Chinese meddling in the affairs of Southeast Asian states is a debate which will only grow louder and stronger. Many would argue the Chinese are thin-skinned about such accusations and are quick to shout down any suggestion of their unwanted interference in a neighbor’s business.
If Beijing was serious about sovereign respect, however, it would play by international norms. This certainly is not the case in Yunnan where a group of thugs are currently on trial for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year.
The killings horrified the authorities in Southeast Asia and Beijing alike. Chinese outrage and its desire for justice is certainly understandable but that does not give the authorities in the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Department the right to do as it pleases.
According to Xinhua, which many consider the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, Laos and Thailand will send witnesses to the court to testify against the drug lords accused of carrying out the attacks following an investigation by China’s Ministry of Public Security and regional police.
It alleges that Naw Kham, 43, a Burmese gangster from the Shan state, in cahoots with Thai soldiers had killed the 13 on October 5th of last year during an attack on two cargo ships near Chiang Saen in northern Thailand on the Laotian border.
Xinhua quoted Yunnan authorities as saying: “Although the incident happened overseas and all the suspects are foreigners, the fact that the victims are all Chinese and that the crime occurred on Chinese ships indicates that China has jurisdiction over the case.”
China does not have a leg to stand on when it comes to defending itself against accusations of arrogant meddling in the affairs of others. Its normal defense is to attack the United States, which is often and with much justification accused of playing by two sets of rules – one for Americans, the other for the rest of us.
But this is about China. The idea that Burma, Laos and Thailand have turned over the citizens, regardless of their questionable personalities, is a highly dangerous precedent.
Imagine the hue and cry in Indonesia if Australia had managed hold the trial of Islamic militants who carried the deadly Bali bombings in 2002 on its territory.
This case actually smacks of China mimicking the atrocious precedents set in international law by Washington when it opened Guantanamo Bay and began its era of extraordinary renditions.
Naw Kham and five other members of his operations have been charged with murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and ship hijacking. A former aid to the Shan rebel commander Khun Sa, he Naw Kham is credited with restructuring Khun Sa’s forces after his surrender to the Burmese government in 1996.
Yunnan police also say Naw Kham's forces have made 28 attacks on Chinese nationals on the Mekong since 2008, killing 16 of them and wounding three. He controlled about 100 men until his operations were busted in August.
The authorities in Yunnan claim Naw Kham initially confessed to killing the 13 sailors, a claim he has since denied in the Chinese court. Under international norms Naw Kham would probably do better to argue in his defense that the court does not have the jurisdiction to put him on trial and that his case should be heard in Thailand or Laos where the crimes took place.
But, this is China.