Mekong needs security boost

Updated: 2011-10-20 08:06

By Song Qingrun (China Daily)

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At least 12 crew members of two Chinese ships were killed earlier this month by an unknown group of armed men who hijacked their boats in the Golden Triangle region of the Mekong River.

The reason behind the killings is not clear, because nobody can tell exactly what happened, where exactly the incident took place and who the perpetrators were.

The bloody case has once again set alarm bells ringing over navigation safety on the Mekong. Since it was jointly inaugurated by China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos in 2001, the Lancang-Mekong Waterway, especially the Golden Triangle area, has become a haven for pirates, kidnappers and blackmailers. This year alone, dozens of ships have been hijacked in the region.

The murder of Chinese crew members has cast a shadow on commercial shipping on the Mekong. Some companies whose ships ply the Mekong waters are thinking of changing their profession and some Chinese enterprises are considering delivering their shipments via a different route.

The Lancang-Mekong Waterway has become a haven for criminals for three reasons. First, the high throughput of goods and passengers has made the waterway a favorite hunting ground for pirates and bandits. Last year alone, 1.5 million tons of cargo and about 400,000 passengers flowed through the waterway.

The coastal areas along the Mekong, particularly the Golden Triangle, are notorious for the production and trafficking of narcotics. The outlaws operating there are equipped with not only machine guns and hand grenades, but also mortars - and their weapons and ships are superior to those used by local police.

The brutal murder of Chinese crew members - their tongues were cut out and eyes gouged out - has compelled some people to say that the killings were an act of revenge against the countries that have launched anti-crime crackdown on the Mekong waterway.

Second, 786 kilometers of the Mekong is used for commercial navigation and runs through the territories of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. It has harsh natural conditions and poor transport and communications networks, which dampens anti-crime efforts.

Third, greater attention is being paid to navigation safety along the waterway in recent years, but the bordering countries still do not provide sophisticated arms and equipment to security forces in the area, they are found wanting in emergency response, have poor transnational coordination and, as exposed by the latest incident, lack clues and lead to such cases making investigation inefficient and ineffective.

Despite safety concerns, the strategic and economic role of the Mekong is undeniable. Compared with overland delivery, delivery on the Mekong through overland-and overwater-network can save 40-60 percent of transportation costs and shorten time by more than half.

By far, most of the large cargo ships plying the Lancang-Mekong Waterway are from China. Hence, concerted efforts should be made to prevent such tragedy from recurring and hindering bilateral trade between China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for which they have to take four necessary measures.

One, bordering countries should intensify patrolling on the Mekong and expedite the building of transnational security network by increasing investment, manpower and equipment to meet the specific security demands of the Mekong.

The 786-km long Lancang-Mekong Waterway starts from Simao in China's Yunnan province to Laos' Luang Prabang, and is of great commercial interest to China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

The four countries should use the East Asia summit, scheduled for November, and unofficial meetings between leaders from the Greater Mekong sub-region countries to negotiate the use of the China-ASEAN Fund on Investment Cooperation to buy more patrol boats and equipment, train professionals, build a transnational alarm system and set up an effective transnational anti-crime mechanism.

Equally important for the four countries is clearing their respective patrol zones and joint patrol zones, and signing extradition treaties to combat international criminals. Besides, they should set up "sentry boxes" every 20 km along the Mekong so that whenever a security incident happens, they can respond immediately with full force.

Two, the four countries should use the killings of Chinese crew members as a turning point in their anti-pirate campaign in crime-prone areas, especially the Golden Triangle, through transnational coordination, undercover investigation and offering of large rewards.

Three, police from each of the four countries should organize self-defense courses for crew members plying the Mekong on a regular basis. The courses should include combat training, swimming and survival skills in the wild. Moreover, the crew members should be given rescue, defense and communications equipment, and, if possible, large and small cargo ships should navigate the Mekong waters in convoys.

And last, the four countries should realize that shortage of food and an ailing economy force people to traffic narcotics, hijack ships and engage in other criminal activities for survival. Therefore, to eliminate potential danger from the Mekong waterway, the four countries should take steps to alleviate poverty in the coastal areas by improving local people's livelihoods and enabling them to lead a decent life through legal means.

The author is a research scholar in Southeast Asian studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily 10/20/2011 page9)