Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Murder on the Mekong

The killing of a dozen Chinese workers in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle has prompted an assertive response from China. Too assertive for some of its neighbors.

By Tom Fawthrop for

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. 

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.

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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.

But regardless of who the Thai soldiers were working for when the attack took place, the incident has shone a light on claims of deep-seated corruption among the special Thai border security unit. And the repercussions could go even further than casting doubt over the integrity of the border forces.

“If soldiers are really to blame, it calls attention to the fragility of the Thai state,” says Paul Chambers, who lectures in politics at Chiangmai’s Payap University Thailand. “[This suggests] a sort of mafia state, under the facade of civilian, democratically elected, supremacy.  When it comes to the military, one can see the bearings of a sort of parallel state.”

The Thai military has been accused before of opening fire on unarmed protesters, as well as committing atrocities against Muslim demonstrators in Southern Thailand. No soldier has been prosecuted so far for these alleged crimes, but a change in political leadership earlier this year could see this about to change.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother was ousted by a military coup, enjoys broad support from the ranks of the police, and is seen as less likely to shield the military from what is expected to be a deeply embarrassing trial.

But even more than that, the incident has called into question Thailand’s relations with China, whose demand for a transparent investigation and compensation for relatives of the victims make it clear that smooth Thai-China relations could depend on a satisfactory outcome from the investigation.

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The hurriedly-arranged regional security agreement, signed at the end of October and promoted by Beijing, includes a commitment from all four countries in the area to share intelligence and engage in joint patrols along the river signed.

According to the deal, all participants will “carry out coordinated special campaigns to eradicate criminal organizations which have long threatened the region's security.”

Shipping operations along the Mekong between Yunnan and Thailand, meanwhile, are expected to resume this month, with armed Chinese guards on board five boats.

But some, including a regional business analyst and expert on the Mekong region who asked not to be named, worry that the agreement could herald a more intrusive Chinese foreign policy. “My fear is neighboring countries will lose sovereignty to more aggressive Chinese policing beyond their borders,” he said. “China’s new policy will mean sending security forces to protect Chinese interests, including Chao Wei’s King Romans complex,” which are situated on the Laotian side of the Golden Triangle.

Such concerns have been echoed by Thailand itself, making it the first country involved to question the strategic implications of the deal. Late last month, Thai Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed concern over the joint patrols being led by China.

The Bangkok Post reported that according to Prayuth, “Defense Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa has agreed that Thailand will enter this cooperation agreement carefully,” and that “it [the joint patrol] must not lead to any territorial transgression.” The army chief also insisted that Thailand must be in charge of missions if they enter Thai territory.

In Laos, meanwhile, there has already been growing concern over China’s increasing presence in parts of the country, with anti-Chinese sentiment focused around Chinese casinos and illegal immigration. Reports of extortion, kidnapping and drugs at a Chinese casino on the Boten-Lao border with China forced its closure last year.

For many in both Thailand and Laos, beefing up security with armed Chinese patrols in an effort to protect China’s citizens and assets in neighboring countries conjures up images of gunboat diplomacy under the guise of regional law enforcement.

And concerns over sovereignty aside, the agreement is anyway unlikely to resolve deeper tensions with neighbors over casinos, dams, and China’s relationship with Shan and Wa rebel forces, who operate from autonomous enclaves just across the border from Yunnan Province.

Deeply concerned by an epidemic of heroin use in Yunnan, China in 2005 used its ties to the rebels to pressure the neighboring United WA State Army leadership in Pangsang, Burma, to enforce a strict ban on opium cultivation production.

The ban was ruthlessly enforced, but the pressure to ban opium production was apparently never applied to the UWSA-run laboratories churning out industrial scale quantities of amphetamine tablets in Burma’s Shan special region number 2, which resulted in a jump in amphetamine addiction across the region.

Ironically, then, the seeds of the Mekong killings that have so shocked the Chinese public can likely be traced back to Beijing’s curious tolerance of amphetamine laboratories in northern Burma, which operate with impunity so close to the Yunnan border. Whether Chinese policymakers will work to curtail the trade at the source, rather than investing in reactive security that risks treading on its neighbors’ toes, remains to be seen.

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer.