Murder on the Mekong
Image Credit: CPWF Basin Focal Project

Murder on the Mekong


In October each year, the spectacular full moon over the swirling currents of the Mekong river enchant locals and visitors alike. Fiery red balls of light appear in the sky just above the river as it flows between northern Thailand and Laos. Known by locals as the Naga fireballs, they are said by locals to be one of nature’s magic shows.

The annual “performance” takes place in the so-called Golden Triangle, better known for its opium wars and being the center of the world’s heroin trade. But in recent years, the region’s image has been given a facelift – Thailand promotes it as a tourist destination, and several luxury hotels have sprung up by the riverside. At the town of Chiang Saen, just downriver from where Laos, Thailand and Burma converge at Sop Ruak, coachloads of visitors have been a regular sight.

But on the morning of October 5, this new, rosy image was shattered by the sight of a dozen corpses floating down the Mekong. The victims were crewmembers of two Chinese cargo boats – the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 – that usually plied their trade between Yunnan Province and the Mekong. A total of 13 people were killed that day, handcuffed and shot at close range. Almost a million amphetamine pills were found on the two boats. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The resurgent opium production in Laos and Burma has been accompanied by an explosion in the amphetamine trade, with vast quantities of the pills smuggled from Shan state in northern Burma across the Mekong via the porous Laotian border. 

Chinese media were quick to dub the incident “10/5 – massacre on the Mekong.”The Chinese government also responded, immediately calling for new regional security measures to stamp out river piracy, drug-trafficking and other trans-boundary crimes.

Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu convened a regional security conference at Xishuangbanna, while Vice Minister Zhang Xinfeng led a high-level, eight-man security delegation to assist with the investigations in Thailand.

The Thai military PHA Muang Task Force, with special responsibility for anti-narcotics and border security, quickly blamed Naw Kham, the leader of a group of drug-trafficking bandits, best known for repeated acts of river piracy along the Mekong, and believed to be responsible for a previous attack on a Chinese patrol boat.      

However, the massive police investigation headed by National Thai Police Chief Gen. Priewpan Damapong took a surprising turn.  According to reports, evidence has been uncovered that the shots fired at the Chinese crew members did not in fact originate from the guns of drug gangs or river pirates, but from weapons belonging to the Thai military. As a result, nine Thai officers from the Pha Muang Task Force have been accused of murder and tampering with evidence.

Damapong, though, is adamant they weren’t operating in an official capacity. “Their actions have nothing to do with the Thai army,” he said as reports emerged suggesting that the group had gone rogue and were on the payroll of a drug warlord.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief