Murder on the Mekong17 min read

Freshwater intrigue in the Chinese-dominated Golden Triangle – Sebastian Strangio

An excerpt from In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century 

Just before midday on October 5 2011, a group of Thai soldiers boarded two Chinese barges that were seen floating listlessly in the Mekong River, a few miles upstream of the drowsy river town of Chiang Saen. The vessels were loaded with Chinese goods bound for the Thai market: the Hua Ping carried fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8, crates of apples and garlic. The soldiers found the former vessel deserted. The bridge of the latter was covered in blood, where, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as Yang Deyi, the boat’s Chinese captain. Stashed aboard the two vessels were clear plastic bags containing 920,000 methamphetamine pills, a haul with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. In the following days, the corpses of the remaining 12 crewmembers were scooped from the milky-brown waters of the Mekong. The victims had been gagged with duct tape and blindfolded, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had been stabbed. Others had gaping head wounds, suggesting that they had been shot at close range.

These grisly murders had occurred just a few miles downstream from the center of the Golden Triangle, the rugged and impoverished region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma converge. For most of its history, this had been a zone of pristine lawlessness, a cauldron of bandits, drug smugglers, tribal chieftains, ethnic militias, and corrupt government functionaries where the writ of lowland states ran thin. Opium poppies were first cultivated in the region’s hills on a large scale in the nineteenth century; by the 1960s, the area had become synonymous with narcotics production. Until the early 2000s, the Golden Triangle was the world’s leading source of heroin. It still produces most of the methamphetamine consumed today in China and Southeast Asia.

The circumstances surrounding the murder of the Chinese sailors were foggy. Some witnesses claimed it had happened on the open water; others said the boats had docked before the shots were fired. The Thai authorities immediately arrested the nine soldiers who had boarded the boats, members of an elite anti-narcotics detachment known as the Pha Muang Taskforce. But it remained unclear if the Chinese sailors had been shipping the drugs themselves, or if the pills had been planted afterward to deflect attention from the real culprits, whoever they were.

The authorities immediately suspended all Chinese traffic on the Mekong”

Back in China, the Mekong murders magnetized the public’s attention. In the wake of “10/5,” as the killings came to be known, gruesome photos of the sailors’ corpses circulated online. Nationalistic internet users accused their government of failing to protect Chinese citizens abroad. In response, the authorities immediately suspended all Chinese traffic on the Mekong and summoned senior officials from the Golden Triangle nations to Beijing. There Chinese officials pressed them to participate in a new series of Chinese-led river patrols to ensure security along the middle Mekong. The governments of Thailand, Burma, and Laos also took the unprecedented step of allowing Chinese law enforcement to operate in their countries for as long as it took to bring the killers to justice.

As the investigation began, Thai authorities offered up a suspect: a notorious outlaw named Naw Kham, whom the media quickly dubbed the “freshwater pirate” of the Mekong. A stocky ethnic Shan born in 1969, Naw Kham had begun his criminal career working for a narco-militia run by Khun Sa, a flamboyant Shan-Chinese drug lord who established a powerful heroin empire in the Golden Triangle. As Alfred McCoy wrote in his landmark book The Politics of Heroin in  Southeast Asia, at the apex of his power in the late 1980s, Khun Sa controlled an army of 20,000 soldiers and half the globe’s heroin supply, “a market share never equaled before or since.” In 1996, Khun Sa brokered a deal with Burma’s military government: he agreed to surrender in exchange for amnesty and a quiet villa retirement in the capital Rangoon.

At this point the young Naw Kham struck out on his own. Setting up his operation in Tachilek, a dusty smuggling hub on the Thai–Burma border, he started running heroin; later, he branched out into the production of methamphetamine, a cheap and highly addictive drug that the Thais called yaba, or “crazy medicine.” After a raid in 2006, Naw Kham shifted his base to Sam Puu Island, a lozenge of land in the loosely policed stretch of the Mekong that forms the border between Burma and Laos. There he turned to piracy, imposing a “tax” on drug traffickers of about $160 for every kilogram of heroin and 10 cents for every methamphetamine pill. His men prowled the riverbanks in sleek speedboats, swooping around the river’s bends to snare unsuspecting vessels. Khuensai Jaiyen, a journalist who runs the Shan Herald Agency for News, a leading source of news from Burma’s isolated Shan State, told me that Naw Kham got a cut of everything that moved through his territory: “He was making money out of the drug smugglers, he was giving protection.”

