CHIANGRAI – In October last year 13 bodies—blindfolded, hands tied, showing bullet wounds—were found floating in the Mekong river in northern Thailand. They were identified as the Chinese crew members of two cargo boats hijacked as they made their way downriver from Yunnan province in south-western China. This week, in a court in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, Naw Kham, a Burmese drug lord, and five of his associates were sentenced for the murders. For Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, this was “a milestone for the safety of Chinese”. The whole affair is also a milestone in the extension of Chinese power beyond its borders.
Naw Kham received a death sentence, as did three of his gang (two other Burmese, one Thai, one Lao and one stateless). Two were given suspended death sentences. Around 300 people attended the trial, including the victims’ families and diplomats from Laos and Thailand. Local officials said they were working with the Thai police to find the nine Thai soldiers believed to have been accomplices. The gang had also been convicted of another crime, the hijacking for ransom of another Chinese vessel.
The crimes drew attention to the lawlessness of the Golden Triangle—the intersection of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where opium is grown and refined into heroin, and methamphetamine is produced on an industrial scale. Drug lords rule the roost, sometimes in league with the security forces.
These murders made China determined to act. It set up armed patrols to protect shipping, even downstream on the Mekong, south of its border. These carry token representatives from other countries, but they are a Chinese exercise. It has had some effect, but river-borne traffic is sharply down, with more cargo travelling more arduously by land.
Then China brought the criminals back to face its justice. Naw Kham was arrested in Laos in May and extradited. For Global Times this marks the end of an era when “Chinese people have been bullied around the world, and are often the targets of malicious criminals.” A Chinese foreign-ministry official is jubilant too about the better protection of Chinese overseas. This, she says, is “diplomacy for the people”.