BANGKOK, Thailand -- William Young, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary commander who used Burmese and Lao tribesmen to kill Communists in Laos during the 1960s, died at home of a bullet to the head, reportedly clutching a crucifix alongside a gun, prompting speculation that he committed suicide. He was 76.

"Killing was part of the job", Mr. Young told Edward Loxton, who said he had interviewed Mr. Young extensively.

Mr. Young "became a top CIA Vietnam War-era hit-man in the jungles of Burma, Laos and Thailand," Mr. Loxton wrote on Monday (April 4) in The First Post, a British publication.

"Mr. Young was in poor health," said Susan Stevenson, the U.S. consul general in Thailand's northern town of Chiang Mai, where Mr. Young died on Friday (April 1).

Police said he died of a gunshot wound to the head, with a pistol next to his right hand while his left hand clutched a crucifix, according to news reports.

"In many ways, Mr. Young's exploits in this part of the world mirrored those of the U.S.," the American consul said in a statement dated Monday (April 4).

"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," she said.

"Mr. Young's failure to stop the [opium] trafficking is part of what made him a controversial character."

He was born on Oct. 28, 1934 in Berkeley, California.

God and guns played an important role throughout Mr. Young's life.

He grew up in Burma, a country later known as Myanmar, where his grandfather worked from the 1880s onward as an American Baptist missionary, converting indigenous people.

Mr. Young's ancestors converted many Lahu and other tribal people to Christianity, though many of them never fully renounced their spirit-based animist beliefs, rituals and customs.

The family's extensive knowledge of the region's tribes and languages enabled Mr. Young's evangelical father, Harold, to join the CIA when Washington needed help rearming the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) National Chinese army during the 1950s to destabilize victorious Mao Zedong's Communist China.

Alongside Harold Young's Shan and Lahu tribesmen in Burma, the KMT were directed from around Chiang Mai in Thailand, up through northeast Burma's Shan state, into southern China's Yunnan province.

Able to speak several tribal languages, William Young joined the CIA to continue his father's work sending guerrillas and spies into China.

Mr. Young also organized minority tribes in a doomed "secret war" in Laos in the 1960s against Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces, during a widening U.S.-Vietnam War.

"Young was instructed to build up a hill tribe commando force for operations in the [Laos, Burma, China] tri-border area, since regular Laotian army troops were ill-suited for military operations in the rugged mountains," wrote Alfred W. McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.

In 1962, Mr. Young's work was "to organize the building of runways, select base sites, and perform all the other essential tasks connected with forging a counter-guerrilla infrastructure" in northwest Laos and northeast Burma.

His base in Nam Yu, Laos, also "served as CIA headquarters for cross-border intelligence forays deep into southern China," wrote Mr. McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

"After a year of recruiting and training agents, William Young had begun sending the first Lahu and Yao teams into China in 1963."

By 1964, Mr. Young was in "command of paramilitary operations" in northwest Laos, according to Mr. McCoy.

"Bill Young had organized a force of several thousand part-time militiamen, some of them Yao [tribe], the rest from other ethnic groups," wrote U.S. author Roger Warner, in his book Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos.

"No other American was as gifted at collecting intelligence information, and no other American had so many good-looking women parading through his bedroom every day, for free," Mr. Warner wrote.

Mr. Young's deadliest legacy in Laos came when he endorsed Long Cheng village as the best possible airstrip for the CIA, empowering Americans to obliterate the tiny landlocked nation for years with aerial bombardments.

"Young had not selected Long Cheng for its breathtaking scenery. What attracted him was the plateau's protective barrier of mountains, making it a difficult place for the communists to attack," wrote Keith Quincy, chair of the department of government at Eastern Washington University.

"Within two years, the CIA would begin to expand Long Cheng's airstrip into a mile-long, asphalt, all-weather runway...becoming by the mid-1960's one of the largest American military installations on foreign soil. Toward the end of the war, air traffic at the CIA base was heavier than at Chicago's O'Hare International airport.

"Eventually, Long Cheng would outgrow its original design as a secret CIA paramilitary training center. By war's end, Long Cheng had a population of nearly 50,000, making it the second largest city in Laos," Mr. Quincy wrote in his book, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong & America's Secret War In Laos.

Before quitting the CIA in 1967, Mr. Young also worked alongside the CIA's mercenary Hmong tribal leader Gen. Vang Pao who died, aged 81, in California in January.

Thousands of CIA-paid tribesmen and countless civilians died in Laos before the U.S. war ended in failure in 1975 when Communists in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia seized power and set up repressive regimes which further destroyed those three countries.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Corresondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)