Suspect stands trial on Mekong killings
Updated: 2012-09-18 09:22
By Zhang Yan (China Daily)
Prime gang suspect faces charges in court, reports Zhang Yan in Kunming, Yunnan province.
Naw Kham, leader of a notorious gang on the Mekong River on arrival at Beijing airport on May 10 after he was formally transferred to Chinese police by the Laotian authorities. He will stand trial in Kunming, capital of Southwest China's Yunnan province, on Thursday. Xinhua
The story begins at the start of 2011, when two Chinese cargo ships refused to pay protection money to a large drug-trafficking gang on the Mekong River. In both cases, the captains refused to negotiate with the gang and continued on their way.
On Sept 22, 2011, the Myanmar army rented two Chinese merchant ships to act as decoys in an operation to wipe out the gang and several members were either killed or injured.
Naw Kham, the leader of the gang, swore revenge.
On Oct 5 the ships that had refused to pay protection money, Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, were attacked and 13 Chinese fishermen aboard were murdered.
Naw Kham will stand trial in Kunming, capital of Southwest China's Yunnan province, on Thursday. In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Chinese police revealed the details of the case, the subsequent investigation and the arrest of the gang leader.
"The prosecution case is that Naw Kham's criminal gang colluded with renegade Thai soldiers in premeditated attacks on Chinese ships," said Xian Yanming, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau.
"According to the agreement, Naw Kham's group would hijack Chinese cargo ships, conceal drugs on board to frame the crew and then send them into Thai waters to make it appear that the authorities had uncovered a major drug-related case and killed the 'drug traffickers'. Meanwhile, Naw Kham's drug-trafficking ships would have unimpeded passage through Thai waters," said Xian.
Naw Kham, a 44-year-old Myanmar national, was a former aide to the late drug warlord Khun Sa, the former leader of the now defunct Shan rebel Mong Thai Army, according to Liu Yuejin, director of the narcotics control department of the Ministry of Public Security.
When Khun Sa surrendered to the authorities in 1996, Naw Kham consolidated his powerbase and recruited members to form a new gang, said Liu.
The gang had more than 100 members and an arsenal that included AK-47 assault rifles and M16 semi-automatic rifles, plus bazookas and machine guns, according to Yu Haibin, a senior police officer from the narcotics control department and director of the team China sent to Laos to conduct an investigation.
"The gang was mainly active in the Golden Triangle region, the border area between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. It was involved in various violent crimes, including the manufacture and trafficking of drugs, kidnapping, robbery, blackmail, charging protection money and murder along the Mekong River. All this posed a threat to the lives of crew members and endangered their property," said Yu.
Between 2008 and 2011, the gang launched 28 attacks against Chinese cargo ships on the Mekong River, killing 16 Chinese citizens and injuring three. They made around 400 million yuan ($63 million) from these activities, according to statistics from the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau.
In addition, 13 Myanmar police officers have been killed by the gang since 2010.
"These armed suspects were both cunning and violent and we risked our lives every day," said Hu Zujun, director of the anti-drugs bureau of the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau.
"During the 10 months of the investigation, we made every effort to cooperate with our counterparts from the three other countries to finally arrest Naw Kham and destroy his organization," he said.
He said the murders occurred in the Golden Triangle, where drug traffickers, mafia-type gangs and illegal "armies" frequently made armed sorties to seize more interests, which resulted in no effective control, chaotic public order and a grim security situation.
"The fact that the incident took place outside China and the suspects were foreigners greatly limited the police's capacity for intelligence collection, investigation and arrests, which made the preliminary investigation very difficult," said Hu.
After cooperating with the Thai police, inspecting the murder scene, attending autopsies and paying visits to 200 crewmen in 30 merchant ships, the Chinese police got firsthand information, he said.
"The investigation of the crime scene, criminal means and a comprehensive analysis of intelligence suggest strongly that Naw Kham's gang was responsible for the murders," said Hu.
A Chinese police boat leaves Guanlei Port on the Mekong River in Yunnan province, on Dec 10. Chinese police started joint patrols with their counterparts from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to maintain security along the river. Cui Meng / China Daily
Core member arrested
In November, Chinese police received intelligence that a core member of the gang was trafficking drugs in the border area between China and Myanmar, along the Mekong River, said Liu.
They immediately notified the Myanmar police, who arrested the man. Under interrogation, the suspect confessed that a man called Yi Lai, the gang's No 3, had told him that the October murders were committed by Naw Kham's group.