To lead its manhunt, Beijing appointed Liu Yuejin, the director of the Narcotics Control Bureau, a subsidiary of China’s powerful Ministry of Public Security. A hard-bitten anti-drug veteran, Liu followed his quarry with beady resolve. But the manhunt was far from straightforward. Naw Kham was known to enjoy protection from security forces throughout the Golden Triangle, and twice evaded capture after being tipped off by sympathetic locals. At one point Chinese officials even considered assassinating him with a drone.

Then, on April 25, 2012, Liu received a tip that Naw Kham planned to cross the Mekong into Laos. He passed word to his Lao counterparts, and when Naw Kham slipped ashore that night, the police were waiting.

The Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Burma converge

The Thai village of Sop Ruak sits a few kilometers upstream from where the bodies of the Chinese sailors were pulled from the river, at the exact point where the borders of the three Golden Triangle nations converge. Here, the area’s reputation for danger and opulence has been compressed into a harmless tourist display, a ribbon of 7-Elevens, opium museums, and souvenir encampments that unspools in a colorful line along the Mekong waterfront. Tourists, these days many of them from China, pose for photos in front of the tri-border confluence where the Mekong intersects with its tributary, the Ruak, looping down out of the Shan hills from the west.

On a hill sits a quiet Buddhist pagoda and a couple of graves of Japanese soldiers, killed during World War II. Nearby, a large golden Buddha directs its serene gaze over to the Lao side of the river, where an enormous jewel-encrusted crown shimmers against a backdrop of hazy green hills.

The crown edifice of the Kings Romans Casino at the GTSEZ

The crown belongs to the Kings Romans Casino, the centerpiece of a Chinese-owned tourism and gambling enclave known as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ). Over the past decade, Kings Romans Group – its Chinese name jinmumian means “golden kapok,” after the trees that blanket the area with flame-red flowers – has spent hundreds of millions of dollars transforming this far-flung corner of Laos into a palm-fringed pleasure zone on the Mekong. The casino attracts hundreds of visitors each week from mainland China, where gambling is banned outside Macao. Most come down the new highways from Yunnan, or fly to northern Thailand and cross the Mekong on speedboats operated by Kings Romans.

The GTSEZ looks and feels like China: clocks display Beijing time, an hour ahead of Laos, and shops expect payment in Chinese yuan – even the street signage affects the municipal house-style of mainland China. The casino itself is a riot of rococo excess. A seated statue of Neptune presides in the entrance hall, raising his trident over gilded surfaces and marble floors. Inside, gamblers sit at green baize tables, cigarettes poised on moistened ashtrays, impatiently squaring stacks of Chinese and Thai bills. An ornate gate behind the casino announces a special “Chinatown” district of boutiques and restaurants, built in a kitschy transplanted style that can only be described as Forbidden City Lite. Nearby there is a depressing zoo filled with caged tigers and peacocks, and a golf driving range massed with black four-wheel drives.

The Golden Triangle’s reputation for danger and opulence has been compressed into a harmless tourist display”

A promotional brochure image of Zhao Wei (Sebastian Strangio)

The Kings Romans Casino and the enclave in which it sits are ruled by a fifty-something Chinese entrepreneur named Zhao Wei, originally from Heilongjiang in China’s frigid northeast. Tall and gaunt, with drooping eyes and slicked-back hair – one local journalist who met the businessman told me to imagine “a Chinese Christopher Walken” – Zhao has spent most of his career haunting the murkier crannies of the Asian casino business. He first operated casinos in Macao, where he holds permanent residency, and then in Mong La, a notorious gambling enclave just over the Chinese border in the Burmese section of the Golden Triangle. In 2007, Zhao convinced the Lao government to let him export the casino model to their country, and it granted him a 99-year lease on 10,000 hectares of prime agricultural land along the Mekong. “The Lao government gives us the sky,” he told an interviewer in a 2011 CCTV special titled Zhao Wei: Kapok in My Heart. “In return we will build a beautiful city as a gratitude to the Lao people.” A few hundred Lao villagers were evicted, and Zhao’s dreamland began to rise from the paddy fields.

