of cheap Burmese prawns to the small distributors supplying the Chinese restaurants all over Sydney and beyond.
Within a week I was back again in Rangoon walking through the cold storages and processing plants all over Rangoon almost everyday. I was working hard to send three more container loads of cheap prawn meat back to Sydney that trip.
Prawn processing is a low-tech, labour-intensive activity. Raw fresh prawns straight out of the trawlers are washed and grouped according to the size in terms of the number of prawns per kilo. So 16-30 grade means 16 to 30 prawns make up 1 kilo, which are bigger than 41-50 grade prawns. Then the graded prawns are sent to the long processing tables where a group of mainly young girls and women individually remove the heads, peel, and devein the prawns.
In the Burmese system, the processed prawns were then neatly placed in rows into 2 kilo capacity steel or aluminium containers lined with plastic sheets, filled with water to the rims, and quick frozen at a temperature of less than -35 degree Celsius within 3 hours. After freezing, the plastic-wrapped 2 kilo frozen blocks of prawn in ice were packed into 20 kilo cardboard boxes and kept in cold storage ready to be shipped.
After the second trip I became well known in Rangoon prawn circles and many people even approached me to buy from them. The demand from Sydney was insatiable and a couple of big Chinese distributors who normally bought from Mr. Woo started buying direct from Burma through me. I was shipping at least 3 to 4 containers in a trip without any serious hurdles. But there were still a couple of problems.
One serious concern was the health risk of Burmese prawns in Sydney. A Chinese restaurant was sued by the patrons after they contracted hepatitis by eating prawns allegedly from Burma one night. Hepatitis was widespread in Burma and many Burmese were the carriers, and hygiene was almost non-existent in the prawn processing plants.
The girls and women from the processing lines used water to clean themselves in the toilets. I was afraid the virus could easily be transferred from them into the prawns and carried all the way to Sydney. Mr. Woo also told me he was forced to buy $50 million of public liability insurance by his bank after that case. That was when I stopped eating prawns.
Another serious problem was the money flow between Rangoon and Sydney. Dealing with Burmese side was not that straight forward as Burma still had many trade and currency restrictions. Burmese currency, kyat, was still pegged to the US$ at very high rate of 7 kyat to the US$, and no Burmese were allowed to hold foreign currency. What was legal and what was illegal were not well-defined as Burmese and foreigners alike tried to navigate the murky waters of the system now called Myanmar.
Once a container was on board in the care of a shipping line the supplier could cash the LC by submitting the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank the BL (Bill of Lading) issued by the shipping company. But, in reality, all the LCs in US$ we opened from Sydney, and were never converted to kyat officially by my Burmese suppliers.
The millions and millions of cold hard dollars from prawn-mad Australian consumers collected through the complex chain of prawn trade were swallowed by the big black hole called the Burmese Army through Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank.
What the Burmese suppliers received was a pile of paper called FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates) and a very valuable import permit. One FEC was equivalent to one US$. They could either import rare commodities like diesel fuel and steel RC bars from Singapore, or purchase the controlled stuff like sugar and cement bags from the government factories. When they resold that stuff in the black markets they reaped a massive amount of kyat at the black market exchange rate of 600-700 kyat to the US$.
But the Burmese entrepreneur class was growing rapidly and they were travelling more frequently to places like Singapore and Bangkok. They needed US$ in hand to do serious shopping there. And my suppliers started asking me to open LCs in artificially deflated amounts and pay the rest in US$ cash.
I had to ask my Chinese buyers to open US$80,000 LC instead of $100,000 and the Burmese would put $100,000 worth of prawn into the container. I then took the US$20,000 shortfall from Sydney back to either Singapore or Bangkok and deposited that amount into their accounts.
Both sides were happy but I wasn’t. Maybe what I was doing then was illegal and finally I refused to carry any amount more than US$5,000. That practice also caused regular disputes about the exact dollar value of prawns put inside the containers.
Apart from those two problems I was quite happy doing what I was doing till I was stopped at the Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport one day on my arrival and taken away to a MIS (Military Intelligence Service) interrogation cell in the dreaded Kone-Myint-Thar-Yar in Ma-yan-gone Township. I was nearly a year in the very profitable prawn trade.
