The early October massacre of 13 Chinese barge crew on the Mekong River near the tri-border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar has thrust the lawless region’s problem of criminality and drug trafficking once again into brutal relief. The killings underscored the failure of regional states to cooperate in safeguarding river traffic despite repeated warning signs over recent years in the shape of attacks on shipping, protection rackets and kidnap for ransom incidents.
Embarrassingly for Thailand’s government, already all but overwhelmed by a national flood disaster, the latest killings were finally tied to a rogue unit of the Royal Thai Army (RTA) apparently caught up in the web of corruption spawned by narcotic trafficking along the kingdom’s northern border.
Exactly how Bangkok and Beijing settle a case which has received widespread publicity – and prompted considerable popular anger in China – remains to be seen. But on this occasion, as in the past, it is unlikely that efforts to cobble together improved security cooperation in the form of joint river patrols and intelligence exchanges will have much impact on either narcotics trafficking or the rampant official corruption it encourages.
Even before the bodies of the dead Chinese boatmen had been retrieved from the river, the fog of disinformation which swiftly descended on the circumstances of the massacre suggested that clumsy efforts at a cover-up were already underway. And predictably enough, Thai press reports dutifully quoting local officials served to amplify the confusion rather than clarify it.
Initially the only undisputed facts to emerge were that on the afternoon of October 5 the two Chinese barges, the Hua Ping carrying fuel oil and the Yu Xing 8 carrying garlic and apples, were brought into the port of Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province just south of the Golden Triangle tri-border area by Thai authorities.
On the deck of one vessel was the body of a man, later identified as a crew member, who had been shot dead and was found with a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle beside him. Found in sacks divided between both vessels was a shipment of 920,000 methamphetamine, or ya ba, tablets worth an estimated 46 million baht (US$1.5 million).
Over the following days, the bodies of 12 other crew members, including two female cooks, were found washed ashore or floating in the river. Most had been blind-folded and gagged with duct tape, hand-cuffed and shot. By the time the last body, that of Yang Deyi, captain of the Yuxing 8, was retrieved some 10 days after the attack, the international repercussions of the incident were all too clear.
A delegation headed by Guo Shaochun, deputy director-general of the Department of Consular Affairs in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, had already arrived in Chiang Rai to join Chinese diplomats from Bangkok and Chiang Mai and assist the Thai police in an investigation that cynical observers believed might otherwise have proved inconclusive.
Significantly in the light of later developments, the first account of what had occurred was floated by senior Thai officers of the RTA Third Army’s Pha Muang Task Force (PMTF), a front-line border security force tasked primarily with stemming the flood of narcotics into the kingdom from Myanmar’s Shan State.
According to this version of events, the barges had been hi-jacked and the crew killed north of the Thai border where the river flows between Myanmar and Laos by “drug smugglers” who were planning to use the vessels to smuggle drugs into Thailand.
As they entered Thai waters around 1:30 pm on October 5, they were intercepted by a PMTF unit “acting on a tip-off”. A fire-fight reportedly lasting half an hour between the PMTF and the smugglers erupted during which it appeared the dead man on the deck had been shot and killed while all his associates escaped overboard.
Leaps in logic
Bolstering this version of events was the person of Naw Kham, an already notorious former Myanmar militia commander with a long history of drug trafficking, extortion and river piracy – much of it directed against Chinese vessels plying the Mekong. Operating between the tri-border and the Lao village Xiang Kok to the north, the 51-year-old Shan bandit and his band of 30 to 50 hill-tribe gunmen have successfully evaded capture for years moving easily between the remote Lao, Myanmar and Thai banks of the river seldom disturbed by local security officials.
Even to a casual observer, let alone hardnosed Chinese investigators, this tale suffered from two major flaws, however. First, it was never explained why the pirates purportedly fleeing in the water – presumably with the rifles they had used in the fire-fight, as these were not found on the barges – were neither captured nor shot by Thai forces equipped with at least one speedboat.
Secondly, and more basically, it was unclear why drug smugglers with access to their own speedboats needed to seize the barges in the first place and would find it necessary to transport drugs into Thailand on much larger, slower and more conspicuous Chinese vessels. The failure in broad daylight of Chinese barges crewed by hijackers to dock at Chiang Saen might have been expected to arouse the suspicion of Thai port authorities.
Interestingly, in the days that followed the widely-reported battle on the river morphed slowly into a different account in which the two barges were found drifting down river after a violent encounter much further north. On October 11 the New York Times reported that China was suspending passenger and cargo traffic on the river after the vessels were found “adrift” by Thai border police carrying a single corpse and the narcotics.
On October 13 a ranking police officer in Chiang Saen interviewed by Asia Times Online insisted emphatically that there had been no clash in Thai waters.
An alternative explanation of events that attempted to impose some logical coherence on the known facts had river pirates targeting vessels which they knew to be carrying narcotics south to Thailand, killing one armed crewman in a fire-fight and summarily executing the rest. And, indeed, the possibility that some – if not necessarily all – of the Chinese crew might have been less than innocent actors in the drama has been a real one from the start.
Many Chinese barges moving south to Thailand from the Chinese river ports of Si Mao or Jing Hong routinely dock at the Myanmar port of Sop Lui not far south of the Chinese border where the Lui River flows into the Mekong. A straggling village of ramshackle shops, restaurants and brothels, Sop Lui is situated at the end of the road from Mong La, “capital” of Shan State’s Special Region 4 in Myanmar.
Its large concrete wharves constitute the only Mekong port serving not only Special Region 4, administered by former insurgents of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), but also the far larger Special Region 2 to the west run by the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Sop Lui has grown as a key transit point for narcotics shipped out of the two special regions, and a range of other products – notably second-hand Japanese motor vehicles, fuel and, on occasion, weapons – shipped in.
Once elements of the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the NDAA and its ally the UWSA have maintained uneasy ceasefire agreements with Myanmar’s military since 1989. But in the last two years Myanmar government demands that the former rebels subordinate their forces to central control and mounting military tension have increased the strategic importance of access to the Mekong. Sop Lui and the river today offer a far safer conduit for moving narcotics south to Thailand than land routes which cross military front lines and multiple Myanmar government road check points where bribes no longer guarantee the cooperation of the past.
Nonetheless, the theory of a pirate attack on barges known to be carrying narcotics still remained problematic. Not least, it failed to explain why the pirates would have left some or all of the valuable shipment they knew to be on board. Further, the cold-blooded slaughter of the entire crew, including women, was both unnecessary and out of character: in the past Naw Kham’s men have preferred to release crews they have robbed or in the case of some Chinese take them hostages for ransom.
This fog of disinformation and speculation was swept aside on October 28 when nine PMTF soldiers – a major, a lieutenant and seven other-ranks – turned themselves into Thai police in Chiang Rai and were charged with murder and tampering with evidence. The nine have reportedly denied the charges but statements from senior Thai government officials, notably Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, suggest the evidence against the soldiers is compelling.
For its part, China has said the case is “basically cracked”. Chalerm has added that the Thai soldiers were acting “on an individual basis” rather than in their official military capacity. Meanwhile, a statement by RTA spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd cautioning against “rushing to judge” the case was also telling: he appeared to be pointing obliquely to extenuating circumstances rather than dismissing the charges outright.
If the police charges are supported by evidence, then there are arguably only two broad scenarios in which the PMTF units would have been operating in a rogue capacity. Both very probably involve the troops – described significantly by military sources as “long range patrol” special forces – operating in a covert or semi-covert role beyond Thailand’s borders.
This would be nothing new: it is hardly a secret that for at least a decade Thai special forces have gathered intelligence and carried the war on drugs into the lawless southern Shan State where the Myanmar military has either been unable or unwilling to control and when necessary used force.
It is conceivable but highly unlikely that the unit seized two innocent Chinese vessels at random, brought narcotics on board with them, silenced the crew and then staged a “seizure” complete with one dead “smuggler.” They might thus have emerged covered both with credit and also able to claim a cash reward made to counter-narcotics units based on the amount of narcotics seized. But the pay-off would hardly have been worth the trouble and sheer brutality. A fake seizure could have been staged on land at much less risk and with much less bloodshed.
