The brutal slaying last week of 13 Chinese sailors on Southeast Asia's main artery, the Mekong River, highlights a burgeoning drug problem, cross-border crimes, and increasing business rivalries in the region as China revs up its investments.
The bloody massacre has infuriated China so much that it has suspended its ships from plying the Mekong and summoned its envoys from Laos, Burma, and Thailand in Beijing to register official protest over the Oct. 5 incident.
On Thursday, China's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao told the three envoys to "step up their investigation, get to the bottom of the matter as soon as possible, report their findings to China in a timely manner and ... severely punish the assailants," according to a statement on the ministry's website.
The victims, crew of two Chinese cargo ships, were believed killed by a gang in the notorious drug-smuggling "Golden Triangle" area straddling the three countries taken to task by China.
The men were found with their hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded with adhesive tape and shot or with their throats slit, according to Chinese and Thai media this week. Their bodies were found near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
Both boats were seized by Thai authorities after a gun battle with the hijackers and among the cargo found were nearly a million amphetamine tablets—a powerful stimulant—worth 100 million baht (U.S. $3.22 million).
Thai army officials suspect a gang run by Burmese ethnic Shan drug trafficker Nor Kham was behind the attacks, according to the Bangkok Post. The gang allegedly demands protection money from ships it hijacks on the Mekong and kills crew members who refuse to cooperate.
The grisly killings underscore increased business rivalries—from shipping to gambling to the drug trade—as China steps up investments in Southeast Asian nations along the Mekong, experts and ethnic group representative say. The river runs through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Burma and Thailand from its source in China’s Tibetan plateau.
"The only thing I know that could possibly be related is that Chinese cargo boats tend to monopolize the river trade and this is resented by local shippers. But this in itself probably isn’t a factor so much as the fact that most boats are Chinese," Richard Cronin, the director of the Southeast Asia program at Stimson Center, an independent research institute in Washington, told RFA.
A total of 116 of the 130 ships engaged in international shipping on the Mekong River are operated by Chinese companies, according to the Lancang River Maritime Affairs Bureau, China's Xinhua state news agency reported.
The Mekong is known in China as the Lancang River.
Highlighting Beijing's concerns, a group of Chinese patrol vessels set out for Thailand along the Mekong River on Thursday to escort 164 stranded Chinese sailors and 28 cargo ships back home.
Cronin pointed out that Burma's Shan state, through which the mighty Mekong passes and where drug lord Naw Kham operates, has limited government presence amid a roaring drug trade.
"There are few who doubt the involvement [direct or indirect] of Naw Kham, the godfather of the protection ring whose members have been collecting fees from ships and traders crisscrossing and plying the Mekong" from China’s Yunnan province to Thailand’s Chiang Saen, and "shooting those who refuse to play by his rules," said a report by the Shan Herald Agency for News, a nonprofit group in Shan state.
The agency said information received from "several knowledgeable people" in the area illustrated "a grim picture of business rivalry among the local entrepreneurs."
One account linked the incident to a large casino—the Kings Romans Casino—operated by Chinese tycoon Zhao Wei in Laos and which was at the center of a large drug bust by Laotian and Chinese officials two weeks before the Mekong murders.
The casino has "damaged" other gambling businesses in the area, notably those established inside Burma, the agency said.
Previously, it said, Zhao Wei had operated the Landong casino in Burma’s Mongla, the seat of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), a Shan armed ethnic group which has forged a ceasefire with the Burmese government and which has come under intense grilling by Chinese authorities since the Mekong incident.
The Burmese government also has come under fire for turning a blind eye to the illicit and thriving drug trade that has fueled serious crimes.
The Chinese sailors' killings "show that Burma is not even mildly serious about combating the savage drug gangs," a critical editorial this week in the Bangkok Post said.
"Now that China has been dragged so brutally into the problem, the region must put far heavier pressure on Burma to clean up this problem," it said.
Enforcement in the isolated areas along the Mekong River is another headache.
"Because of the very remote nature of that length of the river, there's little official enforcement or regulation there," said Andrew Walker, senior fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific of Australian National University.
"[T]here's been reports for some time of various rebel groups in Burma, for example, demanding protection money from these boats using the river and also sometimes using Chinese boats to smuggle drugs—in particular amphetamines—into Thailand," he told Radio Australia.
Primary drug threat
In fact, amphetamine-type stimulants have emerged as the primary illicit drug threat in several East and Southeast Asian countries, displacing plant-based drugs such as heroin, opium, and cannabis, according to a report last month by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"The expansion of the ATS [amphetamine] drug trade and the associated high criminal profits pose an increasing threat to security and public health in our region," said Gary Lewis, UNODC regional representative for East Asia and the Pacific.
In four countries of the Greater Mekong subregion—Laos, Burma, Thailand, and China—there was a four-fold increase in methamphetamine (amphetamine's parent drug) pills seized—from 32 million to 133 million—in just three years between 2008-2010, according to UNODC.
At the same time, the amount of amphetamine produced in the region has increased dramatically. Using the proxy indicator of laboratories seized, UNODC said the number of amphetamine labs seized in Southeast Asia rose from 49 in 2005 to 458 in 2009.
Amid the growing drug threat and cross-border crimes, the Chinese seamen's killings may prod China to push for stiffer international enforcement along the Mekong River areas.
"The tragic event should be taken as a clarion call for forming a transnational security mechanism at a sub-regional level so that drug trafficking and other organized crimes can be rigorously eradicated in the area and personnel and cargo safety along the Mekong can be guaranteed," said a China Daily editorial.