Mekong River bandit's powerful friends dry up

Naw Kham, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to the murders of 13 Chinese sailors, is now in custody, armed with potentially explosive information about those in power in Myanmar who are cashing in on the Golden Triangle's drug trade

Naw Kham has been labelled a pirate, drug lord, murderer, racketeer, godfather and spy. He is listed as a fugitive on Interpol's Wanted Persons index. Earlier this year, both the Thai and Chinese governments placed Naw Kham on top of their most wanted foreigners lists, with Thailand offering a US$65,000 (two million baht) bounty for his capture.

a delegation of Chinese authorities led by Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, visit Chiang Rai to inspect the scene of the murders north of Chiang Saen district.

Backtrack to Oct 11, 2011, the day that Chinese prosecutors allege Naw Kham and his men ambushed two Chinese cargo ships, the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8, near Thailand's Chiang Saen and murdered 13 sailors.

The bodies of some of the 13 murdered crew members were later found floating in the river _ masking tape gagged their mouths, their hands were tied and some had multiple gunshots to the head. Chinese citizens and authorities were outraged as gruesome photographs and videos appeared on websites showing the murdered men's bodies being retrieved from the river by Thai authorities.

China was quick to respond to the growing domestic anger at the killing of its citizens in Thailand and called for the establishment of better law enforcement and security cooperation between the four countries along the Mekong River. In response to China's urgency, senior ministers from China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar met in late October and agreed to beef up joint security patrols to secure transportation routes along the Mekong River.

Naw Kham was named as the main suspect in the murderous attack on two cargo ships that killed the 13 sailors. The attack took place in the notorious Golden Triangle region where the Mekong twists its way along the jungles and borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma before flowing down to Cambodia and Vietnam.

In response to the killings, China launched a massive six-month manhunt that resulted in the capture in Laos of Naw Kham and five of his officers in April this year. Naw Kham and his men last week went on trail in the Yunnan city of Kunming, charged with murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking and face a possible death sentence.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported that Naw Kham told police at the time of his arrest that he launched the killing spree on the boats because they had refused to pay him ''protection money''.

During the second day of his trial, Naw Kham retracted his earlier confession and while admitting he was the gang's ''boss'' told the court he did not order the attack and blamed a renegade group of Thai soldiers, an accusation the military has rejected.

However, by Sept 21 Naw Kham had reversed his plea to guilty after the five co-defendants testified against him, Chinese state media reported. Naw Kham begged for leniency and he will be sentenced following a review of the case by Chinese judges.

GETTING STARTED

The Golden Triangle area has a well deserved reputation for being out of the control of law enforcers. For decades, it has been home to the world's largest illicit drug producers, armed gangs, drug-runners, smugglers, illegal loggers, illegal wildlife poachers, people traffickers and rogue military units who battle for the vast profit that comes with territorial control of the waterways and mountain passes.

Khuensai Jaiyen, author of the 2012 ''Shan Drug Watch'' report, explains that Naw Kham, 43, has been in and around the Golden Triangle's drugs and violence trade for most of his adult life.

''He was a captain and an administrator in Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army until he surrendered to the military regime in 1996 _ Naw Kham had to surrender, he had no choice.''

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Khun Sa was the Golden Triangle's most notorious drug figure. His Mong Tai Army, fuelled by opium and heroin money, was estimated to be more than 10,000 strong and well armed. At the height of Khun Sa's reign he was labelled the Golden Triangle's Opium King, the Prince of Darkness and was regarded as the world's biggest heroin dealer. It was reported that before he surrendered to the Myanmar regime in 1996, the US Drug Enforcement Administration had offered a $2 million bounty for his capture.

A report by the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), ''Hand in Glove'', details the close connections between the Myanmar army and the drug trade. The report documents that Naw Kham had been living in the Myanmar border town of Tachilek since his surrender to the country's military in 1996 and was leader of a 100-strong People's Militia Force, also known as the Hawngleuk Militia.

The SHAN report notes that a ''raid by Myanmar authorities on Jan 10, 2006, at his home in Tachilek netted 150 assorted weapons, two compressors and countless numbers of methamphetamines''.

Local militia sources at the time said that, ''the amount [of drugs] if sold could have bought up the whole town''.

Despite the numerous regional drug agencies and media reports naming Naw Kham as a serious criminal _ extortionist, major drug trafficker, kidnapper and racketeer _ he had managed for nearly a decade to avoid efforts by the region's law enforcement agencies to capture him.

Regional security officers say Naw Kham benefited from the ''protection and blessings'' of both villagers and Myanmar's military in the Tachilek and Kentung area of Shan State. Villagers who supported Naw Kham are said to have ''anointed'' him as a ''Robin Hood'', for the doling out of money he extorted from Mekong shipping, often giving wads of cash to entire villages.

A member of Naw Kham's family admitted to Spectrum in a telephone interview that he had close ties with many of the region's authorities, but since his arrest by the Chinese ''no one wants to know him any more _ he's now on his own''.

Naw Kham's sister, Nang Nyunt Aye, blames Naw Kham's closest aide for leading the authorities to where her brother was hiding out in rural Laos. She said that at the time of her brother's arrest he was down to his last 5,000 baht and armed with one pistol. She also said he had grown up disadvantaged, had left school at the age of nine and was barely literate.

Regional law enforcers allege that Naw Kham's heavily armed group has been terrorising Mekong River shipping since 2006. Speaking on Chinese television, Xian Yan Ming, from the Yunnan Public Security Bureau, said, ''[Naw Kham] committed crimes including kidnapping, killings, drug production and racketeering. The evidence shows that since 2008, in 28 crimes against Chinese vessels, 16 people were killed and three injured.''

Xinhua reported that Xian Yanming, the deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau said, ''The prosecution case is that Naw Kham's criminal gang colluded with renegade Thai soldiers in premeditated attacks on Chinese ships.''

It seems Naw Kham's Mekong crime spree did pay. Figures from Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau quoted in the China Daily newspaper indicate that Naw Kham earned around $63 million from his river banditry.

Hu Zujun, an officer from China's Narcotics Control Bureau, said on Chinese television that Naw Kham's gang was heavily armed and dangerous.

''The guy was equipped with very modern weapons, exceeding what we had expected.''

Chinese police reports claim that Naw Kham's gang used AK47s, M16 assault rifles, rocket launchers and grenade launchers in their river attacks.

The 2012 ''Shan Drug Watch'' report states that despite Myanmar government reforms, the country's opium production has surged in the last year, poppy cultivation was reported in 49 out of 55 townships in Shan State.

The report noted that many of the People's Militia Forces (PMF), set up by the Myanmar army, have spawned many of the ''key players in the drug trade, both heroin and ATS [amphetamine type stimulants]''.

Khuensai Jaiyen said media stories at the time of Naw Kham's arrest glossed over the fact that he built his drug and racketeering empire while serving as a Myanmar army militia leader in Tachileik.

A regional security officer acknowledged that the arrest of Naw Kham could open a political can of worms.

''The Chinese have said in open source materials that they are pushing for the death penalty for him, but in reality, they will want names of those running with him, they want the bigger players behind him.''

The security officer noted that Myanmar still generates around 40% of its export dollars from narcotics _ most of the drugs produced in the Golden Triangle area of Myanmar.

''The region's lawlessness is still a massive test for all countries in the region, including China. The drugs and other crimes are not going to go away, unless the governments in the region tackle those making the big money _ on all sides of the border _ from illegal logging, drugs, gambling and trafficking.''

With additional reporting by Ko Htwe

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Writer: Phil Thornton
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