As a young girl, she hid a revolver in her school bag, frightening classmates at an elite Christian academy in northern Myanmar. By her early 20s, she carried her weapons more brazenly, packing a pair of Belgian army pistols on her hips while commanding an army of 1,000 men.
Her status, coming from a family that had long controlled the opium-rich hills of Myanmar’s remote Kokang region, was comparable to that of a European princess. Yet Olive Yang, who for decades used the English name she adopted at school, wanted no part of the aristocrat’s life.
Faced with an arranged marriage to a younger cousin, Yang bore a child, left her newborn with a wet nurse and fled into the jungle, where she and a militia known as “Olive’s boys” developed shipping routes that have helped make Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle the world’s second-largest source of illicit opium.
Yang, who died July 13 at 90, was for four decades a leading power broker in a region the size of Luxembourg, and a singular figure in modern Myanmar history whose ferocity in business was matched by a fearless defiance of gender norms.
She cut her hair short and expressed a preference for men’s clothing, according to relatives, and was photographed in the late 1950s wearing the same uniform as the men she led. In Myanmar, also known as Burma, she acquired the name Miss Hairy Legs. By the end of her life, she said she preferred a different moniker: Uncle Yang.
Yang described herself as a lesbian, said Gabrielle Paluch, a journalist who is working on a book about the warlord, and with mixed success struck up relationships with two prominent Burmese actresses, showering them with gifts of Kokang tea, fabric and bacon from her family’s pigs.
“She was an extraordinary person, with an extraordinary personality,” said Bertil Lintner, a Swedish reporter whose 2009 book “Merchants of Madness,” co-written with Michael Black, chronicled Yang’s “instrumental” role in establishing the Golden Triangle drug trade. “Very few women in Burma could have done what she did. To have her own army? That was extraordinary in those days. She wasn’t necessarily admired, but was at least respected.”
Yang entered the opium business in the early 1950s, when the drug trade was being expanded by members of an anti-communist unit known as China’s Lost Army. The troops were part of the Kuomintang’s Nationalist Army, which had largely retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949.
The troops that remained on the mainland, settling in the jungles of the Myanmar-Thailand-China border, led periodic attacks on the Chinese army, funding their efforts through opium sales.
“We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money,” the Kuomintang military leader Duan Xiwenonce explained. “In these mountains, the only money is opium.”
Yang, whose older brother Edward ruled the region from 1949 to 1959, had the political connections and local clout to serve as one of the region’s first major drug traffickers. According to Lintner, she was the first person to use trucks, not mules, to ferry opium from the Myanmar highlands to the Thai border, where heroin and other drugs were taken by sea to Hong Kong and distributed to markets around the world.
Yang was aided at times by the CIA, which supported the Kuomintang’s long-shot efforts to overthrow the communist government in China by airlifting weapons to troops along the Thai border. She benefited from at least one of those weapons drops in 1952, according to a complaint that the Myanmar government filed with the United Nations.
That same year, Yang was arrested by the government for supporting the Kuomintang and sentenced to prison in Mandalay for five years. She served another drug-related sentence in 1963, after the military commander Ne Win came to power in a coup, and on both occasions was said to have endured torture and sexual abuse.
By the time she was released in 1968, the Kuomintang had been largely forced out of Myanmar, dislodged by a joint China-Burma military operation, and Yang had been supplanted by one of her lieutenants, Lo Hsing Han.
It was Lo, not Yang, who achieved the greatest notoriety in the realm of Golden Triangle drug smuggling. He was considered one of Burma’s richest men at the time of his death in 2013.
While Yang was still in power, however, Lo - the man President Richard M. Nixon once called the “kingpin of the heroin traffic in Southeast Asia” - was a mere lackey. His main job, according to accounts by Lintner and journalist Andrew Cockburn, was to carry a jar of cigarettes for Yang.
She was born Yang Kyin Hsui in 1927, to an ethnic Chinese family that, by some accounts, had exerted a political influence in Kokang since the late 18th century.
The family was uprooted during World War II, when Japan invaded Myanmar and Yang’s father threw his support to Britain, Myanmar’s colonial overlord. A teenage Yang fled to China, while around that time one of her 10 siblings joined up with the Chinese Nationalist Army, providing Yang with an inside connection to its officers.
She attended the Guardian Angel’s Convent in Lashio before being forced into a marriage with her cousin. A sister, Judy Yang, told Paluch in 2015: “She didn’t want to be married to him, she didn’t want to have sex with him, and she didn’t want to be a mother.”
Yang soon carved out a life of her own.
In the 1960s she pursued Louisa Benson Craig, an actress and beauty queen who later became the leader of an ethnic army in eastern Myanmar, according to Craig’s daughter, novelist Charmaine Craig.
Yang eventually yielded to another suitor - her brother Kenneth - and began a romantic relationship with the actress Wah Wah Win Shwe. The couple made headlines in Myanmar, with Yang placing Win Shwe’s name on the deed of a house in Rangoon, but Win Shwe later insisted that they were merely friends.
Yang remained little known in recent decades, but reappeared in 1989 when she helped the government negotiate a cease-fire with ethnic rebel groups in Kokang, as part of a conflict that has been called the world’s longest-running civil war.
Her death was confirmed by a younger sister, Jane Nuwadee Tinpe of Washington, who said that Yang died in the frontier town of Muse but that she did not know the exact cause. Additional survivors include Yang’s son, whom she named Jeep (sometimes spelled Jipu) after the American vehicles she saw in Kunming, China, during World War II; and a second sister, Judy Win Kyi of Rangoon.
Tinpe, who came to the United States in the 1980s and for many years ran the Washington restaurant Burma, said that Yang “was before her time.”