While the GTSEZ remains under nominal Lao sovereignty – the government holds a 20 percent stake and former government officials sit on the zone’s management committee – the area is reportedly free of direct government control. Stuart Ling, a Lao-speaking Australian agricultural consultant based in the town of Huay Xai, about 50 kilometers downstream on the Lao side of the Mekong, described it as a “special zone” outside the jurisdiction of the local authorities. “Nobody collects statistics on it,” he told me. “Even on paper it’s not really part of Laos.” Like Mong La to the north, which is controlled by a small rebel militia, the GTSEZ maintains its own security force, and Zhao wields such power over this outpost of Greater Yunnan that its Chinese residents refer to him as tu huangdi, “the local emperor.” “For me, he’s a big guy,” Shi Feng, a Chinese businessman who owns a restaurant near the casino, said over tea one afternoon in the Lao capital Vientiane. “In 2007 there was nothing there but mountains and forest. But now it’s like a modern city.”

Today, the Kings Romans Casino is the most garish signpost of China’s rising presence on the Mekong. As part of its southward push from Yunnan, Beijing has spent the past two decades dredging sections of the river to deepen navigation channels, streamlining import and export procedures, and refurbishing port facilities. As a result, the river has grown into a burgeoning trade route, dominated by 200-ton Chinese barges like the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8, which ply the 265 kilometers between Guanlei, the main Mekong port in southern Yunnan, and Chiang Saen, where an expanded commercial port opened in 2011. Between 2004 and 2010, Mekong cargo volumes between Yunnan and Thailand tripled to more than 300,000 tons per year.

The Mekong has grown into a burgeoning trade route, dominated by 200-ton Chinese barges”

But the Chinese cargo boats passed through long stretches of the Mekong that were basically unpoliced, making them easy prey for freshwater pirates like Naw Kham. In 2008, unknown assailants attacked a Chinese patrol boat, injuring three Chinese police officers; the following year, a firefight on the Mekong between ethnic rebels and the Burmese army resulted in the death of a Chinese sailor. Moreover, the illicit trades of the Golden Triangle were rebounding back onto China itself. The same changes that had boosted legitimate trade since the late 1980s – the opening of borders and the improvement of overland transport links – also gave drug trafficking syndicates easy access to cheap Chinese-made precursor chemicals, and a gigantic new market for their product. By the mid-1990s, Golden Triangle narcotics had turned Kunming into the heroin capital of China, resulting in spiraling rates of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. In 1996, more than 70 percent of China’s reported HIV cases were from Yunnan.

Narcotics were just the beginning. By the time of Naw Kham’s arrest in Laos in April 2012, the new silk roads of the Golden Triangle were awash with weapons, stolen vehicles, exotic hardwoods, Burmese jade, and endangered animal products for use as aphrodisiacs and medicines – black markets primed by the rising demand of China’s nouveaux riches. Sadly, this illicit traffic also included people: manual laborers, sex workers, and village women from Burma, Vietnam, and Laos, who were trafficked over the border by special brokers for marriage to men in rural China. As Ruth Banomyong, a logistics expert at Thammasat University in Bangkok, put it, “If you are a smuggler or you’re doing something illicit, better roads are something fantastic.” To Beijing’s consternation, an increasing amount of this contraband was flowing directly into China.

The Mekong river port at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone

With Naw Kham in custody, the Chinese authorities had the opportunity to make a strong statement. In November 2012, the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court found the “freshwater pirate” and three accomplices guilty of the Mekong murders and sentenced them to death by lethal injection. Throughout the trial, the case was given front-page prominence in the state-run media. On the day of the executions, Naw Kham’s final moments were captured in a two-hour television broadcast in which the cameras followed the four defendants on their forced march to the execution chamber, their faces blank with shock. The chilling live feed ran right up until the moment before doctors administered the fatal injections. Interviewed during the coverage, Liu, the anti-drug czar, cast the executions as a pivotal moment for China and for ethnic Chinese around the world. “In the past, Overseas Chinese dared not say they were of Chinese origin,” Liu told a presenter. “Now they can hold their heads high and be themselves.”