Military Intelligence Service
They forced me to sit between two burly men in the back of a black Mercedes and drove all the way to the headquarters of the MIS Rangoon battalion at 8 miles, Prome Road. There, in a windowless, blood-stained cell, I had to wait a couple of hours till a tall thin man in mufti came in with a very old file in his hands. He politely introduced himself as MIS Major so and so and started asking me questions.
“We have your file here”, he said and showed me the old manila file with my name on it. “There is a gap and I would like to ask you what were you doing in the years 1973 and 1974”, he asked. “I was in RIT [Rangoon Institute of Technology]”, was my quick response. “No, you were not. You were investigated by us in 1978 and the result was unsatisfactory”.
Only then I remembered what happened in 1978. I was still at University. One of my older cousins was a doctor and a womaniser and he was screwing the daughter of the Chairman of our local People’s Council. He tried to force him to marry his only daughter but my cousin did a runner. Knowing my two years disappearance from home, the angry Chairman reported me to the security apparatus. Two MIS Captains came to our house to take me in for interrogation. But they discovered who my father was. They then apologised and left.
Now some big shot behind this young Major was trying to dig up old dirt on me and scare me for some reason. I wasn’t scared and I sensed a shake-down coming. I had to play hard ball with these bastards. I knew their games very well.
“If General Tint Swe knew you guys brought me here against my will he will skin you alive!” I calmly told him and my threat shocked him. He stared at me for a few minutes without saying a word. “How do you know the General?”, came the eventual question. “He and my late father graduated together from the second batch of Japanese Military Academy. He even came and met me in Sydney while he was in Australia”. That last sentence was an outright lie. I just ran into him at a friend’s house in Sydney.
And I knew Genral Tint Swe’s adopted son was none other than General Khin Nyunt the famous chief of MIS and the First Secretary of the ruling military junta, the State Deace and Development Council. That was enough for the young Major. He quickly left the filthy cell and didn’t come back for about half an hour.
He came back in and led me two floors up into an air-conditioned room where a smiling MIS Colonel in a starched army uniform was waiting. That was the first time I met Colonel Chit. Almost everyone knew him as he was then running Rangoon as a senior henchman of General Khin Nyunt.
About 50 years old, he was tall, thin, and dark, with the penetrating black eyes reminding me of the MIS Captain from our battalion when I was a boy soldier. That officer tortured and killed so many people that his piercing pair of black eyes became so expressionless it was as if there wasn’t a soul behind them.
He began: “Sorry for the misunderstanding, please accept my apology”. “No worries”, I said. “I am just a businessman and I don’t want no troubles”, I added. “Yes, I understand. I just would like you to consider my small request”. I was right. The whole thing was a shake-down.
He told me about a small cold storage he owned together with two former MIS Captains and how they were trying hard to persuade me to open a LC for them and they were frustrated that I hadn’t done anything even though I’d promised them, etcetera, etcetera.
I knew exactly whom he was talking about as these two Captains had been chasing me for a good part of last six months to get my business. They even told me at the dinner table in a Chinese restaurant that their silent partner was very powerful and could give me a hard time if he wanted. But I knew they were from MIS and for that reason I refused to do business with them. I knew very well that MIS was in every dirty business. But now I was cornered and I knew I had to give in and that was my first mistake.
Once I promised to do business with him he sent me back home in his black Mitsubishi Pajero SUV driven by a friendly MIS Sergeant. The next day as soon as I was out of my house the younger one of the two Captains was waiting for me in his black Pajero to take me to their cold storage.
They had no processing facility, only a small cold storage. But they promised me they could get any quantity or type of prawn I wanted from the coastal region and the Delta. So that day I bought a container load of prawn meat for one of my buyers in Sydney and they offered me a very generous deal. They want only 80% LC and I could take 2.5% of the container value from the shortfall. I was amazed by their offer. That meant US$2,500 for each $100,000 container of prawn.
