Thursday 22 Oct 2020 | 21:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Oct 2020 | 21:26 | SYDNEY

Murder and mayhem on the Mekong

9 November 2011 17:18

On 6 and 7 October the bodies of 13 Chinese were found floating in the Mekong where it flows past Chiang Rai province in Thailand's north.

The bodies, blindfolded with hands bound and showing bullet wounds, were identified as the crews from two Chinese cargo boats making the journey down the river from southern Yunnan to northern Thailand. Subsequently, the two vessels were reported captured after a gunfight involving the military and, it is now claimed, those who had hijacked the vessels.

Commentary in both Thailand and China immediately linked these events with long-established drug smuggling in the Golden Triangle region, and in particular with the activities of an ethnic Shan warlord, Nor Kham. When the two boats were recovered, they were said to be carrying up to a million amphetamine 'speed' pills. For a period China suspended all cargo traffic traveling down the Mekong and then allowed its resumption with the provision of escorts.

The events are shocking but far from surprising, as smuggling is endemic to the region. When, in 2003, I traveled from Guan Lei in southern Yunnan to Chiang Saen in northern Thailand on a Chinese cargo boat as the only non-Chinese passenger, all passengers were ordered below shortly after leaving Chinese territory while the boat made an unscheduled stop to load and unload cargo, undoubtedly part of a smuggling operation.

As recently as April of this year, passage up and down the Mekong between China and Thailand was briefly suspended because of banditry linked to drugs.

What is surprising is the latest reported developments in this story. On Friday 28 October, nine members of the Thai military Pha Muang force responsible for security of the border region handed themselves in to the authorities in Chiang Rai province. They claim they were not responsible for killing the Chinese, but they have been charged with murder and tampering with evidence.

Thai officials have denied any government connection with the alleged actions of the nine men, and Chinese officials have stressed their belief than none of the crew members had any connection with drug running. Meanwhile, Burmese, Chinese and Thai officials have met to review security on the Mekong.

Perhaps all that can be said for the moment is that these events underline the extent to which the Golden Triangle (a region and not a fixed point as Thai tourists operators would have visitors believe), through which the Mekong flows, remains a lawless area linked to drug production, nowadays as much involving amphetamines as the more traditional heroin.

Photo by Flickr user fredalix.