By Brian McCartan
China's bid to boost security through new multilateral mechanisms and joint patrols along the Mekong River promises to change the region's strategic dynamic. While the unprecedented move underscores China's desire to protect its fast expanding trade links with Southeast Asia, continued banditry and violence point towards the challenge Beijing will face in bringing multilateral order to one of the region's more lawless terrains.
Three Myanmar Army soldiers were killed in a December 11 clash about 20 kilometers north of the Golden Triangle, an area renowned for drug trafficking where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. The slain soldiers were reported to be part of a new joint patrol between Lao and Myanmar security forces. The shootout is believed to have pitted members of an extortion and narcotics trafficking ring under the command of Naw Kham, an ethnic Shan militia commander cum bandit.
A similar incident recently brought China into conflict with its downstream neighbor Thailand. Cargo traffic between the two countries was halted in October after an attack on two Chinese cargo boats resulted in the deaths of 13 Chinese, with many of the crew later found floating in the river with their hands bound and gunshot wounds indicative of execution-style killings. Two months later, the circumstances surrounding the incident, where drugs and firearms were found onboard the Chinese vessel, are still murky.
Initial speculation focused on Naw Kham, whose group operates in the area by collecting extortion fees from boats on the river, looting cargo, and confiscating drug shipments to sell on for their own profit. Naw Kham, however, has since claimed the killing was not his work. While Naw Kham is not averse to violence, the massacre's scale was not consistent with his group's previous attacks. In a twist, nine Thai soldiers, including two officers, turned themselves in to Thai police on charges of murder and concealing evidence. The Thai soldiers have denied the charges.
Speculation has since been rife that the incident could have been meant as a lesson to a competing drug trafficking outfit contracted out to a rogue Thai military unit. Questions remain about who the drugs belonged to, who actually seized the boats and executed the crew, and who were the drugs intended for. The incident sparked outrage in China after images and stories appeared on the Internet indicating the Chinese boat's crew had been blindfolded and restrained prior to their executions.
Chinese diplomats from the embassy in Bangkok and consulate in Chiang Mai were sent to Chiang Rai to assist the Thai police in their investigation. Presumably to make Beijing's interest in the incident clear, Guo Shaochun, Deputy Director General of Consular Affairs in the Chinese Foreign Ministry later joined them.
The killings were only the latest in a series of incidents, most of them believed to be connected to Naw Kham, involving Chinese vessels on remote stretches of the Mekong. A government-sanctioned militia commander who was previously a supply officer for notorious Shan drug lord Khun Sa, Naw Kham was targeted in a raid by Myanmar security forces on his house in the Myanmar border town of Tachilek in January 2006. After regrouping, his group began collecting extortion fees from boats on the Mekong River in 2007.
Naw Kham's successful extortion and banditry operations in the tri-border area are indicative of the region's poor central governance. A charismatic figure and savvy businessman, he has been able to cultivate apparent high-level official connections in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Despite being on the run for almost six years from the three countries' respective security forces, as well as being wanted by the insurgent Shan State Army (SSA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA), he has so far avoided capture.
A string of incidents in 2008 and 2009 seemed to be his undoing. His gunmen are believed to be responsible for shooting up a Chinese patrol boat in February 2008 and seriously wounding three Chinese officers. After the incident, an infuriated Beijing put pressure on the Lao, Myanmar and Thai governments to capture Naw Kham. After a February 2009 firefight between Myanmar soldiers and Naw Kam's men that resulted in the death of one Chinese sailor and the injuring of three others, a manhunt began in earnest on both the Myanmar and Lao sides of the river that reportedly decimated his group.
However, he has since been able to reorganize and reestablish himself in the area and recently recommenced ''taxing'' river traffic again. Some of his actions appeared to target the King's Roman Casino, provoking speculation that his resurgence could be tied to Myanmar's attempts to pressure the insurgent UWSA and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) based along the Chinese border to come to terms with the government.