This narrative was dramatized in a 2016 Hong Kong action movie, Operation Mekong, a feast of carnage and car-chases that ends with the villain – Naw Kham, played with sinister relish by the Thai actor Pawarith Monkolpisit – safely in the hands of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. (Liu served as a special consultant on the production.) Beijing had used the case to send a message to its southern neighbors: it would go to great lengths to protect its economic interests on the Mekong.

Naw Kham’s capture and trial was a powerful expression of China’s intensifying clout in mainland Southeast Asia”

However, the court’s verdict failed to bring much clarity to the case. Chinese prosecutors never established a solid motive to explain why Naw Kham would have committed the murders. Moreover, speakers of Shan, a close cousin of the Thai language, reported that his “confession,” aired on Chinese television, resulted from a mistranslation. Kheunsai Jaiyen said, “It was a kangaroo court. He was saying one thing, and they were translating another.” Questions were also raised in Thailand, where an extensive police investigation had followed the arrest of the nine Thai soldiers. It concluded that the shots fired at the Chinese crewmembers came not from outlaws or drug gangs, but from weapons used by the Thai military. A Thai parliamentary committee later concurred, concluding that “circumstantial evidence suggests that Thai officials were involved in the sailors’ deaths.” It was easy to see how Naw Kham’s capture and execution was convenient for the Thai military: by pointing the finger at Naw Kham, it had successfully deflected attention away from the possible involvement of its own personnel.

In a detailed investigation into the Mekong killings published in 2013, the American journalist Jeff Howe identified another potential culprit: Zhao Wei, the chairman of Kings Romans Group. Unlike the harmless theme-park displays over the river in Sop Ruak, the casino was widely suspected of involvement in the region’s illicit commerce. Campaigners working for the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency claimed that boutiques behind the casino sold illegal wildlife products, including ivory and tiger meat, allegedly smuggled in from Mong La on Chinese cargo boats. During my visit to the zone in 2016, I picked up a casino brochure that featured the ghastly spectacle of hugujiu – a tiger skeleton floating in a tank of rice wine – and a shooting range where visitors could fire M16 assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns. Later, the US government imposed sanctions on Zhao Wei and three associates, accusing Kings Romans of involvement in “drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking.”

Howe concluded that Zhao’s entry into the region’s vice trade had entangled him in a turf war with Naw Kham, a struggle that continued right up until the killings in October 2011. It remained unclear whether Zhao was directly responsible for the sailors’ murders, but the timing of events raised enough questions for Howe to conclude that Naw Kham’s importance had been greatly exaggerated. He had become “a convenient legend,” Howe wrote, “and, in the end, a scapegoat who allowed the real business of the Mekong to continue running smoothly.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, Naw Kham’s capture and trial was a powerful expression of China’s intensifying clout in mainland Southeast Asia. The expansion of its Mekong patrols, ostensibly conducted in concert with the governments of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, marked a major expansion of its role in regional security. Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based expert on the Golden Triangle economy, compared the hunt for Naw Kham to US General John J. Pershing’s expedition to capture Pancho Villa, the gun-slinging Mexican revolutionary leader accused of killing 18 Americans in New Mexico in 1916. For the US government, then on the cusp of global power, the hunt for Pancho Villa represented more than the pursuit of a wanted criminal: it also symbolized a fledgling superpower’s ability to assert control over its immediate neighborhood. For Khuensai Jaiyen, Naw Kham’s capture demonstrated how China has altered the power dynamics in the Golden Triangle. “He was paying the Burmese army, paying the Lao army, paying the Thais. That’s how he survived, and that’s how he believed he would survive,” he said of Naw Kham. “But in the end, no one could resist the Chinese.” ∎

Sebastian Strangio, In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (Yale University Press, September 2020).
Header: A Chinese-style dragon ornament looks over the Mekong river. All photos courtesy of the author.