The strange part of their deal was instead of putting the shortfalls into their own accounts overseas they wanted me to open an account in Singapore and accumulate the shortfalls there.
That was how I started doing business with the devil. I naively opened a US$ bank account in Singapore in my own name and gave them the account details and the ATM card and PIN so that they could check and withdraw their own money when they were in Singapore.
Six months later when I had a stop-over in Singapore on the way to Rangoon, a heavy-set white man was waiting for me at my hotel. He was an Israeli-Russian and an arms dealer from Haifa.
Gun Runners and Traffickers
He had a sheet of hand-written instructions from the Captains. Together with my itinerary, the sheet had been faxed from Rangoon the night before. It clearly instructed me to go to the bank with him and take out exactly US$1 million in a casher cheque and hand it over to him.
I was shocked as there was no more than $100,000 in that account from the six container loads of prawn they already shipped. So I called them in Rangoon. They just simply said I shouldn’t worry too much about the balance and told me to follow their instructions.
So we went to the bank on Orchard Road. And yes there was more than enough in my account to withdraw a US$ 1 million in a casher cheque. I couldn’t stop my knees shaking after seeing the massive balance. According to the transaction record the money came from a seafood company in Bangkok.
When I arrived in Rangoon next day the familiar MIS Sergeant was waiting for me at the immigration counter and he led me to the black Pajero in the VIP parking lot. Inside was Colonel Chit and he offered to take me home. On the way he said I was now helping the army and I should be proud of my patriotic services to the motherland.
I was now cornered into doing something: I didn’t even know what I was doing. Anyway I sort of liked what he said and after that the surprise money transfers and the regular withdrawals became a routine. At the Rangoon Airport I didn’t even need to go through immigration and customs anymore as a uniformed MIS Captain always waited for me and led me through the VIP hall on my every arrival and departure. I was so pleased without anticipating that I would soon be pushed into a very tight spot.
By that stage I was up to almost two years in the prawn trade. That night two Captains were treating me an expensive dinner at the MIS-owned Thai-style restaurant in Rangoon. Pretty girls were dancing and singing on the stage and the general atmosphere was quite relaxed and cheerful. I drank too much that night and spoke a lot of bullshit and one story I recounted was about my cab driving experiences on Sydney streets.
The next morning I vaguely remembered I might have talked about the Lebanese drug dealers and how one of them asked me to help bringing in heroin from Burma. I might have. I was so drunk that night I didn’t really remember. The consequence of that stupid conversation was a shocker. Two days later I was driven to Colonel Chit’s office at 8 miles.
As soon as I sat down he asked me what I was doing in that two years gap of my past. So I admitted I was in the army and he was really surprised. “We thought you were with the Communists. Your old man was with BCP after the big war. You were born in the jungle near Pyin-ma-nar”. So I told him my battalion number and my PSN (Private Serial Number) from the army. Anyway he let me go then. But the next day he sent his Pajero again for a special meeting. I was so sick of meeting him too many times. It wasn’t pleasant even if he tried hard to be friendly. I also hated his piercing eyes.
I didn’t meet him in his office. Instead the stern-looking guards took me underground to a cell-like small office. The windowless room had two steel chairs and a small steel desk all bolted to the cold concrete floor. The room was clean and well-lit but I could hear the distant screams coming from the cells down the dimly-lit narrow corridor. They definitely tortured people here. I had heard the rumours all my life.
Abut half an hour later he came in and sat behind the desk. Without a smile he stared at me with his piercing eyes and then slowly opened the only drawer in the desk. From my side I could see parts of two large objects in the partly opened steel drawer. One black and one white. I knew the black one very well.
The butt of a standard army issue 9mm Browning High Power automatic pistol. The same type I deserted with. The same type I once tried to kill myself with. It brought back the bitterly repressed memory of the metallic taste of death in my now dried mouth.
He took out the gun and dropped it heavily on the desk. The gun lay flat with the barrel pointing at my belly. I felt the shiver in my spine. He then picked up the white bundle and placed it gently beside the pistol. I couldn’t believe my own eyes.
