In early 2002, when the Chinese authorities were breaking huge boulders to improve the navigational route between China and northern Laos and Thailand on the Mekong River, local residents and environmentalists were half joking when they said they would be standing by with their slingshots to attack the project engineers and crew members.
They were opposed to the Chinese-funded project out of concern that it would affect fish stocks and consequently their livelihood. A series of reefs and rapids would be removed, making it possible for 500-tonne cargo vessels to travel further up and down the river.
But while the Chinese engineers were busy dynamiting the rocks and reefs, the authorities conveniently overlooked one glaring security concern – that the stretch of river between the Chinese border and Thailand’s territorial waters is also the domain of opium warlords and drug armies operating out of the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle.
Prior to the coming of the Chinese cargo ships, the notorious United Wa State Army (UWSA) – dubbed the world’s largest armed drug-trafficking outfit by the US State Department – at one time even set up a small port of its own in the northern Burmese border region. Embarrassed by the Wa’s flag flying high, the Burmese government asked its Wa allies to close the port down, or at least not make it so obvious.
There is always a sense of nervousness – whenever passing through this no man’s land – among those who observe the Golden Triangle’s opium trade and its related ethnic insurgents. But regional integration cannot wait for Burma’s internal conflict to subside, thus, the decision by China to improve the trade link through this area.
Over the years, the authorities and stakeholders have tolerated the banditry and armed robberies that often take place along this route. But earlier this month their worst fears were realised when a group of bandits hijacked two Chinese-flagged cargo vessels and killed 12 people. A 13th person is still missing.
According to the Thai police, a gang run by Nor Kham, a Shan warlord, is thought to be behind the simultaneous hijack attempt that appears to have gone wrong. The incident took place about 20 kilometres from Thai territory.
Most of the victims had been handcuffed, tied and blindfolded. Nearly one million methamphetamine tablets were found on the two cargo ships.
Major General Prakarn Chonlayuth, commander of the Pa Muang Task Force, reportedly said that authorities believe the gang demands protection money. But if any vessels refuse to pay, they will hijack them and use them to transport drugs into Thailand.
Somehow the Task Force was alerted to this incident and sent its men to go after the two ships after they had entered Thai territory in the Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai province.
The official explanation as to what had taken place, and why so many drugs were on board, has raised more questions than answers.
The drug gangs in the Golden Triangle produce millions of methamphetamine tablets on a weekly basis and tonnes of opium and heroin on a seasonal basis annually. These illicit drugs are usually smuggled into Thailand via the land route. So why would a drug gang that knows the Thai-Burma border area like the back of its hand opt to use this particular strategy and entry point – a security bottleneck – to enter Thailand with hijacked ships with a massive amount of drugs on board.
Were the drugs already on the ships when they left the Chinese port? This wouldn’t make much sense, since the drug armies and warlords in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle operate somewhat freely without interference from the Burmese authorities.
In 1989 the Burmese junta granted the UWSA autonomous status in an area called Special Region 2. Trying to go “legitimate”, the UWSA announced in October 2005 that it would ban opium cultivation in Wa-controlled areas. But the world, with the exception of a hopeful handful of Chinese intelligence and security officials along the Sino-Burma border, paid them no mind because methamphetamines continue to flood out of the region.
Thailand’s Yong Kha Development Project, a crop substitution scheme, launched in Wa-controlled areas near the Thai border in December 2003, was another laughing stock, as no one fell for it. Shortly after that, the US announced more arrest warrants for Wa leaders. It was a big embarrassment for the then Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who permitted himself to be duped by his Burmese counterpart, General Khin Nyunt. The Yong Kha Project did more to whitewash the UWSA – and strengthen Thai-Burmese relations – than address the plight and suffering of Wa peasants, or long-term peace and stability.
In the end, none of the piecemeal projects and initiative worked.
Today, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over Burma’s sector of the Golden Triangle, and the river that runs by it, as warlords and drug armies continue to roam freely. If anything, the murder of the 12 Chinese crew members is a reminder of how things can go awfully wrong when officials overlook obvious security concerns.
Like opium and insurgency, development and stability in this rugged part of the world, where warlords and drug armies play for keeps, go hand in hand. Development and regional integration will always hit a snag if the security issue is not addressed in a comprehensive and meaningful way.