Almost certainly closer to the truth is a scenario in which the troops targeted vessels which they knew on the basis of good intelligence to be carrying a shipment of narcotics from Sop Lui into Thailand. By definition such accurate intelligence would have come from a source working with the rogue RTA team with inside knowledge of the shipment and an interest in betraying the cartel moving it. Asia Times Online sources have heard several separate but unconfirmed reports all of which have implicated a wife of senior UWSA commander and indicted drugs-trafficker Wei Xuegang.
Given the complexity of the operation and the systematic brutality involved, one Chiang Mai-based analyst familiar with drug trafficking operations on both sides of the border was inclined to draw two conclusions. The first was that the original shipment was actually far greater than the 920,000 tablets finally retrieved at Chiang Saen and that the bulk of it was likely taken ashore either on the Lao or Myanmar bank well north of the tri-border area.
What was left was a credible minimum for which the Thai troops could claim credit and a cash reward in addition to a share of the loot. The second conclusion was that the systematically conducted slaughter allegedly carried out by the Thai troops was intended as a calculated and unmistakable message from one criminal group to another as much as a means of disposing of witnesses.
Because neither Thai nor Chinese police investigators are likely to release their findings, such conclusions can only be speculative. Indeed, it remains a decidedly open question whether the accused will ever face a court of law. Chinese government calls for justice and prosecution of those found guilty have now apparently come to rest at the door of the RTA, an institution long accustomed to the benefits of impunity while carrying out its operations.
The soldiers are being held in army custody and RTA commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha was quoted in the English-language Thai press saying the series of events before and after the attacks was “highly complicated” and that “when use of force is involved, there will be casualties.” He said the Thai soldiers reported to police investigators in “good faith” and that it was “not fair” to report as fact that they had killed the men while the investigation was still pending, according to the report.
The situation is further complicated by the probability that the PMTF team, albeit in a rogue capacity, was operating beyond the nation’s borders. In the light of China’s far weightier political, economic and security interests in Thailand, it remains to be seen how hard Beijing will seek to push the RTA in the pursuit of justice.
It would be unsurprising if, as the murders slip from the news, a quiet out-of-court settlement sees Bangkok offering generous compensation payments to the families of the dead, while the RTA is spared the embarrassment of rogue soldiers being publicly arraigned. Such an arrangement would also spare China a public airing of its dirty linen, including possible revelations that Chinese-flagged vessels and at least some of their crew were involved in shipping large quantities of narcotics into Thailand.
China has already moved fast to use the incident to demand its southern neighbors – Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – cooperate more forcefully in implementing practical measures to ensure security along the Mekong where Sino-Thai trade was last year measured at 12 billion baht (US$387 million). On October 31, following a meeting in Beijing, Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu announced all four countries would establish a mechanism for joint river patrols and intelligence sharing.
It is possible that Chinese pressure and a flush of newfound resolve may finally prompt the hunting down of Naw Kham, a figure who has made the mistake of becoming a poster boy for lawlessness on the Mekong. For many local officials in all three countries on the Golden Triangle tri-border, the Shan river pirate may now be more of an embarrassing liability than a profitable asset.
In the longer term, however, the goals announced in Beijing will inevitably be constrained, if not buried, by three factors: entrenched drug-related official corruption; long-standing cross-border suspicions; and, in the case of Myanmar and Laos in particular, limited on-the-ground capacity.
China, the aggrieved party in the latest incident, will also need to confront a far broader problem if it seriously seeks to reduce the violent criminality along the Mekong: the future of Myanmar’s Special Regions 2 and 4. Having emerged in the 1990s as regional centers for industrial-scale narcotics production and trafficking, these administrative black holes on China’s south-western border owe their continued survival to Beijing’s insistence on “border stability”, which translates practically into facilitating cross-border investments and sales of weapons, fuel and other strategic goods.
To this extent, the narcotics-driven criminality and corruption spreading south along the Mekong and now impacting violently on Chinese citizens and commercial interests are in large measure the bitter fruit of China’s own foreign policy decisions.
Michael Winchester is a journalist specializing in Southeast Asian affairs.