Wise man on the hill
By Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - There was hardly a vacant seat in the Protestant church by the Ping River in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai for the funeral. American veterans of the Indochina war mixed with Thai and foreign residents, missionaries and intelligence officers, Lahu and Wa tribesmen, and even some wildlife conservationists.
Wreaths came from a group of people who fought in the secret war in Laos in the 1960s and call themselves the "Unknown Warriors Association 333", former Agency for International Development (USAID) workers, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and across the border in Myanmar the rebel Shan State Army.
All of them had come to say farewell to former US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer William Young, who on April 1 ended his own life after suffering from severe emphysema and other ailments, aged 76. He was found dead in is home in Chiang Mai with a handgun in one hand and a crucifix in the other. Young was a warrior but also a devout Christian. As the turnout at the funeral showed, Young was a legend long before he died.
His life and that of his family reflected the ups and downs of more than a century of American engagement with Southeast Asia, its most glorious days as well as its most controversial. At the turn of the last century, William Young's namesake, his grandfather William Young, opened a Baptist mission in Kengtung in the eastern Shan states of Myanmar, then known as Burma.
While the staunchly Buddhist plainspeople ignored the Christian gospel he proselytized, Lahu hill-tribesmen flocked to him by the thousands. Like many other hill peoples, the Lahu had a tale about a "white God" with a book who was destined to save them.
The older William Young was indeed white and carried a Bible under his arm. The prophecy seemed to be fulfilled and a record number of baptisms were carried out in the Kengtung hills. His sons carried on his work, Harold among the Lahu and Vincent among the Wa, who were still headhunters when the Youngs first ventured into their area which straddled the border between Burma and China. They founded churches, missionary schools and devised the Roman for both the Lahu and Wa languages.
Harold's son, William Young, was born during a family visit to in 1934 but he grew up in the Shan states and became fluent in several local languages, including Lahu and Shan. He later learned Wa, Thai and the northern Thai dialect as well as some Hindi and Chinese. Hindi was added after the Young family was evacuated to India when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, and young William attended the Woodstock school in Mussoorie in the hills above Dehra Dun.
When the war was over the Youngs returned to Burma, and Harold, although an American, was appointed as administrator of the Wa Hills by the British colonial power. That lasted until Burma's independence was achieved in 1948. The Youngs moved to northern Thailand where the father, Harold, founded the Chiang Mai and the mother, Ruth, built up the American University Alumni (AUA), which is still one of the most popular places in the city to learn English.
By then, however, Harold Young was already closely connected with US intelligence, during the war with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the CIA. The recruitment of missionaries into America's spy agencies was not a coincidence. and France had intelligence agencies which were well established in different parts of the world due to their status as global colonial powers.
The US, in comparison, had no coordinated external intelligence agency until World War II, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Washington realized that it was of utmost importance to develop one. The need became even more pressing after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, where espionage was given the highest strategic priority.
The OSS was formed in 1942 and the CIA in 1947. But unlike the colonial powers at the time, the US had no old network of operatives and local intelligence assets from which to draw. There was one exception, though: the Christian missionaries. They had over the years acquired in-depth knowledge of local cultures and languages, and some - among them the Youngs - enjoyed a near-godlike status in their respective communities of Christian converts.
Like father, like son
From their base in Chiang Mai, Harold Young and his eldest son Gordon trained Lahu paramilitary units for intelligence work inside Burma and, more importantly, China, where the communists had seized power in 1949. The younger son, William, was recruited by the CIA shortly after he had finished service with the US army in Germany in the mid-1950s.
When the Indochina war escalated in the early 1960s, William, with his unique linguistic capabilities, was ideally placed to help organize the "secret war" in Laos, which had to be clandestine because Laos's neutrality was guaranteed under the 1962 Geneva Agreement.
No foreign troops were supposed to be in Laos but North Vietnamese forces supported the communist Pathet Lao in the north and northeast, and in other parts of the country CIA operatives were active working alongside Thai special forces known as the Border Patrol Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU).
The head of the operation, William Lair, was equally legendary and Young became one of his most trusted officers. Alfred McCoy, the author of the classic The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, wrote that "since Young had grown up in Lahu and Shan villages in Burma, he actually enjoyed the long months of solitary work among the hill tribes, which might have strained the nerves of less acculturated agents". Author Francis Belanger referred to Young as "perhaps one of the most effective agents ever".
Young built up a pan-tribal army and recruited a remarkable team of 16 Lahu and Shan operatives he called "the Sixteen Musketeers". He also worked with Vang Pao's ethnic Hmong army - and a little-known unit of Nationalist Chinese soldiers called by its French name, Bataillon Special 111. Manned mainly by ex-prisoners of war (POWs) from the Korean War who chose to go to Taiwan rather than being repatriated to China, they were given special training by the nationalists.
The most trustworthy had been chosen for special operations in the mainland, but to prevent defection they had slogans like "Death to Communism!" tattooed on their arms. A group of them was sent to Laos, where they remained for years as the most secretive of all the mercenary units that were deployed there during the so-called "secret war". Young worked with Bataillon Special 111 in the Phatang area on the Thai-Lao border, from where they were sent north into China to wiretap telephones and collect intelligence.
What had begun as a relatively small but highly effective operation turned into a massive war effort when Theodore Shackley, a new brash CIA station chief, arrived on the scene in 1966. Fresh from the Cuban missile crisis and Germany, Shackley had little or no understanding of local sensitivities in countries such as Laos. Vang Pao's Hmong army was built up into a massive force of tens of thousands of men - and, as Young once told this writer, "People like me became thumbtacks on the on his wall in his Vientiane office."
Within a year of Shackley's arrival, Young soon fell out with the CIA and the inevitable happened: he left the agency, accused by some of "insubordination". He returned to his family's farm north of Chiang Mai a bitter man and felt that the US government had dealt its hand extremely clumsily in Laos.
Years later he often talked about how "my country", as he always said, should be more understanding of local conditions and cultures. He came across the same problem when in the 1980s he trained security personnel for the Chevron Oil Corporation in Sudan. While Young spent most of his time in the company of Sudanese officers, his colleagues drank and played cards together with little or no interaction with anyone from the host country.
But Young's life was not confined to war and training security personnel. After leaving the CIA in the late 1960s he served as an assistant and interpreter for the American archeologist Chester Gorman, with whom he excavated ancient spirit caves in the backwoods areas of Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi provinces in Thailand.
Their findings provided a breakthrough in Thai archeology and Young was proud to have helped fill in the gaps of work previously done by the French in Indochina and the British in Burma. He also ran a guesthouse in Chiang Rai and in later years worked as a consultant for the US DEA.
Many locals in Chiang Mai and elsewhere would argue that Young's passing marked the end of an era. Today's intelligence operatives come from entirely different backgrounds and generally don't have the same experience and local knowledge as Young provided - as the US's many misadventures across the globe are clear and glaring testament.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 and several other books on Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
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