Chinese police cooperated closely with their Laotian counterparts, and in December 2011, Yi Lai was arrested as he traveled on a bus to northwestern Laos, said Hu.
He confessed that Naw Kham's gang had colluded with renegade Thai soldiers to plan and commit the murders. The confession also provided the investigating team with further information about key members of the gang, its organizational structure, its whereabouts and planned activities, he added.
"After Yi Lai was detained, the gang moved to the high, dense forests of Myanmar, rarely moving or communicating with the outside world," said Zhao Chengfeng, a senior officer from the anti-drugs department of the Public Security Ministry and director of the special work team that was sent to investigate in Myanmar.
Naw Kham escapes
On Dec 6, police conducted a sweep of the villages along the Mekong River and discovered that Naw Kham was hiding in a village in Boqiao province in Laos. Chinese police cooperated with the Laotians to surround the village and Naw Kham's wife was arrested, along with key gang members. Firearms, ammunition and landmines were seized in the raid.
However, with the help of some villagers, Naw Kham escaped in a boat he paddled across the river to Myanmar and the authorities' first attempt to arrest him failed.
"Because of the dense forest and complex terrain in Myanmar, we couldn't search for Naw Kham, but we found one Myanmar suspect, who had a close connection with him," explained Ma Jun, a police officer from Dali prefecture public security bureau in Yunnan province who participated in the arrest.
The suspect gave police the location of the gang's new camp, deep in the forests of Myanmar.
"A dozen tents were set up and more than 40 armed men guarded the campsite," Ma said. "In the daytime, only one small path led to the camp, but at night it was closed off with fallen trees and the surrounding grassland was covered with landmines."
"In all other directions, there were virgin forests packed with armed guards. We risked losing our lives at any time," said Ma.
"Although they were hiding deep in the forest, a farm supplied them with fresh beef and fruit. Naw Kham continued to order his gang members to commit crimes and charge protection money along the Mekong River," he added.
In February, a joint Chinese-Myanmar police operation raided the campsite. However, Naw Kham again evaded arrest after a sentry warned him of the raid, said Ma.
On April 20, the gang's second-in-command, San Kang, was arrested by Myanmar police on the border between Thailand and Myanmar and five days later Naw Kham himself was finally detained in Laos.
After protracted negotiations, he was formally transferred to Chinese police in Beijing by the Laotian authorities.
By May 10, more than 50 gang members had surrendered to the police in Laos and Myanmar and the gang was finally eradicated.
"The murders happened overseas. All the investigations, arrests and evidence collection were carried out outside China, and all the suspects were foreigners. That's unprecedented in the history of the Chinese police," said Liu.
Chinese police actively cooperated with their counterparts in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, and the Public Security Ministry established a special investigation team that sent working groups to the three countries to assist with the investigations.
More than 200 Chinese police participated in the cases, said Li Zhuqun, a senior police officer from the international cooperation department of the ministry.
In addition, the Chinese special investigation teams shared information with the three countries, providing details of Naw Kham's group, activities of his key members, and clues to provide intelligence support, according to Li.
When the Chinese police were limited in their ability to operate outside China, they cooperated with the police forces from Laos and Myanmar to aid a joint cleanup operation and provide an obvious deterrent, he said.
"We sent police to Laos and Myanmar to carry out interrogations, and exchanged evidence with Thailand to obtain 17 copies of the murder report, which ran to 480 pages and 200 photos, to further complete the chain of evidence," said Li.
"We offered to provide a total of 600 pages of evidence to the Thais to prove that several renegade Thai soldiers colluded with Naw Kham's group to plan and carry out the murders. That strongly helped the joint attack on the gang and the investigation into the soldiers, " he added.
"The successful cracking of the case is a strong and successful example of the Chinese government's right to protect the legitimate interests and rights of Chinese citizens overseas," Liu said.
"The nine Thai military suspects are under detention in Thailand and will face charges of murder and disposing of the bodies. They will be tried in their local court in October," said Sun Shaobin, a senior officer from the anti-drug department of the Public Security Ministry.
"Shipping on the Mekong River has gradually returned to normal, with 81 Chinese cargo vessels on the river, and trade and the exchange of personnel have resumed," said Liu.
Guo Anfei in Kunming contributed to the story
Contact the reporter at Zhangyan1@chinadaily.com.cn