Mekong security in focus as China tries drug lord

Updated: 2012-09-20 22:38


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KUNMING - A three-day trial of a Myanmar drug lord and five of his top aides for alleged murders of 13 Chinese sailors in a crime-ridden section of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia last October, began in China Thursday.

Naw Kham, the 43-year-old of the ethnic Shan minority, and five gang members — all foreign nationals — stood trial in a local court of southwestern Chinese city of Kunming over charges of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and ship hi-jacking.

Police investigations found that Naw Kham, core members of the gang and a small number of Thai soldiers attacked, hijacked and finally murdered 13 Chinese sailors on two cargo ships, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, on Oct 5, 2011, near a port in Thailand on the Mekong River.

Prosecutors said they would bring to court a large amount of evidence from DNA test results, autopsy reports to witness testimonies. Police officers and civilians from Laos and Thailand will also testify in court.

Though he confessed to the murders in police custody, Naw Kham denied wrong-doings in court, saying he was not fully informed by his fellow gang members of the attack.

"I did not know about it at that time," he told the court. "They did not tell me. I was only informed afterwards."

Formerly an aide to the notorious Shan rebel commander Khun Sa, Naw Kham grew his clout by re-organizing the war lord's residue forces after his surrender to the Myanmar government in 1996. It is estimated that Naw Kham controlled a militant army of 100 people and had become a figure to be reckoned with in the region, according to police accounts.

The ring was busted by a joint police operation in April. By August, Naw Kham and the core members had all been transferred to Chinese police custody.

Though the verdict was not expected to be out soon, the police said they hoped the trial would send a warning to the lawless militants in the region that they would be held responsible for crimes against Chinese nationals even outside the country's borders.

The new forms of security cooperation between China and Mekong countries, initiated to bust Naw Kham's ring, have also paved the way to improving safety of Mekong voyages, the police added.

Lucrative waterways spawn crimes

With a length of almost 5,000 km, the Mekong starts from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China and flows across the border to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Businesses have flourished since China, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand signed a Mekong shipping agreement in 2000. Trade in the Mekong waterways in the region surged from 500 tonnes to about 200,000 tonnes a year over the past decade.

Wang Ronghua, owner of "Jiafu 3" ship, said a boat with 200-tonnes loading capacity can bring about 90,000 yuan in profit a month during the peak shipping season from September to January.

But the lucrative waterways were soon overshadowed by the rise in the number of crimes. Drug rings and armed militia from the mountains of the drug-producing "Golden Triangle" region at Myanmar-Laos-Thailand borders came to prey on Mekong traders. Drugs started to flow across the borders through the waterways and casinos — some run or protected by militant groups — rose on the Mekong river banks.

"There were about a dozen armed rings operating around the Mekong waterways at their prime. Naw Kham's group was the most powerful," said Ai Zhen, a foreign affairs official of Yunnan's border prefecture of Xishuangbanna.

Liu Yuejin, a senior Chinese police official in charge of the Naw Kham case, said security has become a major concern for developing trade in the Mekong River. Chinese police receive about a dozen armed robbery reports by Mekong traders a year.

Naw Kham's group alone has carried out 28 attacks targeting Chinese nationals traveling on the Mekong over the past four years, killing 16 of them and wounding another three, Yunnan police said.

Before the killings occurred, about 1,000 Chinese nationals worked on more than 136 commercial vessels owned or operated by the Chinese in the Mekong waterways, officials said.

Wang, the ship owner, said almost all the ships had been searched or looted by militant groups. Some of the crew even experienced kidnappings.

"The sailors were aware of the dangers. But they were really poor and some knew no other way to make money. That's why they would continue to work here," said Li Jinbo, a deputy police chief of Xishuangbanna.


China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand began joint Mekong River patrols in December last year as a response to the killings.

Huang Wei, an official with Yunnan provincial border police forces, said China and Laos reached an agreement to expand the joint patrols from waterways to "key spots" on land.

The patrols primarily aim to curb crimes targetting commercial vessels traveling along the Mekong River. At present, the boats are allowed to sail into Mekong waterways of the countries' territories but patrollers are not yet allowed to take combat operations on land.

Five joint patrols have been conducted in the past ten months, said Zhu Dezhong, deputy chief of Yunnan provincial border police forces.

Zhu said joint patrols had escorted 15 voyages of 89 ships in the Mekong River and helped traders recover 30 million yuan ($4.8 million) of looted assets.

"At the beginning, some neighboring countries still had doubts. But after we explained, the patrols proceeded quite smoothly and we made new 'breakthroughs' in every patrol," Zhu said.

He said the headquarters for the initiative was established in China, while liaison offices were set up in the other three countries to share intelligence and coordinate operations. The Chinese patrol forces are composed of hundreds of maritime border police officers based in Yunnan.

The joint patrols boosted the confidence of terrified Chinese traders, according to officials.

Huang, the official, said all of around 80 Chinese ships sailing on the international routes of the Mekong resumed regular voyages after the fifth joint patrol.

"After Naw Kham's downfall, his men threatened to launch sympathizing attacks. But now, most of the ring members have surrendered, posing no threats to the waterways," Huang said.