Consul General’s Corner, April 4, 2011
Last summer, before coming to Chiang Mai, various friends recommended people for me to meet. On the long list of names was Bill Young, whom they told me was the son of missionaries and “very plugged in” to what was happening in Burma.
By the time I arrived in Thailand, however, Mr. Young was in poor health. I learned over the weekend that he died, closing the curtain on a very colorful life. In many ways, Mr. Young’s exploits in this part of the world mirrored those of the U.S., and I regret I never had the chance to meet him.
Mr. Young was the son and grandson of Baptist missionaries. He was born in Burma and was raised in Lahu and Shan villages, making close friends with the hill tribe children. His father moved the family mission to Chiang Mai when Mr. Young was still at home. Depending on who you ask, he spoke four or five of the local dialects, including Lu, Lao, Meo, and Lahu. After a tour with the U.S. Army in Germany, Mr. Young joined the CIA, which – given his language skills and knowledge of this part of the world – posted him to Bangkok in 1958. He was soon sent to back to Chiang Mai, from where he directed case officers in villages in Burma and Laos.
I found Mr. Young’s adventures described in several books on the CIA’s activities in Indochina, including Roger Warner’s Backfire: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam. Warner described Mr. Young as “a jungle boy with extraordinary family credentials,” noting his father’s and older brother’s involvement with intelligence activity in Northern Thailand and southern China. With his experiences growing up among hill tribes, Mr. Young could survive in the jungle and communicate with the locals. Warner wrote, “No other American had those skills, but people in the CIA always talked about Bill Young wistfully, in terms of his remarkable potential… For all his flaws, no other American was as gifted at collecting intelligence information.”
Mr. Young is also mentioned in Douglas Valentine’s The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs as putting his childhood Lahu friends into a strategic intelligence network in southern China to photograph Chinese engineers and soldiers building a road to Thailand. His connections to the tribesmen were clearly essential to his success as a CIA officer.
In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, author Alfred W. McCoy observes that Mr. Young’s experiences in Lahu and Shan villages meant “he actually enjoyed the long months of solitary work among the hill tribes, which might have strained the nerves of less acculturated agents.” Mr.Young “had used his skill as a negotiator and his knowledge of minority cultures to win compliance from hill tribe leaders,” but senior CIA executives were worried by the lack of intelligence reports. McCoy writes that when Mr. Young got into a territorial argument with Thai intelligence officers in 1965, “the CIA pulled him out of Nam Tha and sent him to Washington, D.C., for a special training course” – a pretext to replace him.
Mr. Young was also featured in Francis Belanger’s 1989 book, Drugs, the U.S. and Khun Sa, which called him “perhaps one of the most effective [CIA] agents ever.” Belanger noted that Mr. Young’s “deep and sophisticated” understanding of the hill tribes involved allowed him to see opium production from their point of view. Belanger quoted him as saying, "As long as there is opium in Burma, somebody will market it." Mr. Young’s failure to stop the trafficking is part of what made him a controversial character.
Regardless, he was an extraordinary individual who lived an extraordinary life. And now that it is over, his friends and family will gather this week to lay him to rest.