Adrian’s 15 month trip to inside Shan State (April 1972-July 1973), came at the right time.
The Shan resistance at that time was fighting on a three-front war:
- The struggle against the ruling military government and its Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) led by Gen Ne Win
- Another against the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), backed by China, that had been calling for a united front against the military government and offering free arms to those that accepted its terms
- The latest one against the stigma placed by the ruling military government, taking advantage of the War on Drugs declaration by Washington on 17 June 1971: “rebels equal drugs”
“The tying of the solution to the opium problem with the military victory of Rangoon”, wrote Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, then General Secretary of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the political arm of the Shan State Army (SSA), who had invited Adrian, wrote later, “is disturbing. Disturbing because some governments are accepting as a fact what in reality is a politically motivated slander made by one warring party to discredit its enemies.”
Adrian Cowell was well suited for the mission. “He had in 1964 entered Kengtung, the eastern Shan State, and lived there for some months with a band of Shan guerrillas, and had produced a film, The Unknown War, on the activities of this band,” said Yawnghwe in his 1987 “The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan exile.”
He and cameraman Chris Menges, later of The Killing Fields fame, spent more than a year in wartorn Shan State, out of which came the prize-winning documentary, “The Opium Warlords”. It documented the life of the Shan poppy farmers and the 1973 Shan proposal to terminate the opium trade in Burma, ending with the capture of Lo Hsing Han, dubbed then as the Opium King.
“However, though the film was a success,” wrote Chao Tzang, “It did not have the impact the SSA hoped for on governments and international agencies. Instead of coming to see the opium problem as a real problem linked firmly to the social, economic and political problems of Shan State and Burma, politicians and bureaucrats especially persisted in seeing the opium question though the eyes of Hollywood scriptwriters complete with heroic cops and powerful godfathers. The search for a solution to the opium problem became a search for scapegoats.”
Still, Adrian did not give up. He continued with two more documentaries Opium: The Politicians and Heroin Wars, the latter ending with the surrender of Khun Sa, Lo’s “successor” as the King, whose departure, to no one’s surprise, had not resulted in the solution of the drug problem.
“Kings come and go”, he quipped to me in 1996 after I left Homong, Khun Sa’s headquarters, just before the surrender, “but drugs go on forever.”
Seven years later, in 2003, my deputy Hseng Zeun, who had co-authored the newly published Show Business: Rangoon’s War on Drugs in Shan State, met him again in Amsterdam at a drug seminar organized by Transnational Institute. On his return, Hseng Zeun told me he had sent his regards and was looking forward to meeting me again.
He never did. On 11 October 2011, he died in UK at the age of 77.