Outlaws on the Mekong

Outlaws on the Mekong

Crime gangs bring extortion, death and fear to the region's most important river for trade and tourism

The brutal murders of 13 Chinese crew members of two Chinese-flagged boats on the Mekong River on Oct 5 last year are discouraging many sailors who fear they could be the next victims.

Thai marine police guard thenew Chinese-builtKasa Longkham boat (in distance, left) as it enters Thai waters on the Mekong.

The murders, which remain shrouded in mystery, are only the tip of the iceberg of drug-related crime on the Mekong River. There have been many incidents involving armed groups of criminals attacking boats on the river.

However, some believe that the criminal violence along the river is limited to underworld groups. It does not affect tourism and cruise operations which are protected by international security agencies.

It remains unclear who killed the Chinese crewmen on board the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 boats on Oct 5.

But nine army personnel of the 3rd Army Region's Pha Muang Task Force came under suspicion and have since been charged with the murders.

One initial account says the soldiers intercepted the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 as they entered a stretch of the Mekong and found 920,000 methamphetamine pills and one dead body on board one of the boats.

AMyanmarpatrol boat is moorednear MongPong port on the MekongRiver. The boatwas provided by China to boost river security.

Other bodies were later retrieved from the river. Most were blindfolded, tied up and had bullet wounds.

The nine soldiers have denied the charges, blaming a drug trafficking gang from Shan State in Myanmar led by Nor Kham, who they said had hijacked the cargo boats.

Nor Kham is wanted by both Thai and Myanmar drug authorities.

After the incident, China deployed more than 300 armed police on boats to patrol the Mekong River in collaboration with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

Thai authorities have joined in the river patrols which run from Guanlei port in China to the Golden Triangle. They are solely responsible for patrols from the triangle to Chiang Saen port.

In the past, Chinese cargo ships were frequently attacked by armed groups near the Golden Triangle. The armed criminals used speed boats to launch their attacks, making it difficult for authorities to catch them.

The armed gang led by Nor Kham previously hijacked three Chinese cargo boats owned by the operator of a casino, King's Roman, which is located in a special economic zone in Ton Phuang city in the Lao province of Bo Kaeo. A source said the gang demanded the casino return 1.5 million methamphetamine pills and 5 million baht in cash to them in exchange for the release of the boats with 32 crew members on board.

But despite the tightened security, fears still linger on the Mekong River.

Chen Ling, a mechanic on board a Chinese cargo ship in Jinghong, which in Thai is known as Chiang Rung, in Yunnan province's Xishuangbanna prefecture in southwest China, has worked with cargo boats on the Mekong River for almost 30 years.

Apatrolboat isready to be despatched fromMongPongport in Myanmar.

He also worked as a temporary crewman for the Thai-owned Kasa Longkhamcruise boat on the return trip to Thailand, but only on the condition that he travelled back to Jinghong by car rather than the river to ensure his safety.

He told of a recent incident in which a Chinese cruise boat was attacked by an armed group using speed boats. Passengers and crew, including himself, were robbed, although nobody was hurt.

He said the murder of the 13 Chinese sailors had frightened many sailors on the river.

Jit Tapong, a Lao boat captain who has worked on the Mekong River for more than 40 years, said many skippers and crew members from Laos had decided to quit the business for the time being.

"It will take some time before things are back to normal," Mr Jit said.

Pol Col Phoppakorn Khuncharoensuk, chief of Chiang Saen district police who is on the team investigating the murders, said the case is now with the prosecution after more than 100 witnesses have been questioned.

Investigators are expected to finalise the case shortly, he said.

A source at the northern branch of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board said criminal violence along the Mekong mostly involves drug trafficking gangs betraying each other.

The source said there are four criminal groups with vested interests in trading, drug trafficking and protection money along the Mekong which is the principal transport route for cargoes from Xishuangbanna through to ports in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand's Chiang Saen. There are 13 trade ports dotted along the route.

AChinese patrol boat sails the length of the MekongRiver following murder incidents involving cargo boats. PHOTOSBY NAUVARAT SUKSAMRAN

They are the one led by Nor Kham, one under a man called Pituchid (a former key figure in the late drug lord Khun Sa's army), one led by Musur San Pue (an influential group from Mong La in Myanmar) and the Nor Nam gang, known as the seal pirates.

The source said a gang led by Nor Kham is notorious for demanding protection money from cargo boats on the river and for being involved in transporting drugs. The group is always blamed for violence along the river. But it has denied any responsibility for the murder of the 13 Chinese sailors. It was the first time they had defended themselves against any accusations, the source said.

"The Nor Kham group does not produce drugs, but they seek protection money from drug smugglers," the source said, adding the group won support and sympathy from villagers along the river banks with their generosity.

The group often provided help or financial assistance to villagers such as buying small boats for people.

The source noted the victims of previous brutal murders are often thrown into the Mekong and rivalry and betrayal among drug trafficking gangs was often to blame.

The source said the 13 Chinese were believed to have been killed on a section of the Mekong River near Ban Don Sam Pu, about 50km north of the Golden Triangle in Myanmar and drifted further to Mong Pong in Myanmar, opposite Muang Mom in Laos before they were discovered near the Golden Triangle in Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai.

Ban Don Sam Pu is the scene of considerable criminal violence and murders, while protection money is nearly always demanded. To outrun security forces, long-tailed speed boats built in Ratchaburi's Ban Pong district have become the favourite mode of transport for the criminal gangs, the source said.

Gangs which extort protection money of between 5,000 and 15,000 baht normally do not use violence.


Tourists undeterred

Despite underworld-related violence on the Mekong River, and especially the murder of the 13 Chinese crewmen in October, tourism and cruise business operators in the region have not been deterred.

Pagaimas Viera, who owns the Mekong Delta Travel Agency which runs Mekong cruises, has recently unveiled her second cruise ship, Kasa Longkham, named after a flower which is symbolic of Chiang Rai province.

It began its maiden voyage on the Mekong from Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan in southwestern China through Myanmar and Laos before reaching Chiang Saen port in Chiang Rai safely with marine police providing security along the way.

Ms Pagaimas confirmed that the criminal violence on the river is limited to only drug trafficking gangs and criminal vested interests and it has not affected the majority of people, particularly Thai cruise operators.

She also said construction of the second Chiang Saen port is expected to be finished in the next two months and it will serve large cargo ships with between 300 and 500 tonnes gross.

The original Chiang Saen port will then be adjusted to support the tourist industry in the Mekong region, she said.

Parichart Viera, manager of the company and Ms Pagaimas's niece, said the company's new ship is faster, reducing the travel time from Chiang Saen to Jinghong from 10 hours to between five and seven. Currently, more than 500 tourists have confirmed bookings with the company, which is an indication of their confidence in safety measures on the river, said Ms Parichart.

Dao Xinghai, captain of the company's cruise ships, said it is business as usual for Thai cruise operators and passengers have nothing to fear because the passenger ships would never get involved in any criminal conflicts. - Nauvarat Suksamran

The brutal murders of 13 Chinese crew members of two Chinese-flagged boats on the Mekong River on Oct 5 last year are discouraging many sailors who fear they could be the next victims.

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