The two ethnic insurgent groups maintain control over much of the Myanmar-China border. Both groups are investors in the shadowy casino project and are believed to launder their drug trafficking revenues through it. In April 2011, Naw Kham's men are believed to have been behind the kidnapping of 13 Chinese casino workers from a river boat in Lao waters, releasing them only after owner, Zhao Wei, paid a reported US$730,000 in ransom.
The UWSA and NDAA also operate a port at Sop Loei which is a regular stopping point for Chinese vessels. It is also the Mekong gateway to the UWSA and NDAA ceasefire area and an important transit point for narcotics into Laos and on to Thailand and Cambodia, as well as goods and weapons into the ceasefire area. Until a new ceasefire deal was agreed to with the groups in September, Myanmar Army units were steadily moving into areas along the Mekong and believed to be preparing to retake Sop Loei by force.
The October killings and recognition that a lack of central governance in the region was affecting trade flows served as joint catalysts for China's moves to bolster security. Joint river patrols were announced by China's Minister for Public Security, Men Jianzhu, following a meeting in Beijing on October 31.
A multinational headquarters was also created in the river port town of Guanlei in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province. The four nations have agreed to share intelligence concerning possible security problems along the river and Beijing has offered to train Lao and Myanmar security forces.
The new headquarters, together with a new unit of Chinese paramilitary police, were unveiled at a ceremony on December 9. Between 200-300 police officers were selected from China's border patrol force for the new unit. They are reportedly equipped with the latest model automatic rifles and machine guns, and will patrol the river in speed boats and converted armored river passenger and cargo vessels.
As part of the new multilateral agreement, Chinese police will carry out joint patrols together with Lao, Myanmar and Thai security forces along the stretch of the Mekong bordered by Myanmar and Laos. Thai security forces will assume sole responsibility for the stretch of the river below the Golden Triangle. The patrols began on December 10 to coincide with a nine-ship convoy of cargo ships which left Guanlei on the way to the Thai port of Chiang Saen, the first since China imposed its travel ban on October 14. Military operations are also apparently being carried out to secure the river banks.
The details of the new security arrangement, however, are so far unclear. Command arrangements, including whether officers will be able to arrest foreign nationals in waters other than their own, or whose courts and legal systems will be used to try captured offenders, have not been publicly stipulated and could lead to future diplomatic tangles.
Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei, at the opening ceremony for the new Chinese police force, stated that the four countries had reached an agreement to solve incidents based on international law and the laws of the country where an incident occurred, but gave no specifics.
While China's security officials have plied the Mekong River before, as evidenced by the February 2008 attack, this marks the first time that Chinese security forces will carry out sustained operations in another country without a United Nations mandate. This is a significant step for China, which so far has been reluctant to play a larger role in regional security. However, there is a growing perception in Beijing that it must take measures to protect its economic interests abroad.
The joint Mekong patrols will serve to deepen Beijing's influence in security matters across its southern borders. China has long used ties with ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar as a buffer from that country's political problems and as a form of leverage against Naypyidaw.
Against this backdrop, China's strategic and economic interests are growing in the region. Myanmar has become a strategic linchpin in its policy of opening up its landlocked southwestern region to trade and establishing energy links to the Middle East that avoid the use of the easily blocked Malacca Straits.
Laos is also becoming increasingly important as the hub of a trade network that extends into Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and as far away as Singapore. Roads and rail networks are planned to link China to Southeast Asia through both Laos and Myanmar. As its regional trade networks expand, the necessity of making sure they remain open and undisturbed will make it increasingly necessary for China to take a more forward looking security stance through greater participation in regional security issues.
A stepped up security presence by China, especially one that seems to project its power south into the region, will likely augment already growing perceptions of Chinese encroachment. At the same time, China's push may provide useful new impetus for Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to put an end to the lawlessness and poor governance that have long existed in the remote regions surrounding the Golden Triangle....