The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Mekong Murder Has Hallmarks of Naw Kham
By WAI MOE Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beijing has suspended Chinese ships from the Golden Triangle area of the Mekong River following the brutal murder of at least 12 Chinese crewmen on Oct. 5.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has demanded that regional partners Burma, Thailand and Laos take immediate action to find the perpetrators.

Attention has quickly focused on the only suspect in the case, Naw Kham, the notorious leader of a private militia which has for five years terrorized the crews of vessels, almost invariably Chinese cargo ships, sailing on the Mekong in the narrow stretch between Laos and Burma.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Tuesday that 12 Chinese crewmen were killed and one remains missing after two cargo ships, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, were attacked and hijacked, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The unmanned ships were discovered floating downriver near the port of Chiang Saen by Thai police on the morning of Oct. 5. Police discovered on board the body of one man who had been shot. Later that day, the bodies of 11 others were recovered from the river.

Thai media reported that all the men had their hands tied behind their backs and that two were blindfolded. Some had been shot or had their throats slit. All the crewmen have now been identified.

Quoting Thai police, the media in Thailand reported that 920,000 amphetamine pills were uncovered on the two Chinese cargo vessels.

On Wednesday, Xinhua reported that 164 Chinese crewmen from 28 cargo ships were currently docked and stranded in Chiang Saen, and a further 116 vessels ships were anchored at various points on the Mekong River due to the suspension of all Chinese shipping.

The following day, the Chinese press agency reported that all Chinese vessels will return to China on Friday.

"The brutal killing of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River reminds us of the urgency of stepping up security measures in an area plagued by drug trafficking and cross-border crime,” said the China People's Daily.

The incident was reminiscent of a kidnapping in April when 34 crew members on three Chinese boats were taken hostage by pirates on the Laos-Burma stretch of the Mekong.

The 34 were safely rescued by Thai police within days, though they could not subsequently identify the pirates because they wore masks and balaclavas.

Few doubt however that both incidents involved Naw Kham and his 60 to 100 gunmen known as the “Hawngleuk militia” who are thought to be based in eastern Shan State and who frequently patrol the Mekong on speedboats. Members of the group allegedly wear plain clothes and carry automatic weapons.

A 51-year-old ethnic Shan, Naw Kham is wanted by all the Mekong subregion authorities, accused of drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder.

However, many observers say they doubt that law enforcement agencies in the region are tackling the crimes seriously as Naw Kham and his gang are still active and appear to act with impunity.

“A couple of other armed groups, including the United Wa State Army, have previously attempted to control trade on the Mekong River around the Golden Triangle area. But none has succeeded except Naw Kham,” said Khunsai Jaiyen, the editor of The Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), which is a well-known authority in covering ethnic affairs and drug issues in Shan State.

Naw Kham was previously an administrative officer in late warlord Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army, a militia renowned for opium production in Shan State. 

After Khun Sa’s surrender to the Burmese authorities in 1996, Naw Kham broke from the Mong Tai and established himself independently as a militia leader among ethnic Shan and Lahu groups in eastern Shan State.

Naw Kham’s Hawngleuk militia is widely alleged to have worked in cooperation with many high-ranking Burmese officials over the years, including the regional commanders of the Triangle Regional Military Command in Kengtung.

Among the former heads of Triangle Regional Military Command are: President Thein Sein; the current commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, Gen Min Aung Hlaing; and Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko.

But his amity with the military officers waned, and in January 2006 Burmese security forces seized massive amounts of methamphetamine pills, drug-production equipment and 150 weapons when they raided Naw Kham's compound in the Burmese border town of Tachilek, reportedly with the help of Thai and Chinese intelligence.

Since then, Naw Kham has operated underground.

“He was able to revive his militia in 2007, recruiting several Shan-Lahu mercenaries from eastern Shan State,” Khunsai Jaiyen said. “His gang patrols a 50 km stretch along the Mekong River between Burma and Laos.”

Naw Kham's militia has since established a reputation as a ruthless and violent gang, bullying and robbing not only drug traffickers, but goods traders and civilian travelers.

Chinese authorities began to sit up and take notice after the gang attacked a Chinese vessel on the river in 2008, seriously injuring three security officials.

According to Brian McCartan, a Chiang Mai-based journalist writing in Asia Times in 2009, one of possible reasons Naw Kham is targeting Chinese interests on the Mekong is related to the expansion of China's business empire in the region, including a massive multimillion-dollar casino project being constructed on the Laotian side of the Golden triangle.

Kings Romans, the Macao company responsible for the casino, has angered local communities by evicting villagers from their land with insufficient compensation, and for importing Chinese workers instead of utilizing the local workforce.

“Many villagers in the area were happy to see him 'tax' Chinese cargo vessels, which often carried products that undercut the price of their local foods and wares,” McCartan wrote, adding that the displaced villagers saw Naw Kham's militia as the only way to challenge the Chinese investors.  

On February 20, 2010, 13 Burmese police officials and patrol boat crew were killed and two other policemen were injured during a gun battle with the Hawngleuk militia.

Following the attack, Naypyidaw and Vientiane significantly raised their level of cooperation on Mekong security.

A Burmese journalist in the Golden Triangle region, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he recently encountered the Naw Kham militia while taking photographs on the river.

“At the time, Naw Kham’s men were on three speedboats. They cut off our boat and boarded it,” he said. “They were well armed, and some of them wore masks. They made us kneel with our hands on our heads. Then they took all our money.”

Over the past two decades, three ethnic armed groups from Burma have attempted to control the Mekong River route through the Golden Triangle. The first group was drug lord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army, followed by the UWSA and the Shan State Army (South) led by Yawd Serk.

“All were pushed back by the Burmese army,” Khunsai Jaiyen said. “Unless they had the support of the local Burmese authorities, Naw Kham and his men could not survive in this area.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded immediate action from the authorities of Thailand, Laos and Burma on the case of the murder of the Chinese crewmen.

"The Chinese government values the life and safety of every Chinese citizen, and demands a thorough probe of what happened, and that the murderers be brought to justice,” Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao told envoys from the three Southeast Asian countries. 

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