I’d heard of it too many times. But never seen it or touched it before. I had witnessed the devastation it had brought upon humanity. I had seen the enormous wealth it had provided to those who dared: criminals. Now it was lying right under my eyes and I could even reach out and touch it.
It was a kilo brick of Double UOGlobe brand 100% pure heroin. Just beside the deadly pistol. A pair of red lions clutching the red globe in their paws, circled by the red letters of the brand in both Chinese and English.
I had read in books that the whole of your life would flash through your mind just before you die. At that moment some unbearable parts of my life had flashed through my mind.
The twisted face of the overdosed boy, two men lying dead in the poppy field, two dead lovers together on the train, old Wa sobbing and begging, dead Kachin boy soldier with his head bashed in on the trench floor, Jason’s smiling face, that girl prostitute on the bed dangling her legs from the edge, Jamal’s fisting the back of my seat, Michael’s fat roll of green cash, my South African boss calling me a kaffir, Mr. Woo begging me not to get involved in the drug trade.
All together in a long flash as if I was seeing a very old horror movie.
Then I heard his voice. He said my story was checked and the fingerprints from all my files corroborated and he was glad that I was an ex-Tatmadaw man. So now was the time to do serious business together as I had also proven myself trustworthy with a very large amount of money. He added I should start establishing our own distribution network in Sydney first and then the whole of Australia. People like Michael who I had mentioned a few nights before at the dinner would be the first ones to approach.
What I had to do was just take this sample brick to Sydney and start showing it around. The Captains would hide this brick inside a prawn block and put it together with other blocks in a marked box. I would be told how the box was marked and its exact location among the hundreds of similar boxes in the container and I just had to retrieve it myself. “Do not trust no one, I repeat do not trust no body. If you need muscles and guns we will provide from here. We’ve got whole army of men and guns”.
“Where do you get this stuff?”, I asked. “Most from Wa and sometimes Kokangs. Good stuff and original brand not that fucking copies from Thailand”. I heard of that brand before. “Is it real?”
“Yeah. CIA started this brand together with Kuomintang remnants we drove out off our country during U Nu’s AFPLF times. After the Vietnam War the brand became so popular all over the world every fucking ethnic army copied it and made it their own”.
How about the money? “That’s simple. All the money from this block you keep it. Others 50/50. We will figure it out later how to move the cash. You will be a filthy rich man soon my boy”.
Have you done it before? “Not to Australia. But many times to Hong Kong and then to Europe and USA. In Hong Kong they now x-ray and search most prawn containers from here. So we have to ship the prawns to Bangkok first. So what do you think of our plan?”
Even before he asked I had already decided my plan of action. I just had to flee before I sunk too deep into his shit.
“Don’t put the brick in yet. I don’t open containers myself in Sydney. I used to but not anymore. The buyers do it. Without a proper plan this shit could end up in some Chinese restaurant. I will go back and find an unsuspecting buyer or I will even need to hire a small cold storage myself for this operation”.
That was reasonable and he agreed. That afternoon I went to the airline office and booked my flights all the way to Sydney on the first available flight. Two days later I was back in Sydney.
I moved across Sydney to another rented flat. I even legally changed my name and took an Anglo first name and applied for a new Australian passport with the new name. I couldn’t fight them; I had to run or hide. I was so scared I didn’t even dare to go out at night. I didn’t touch their money in my accounts and stayed away from all the people I knew in the prawn trade, including Mr. Woo and all my buyers.
They could have killed me easily but they didn’t, so I figured out that they left me alone in peace by considering the fact that I didn’t screw them by stealing their money or informing on them to the authorities.
I don’t really know if the whole MIS was behind it or it was only Colonel Chit’s personal operation. I do not think Burmese Army as a whole was running drugs.
I was really happy and relieved when General Khin Nyunt and his clique of MIS officers were arrested by the army in October 2004, and the whole MIS was later dismantled and replaced with the new MAS (Military Affairs Security). Colonel Chit and his two Captains might be languishing in some Burmese jail, or even dead.
But I still do not dare to go back to Burma. It is almost 15 years since I was last there.