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China Escalates Drug War into Southeast Asia's Mekong River

China Escalates Drug War into Southeast Asia's Mekong River

By Richard S. Ehrlich | Bangkok, Thailand
May 30, 2013

After executing four killers from Thailand, Laos and Myanmar last year, China's security forces have extended their reach by uniting those countries along the Mekong River in a "war on drugs" and arrested 812 people in the narcotics-rich Golden Triangle.

China's new push into Southeast Asia is described as an anti-drug operation which began on April 19 and will end on June 20.

It includes protecting commerical and passenger ships on the Mekong River against thieves, kidnappers and guerrillas.

Up to now, security forces from China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos said they confiscated more than two tons of drugs -- including heroin, opium and methamphetamines -- plus guns and ammunition.

The 812 arrests include citizens from all four countries, plus Vietnam, according to Lan Weihong, an officer at the Narcotics Department in China's powerful Public Security Ministry.

Mr. Lan made the announcement at their "command center...staffed by drug enforcement agents from all four countries," located in Jinghong, a Mekong River port in the southern province of Yunnan, China Daily reported on May 21.

The new center is a second-floor hotel room in Jinghong where more than 10 officers work, alongside translators, allowing all four nations to "sit in the same room and talk directly with each other," Mr. Lan said.

Previously, officials had to send documents and other evidence back to their home countries and ask their superiors how to coordinate cross-border raids, which slowed the process.

"Narcotics officers assigned to a four-nation campaign against smuggling on the Mekong River say reducing red tape and improving communication is boosting the war on drugs," China Daily said.

The officers also "protect merchant sailors and residents along the major trading route through Southeast Asia," it said.

There was no immediate indication where the 812 suspects were imprisoned after being busted in 560 cases during the past month.

It was also unclear where they might stand trial, which countries they came from, or if they were being sent back to their own countries for further investigation.

China led efforts to create the multinational squad which is backed by armed patrol boats and other weaponry.

A few hundred miles longer than the Mississippi River, the Mekong originates in Tibetan glacier-fed peaks in China's Qinghai province, runs 2,700 miles, and empties through southern Vietnam into the South China Sea.

But it is the river's midway section through the mountainous Golden Triangle which interests the joint patrols.

The region is part of China's southern frontier -- where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet -- and was dubbed the Golden Triangle in the 1950s when warlords, rebels, criminals and corrupt officials in all three countries became wealthy from illegal opium and heroin production.

Today, the Mekong's murky waters are a lucrative commercial lifeline, especially Chinese goods exported south through Yunnan to be assembled or sold in Southeast Asia or abroad.

As the region modernizes, illegal drug production has also increased, and seizures are now alarmingly huge.

For example, police in Bangkok said they netted Thailand's biggest-ever cache of illegal methedrine on May 22 when they retrieved 4.5 million speed pills, plus 60 kilograms of powdery "ice" -- a colloquial term for smokeable methamphetamine.

The massive amount of stimulant drugs were in suitcases in an apartment, which police raided before arresting three Thai couriers who allegedly also possessed four guns.

In a separate raid on May 26, Thai police in the Golden Triangle near Chiang Rai said they stopped a convoy of pickup trucks going to Bangkok, arrested four minority ethnic hill tribesmen who were couriers, and seized 600,000 methamphetamine pills.

Thailand points to Shan state in Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- as the source of most such drugs.

Many of the region's illegal, makeshift laboratories producing methedrine and ice are located there, though key chemicals in the formula are often purchased in Thailand.

Shan state is also the world's second biggest source of illegal opium harvests, which can be refined into heroin and morphine before being smuggled abroad.

Many of Shan state's illegal drugs are carried by mules, ponies or vehicles across porous jungle borders southeast into Thailand or northeast to China.

Some Shan state smugglers also secretly ferry their cargo down the Mekong to Thailand's Golden Triangle river ports of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong, where modern highways link to Bangkok.

Other Shan-based smugglers send their illegal drugs on speedboats across a narrow section of the Mekong River into Laos, and then march the loads across sparsely populated hills.

Those drugs are then brought from Laos across a different section of the Mekong near Thailand's river ports, or north overland into China.

Last year in the Golden Triangle, China captured Naw Kham, an ethnic Shan methedrine smuggler from Myanmar who was on the run in Laos after being blamed for orchestrating the execution of 13 Chinese crew members on two Chinese-flagged cargo ships on the Mekong in October 2011.

China executed Naw Kham and three other foreigners from Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in March 2013, after convicting them in Yunnan.

Naw Kham initially confessed, then insisted he was innocent and blamed rogue Thai soldiers for staging the 13 executions in a plot allegedly involving deception, revenge and profit.

In response to the case -- which included discovery of 920,000 amphetamine pills -- Thailand, Myanmar and Laos began for the first time to allow Chinese "border police" gunboats to lead four-nation patrols on the Mekong River beyond China's territory.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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