Killing the drug trade

By Liu Chang and Qiu Yongzheng in Yunnan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-5 23:13:01

Chinese fishermen sailing on the Mekong River near Guanlei port, Yunnan Province on September 5, 2012. After the murders occurred on October 5, 2011, cargo transportation and tourism were temporarily suspended. Photo: CFP
Chinese fishermen sailing on the Mekong River near Guanlei port, Yunnan Province on September 5, 2012. After the murders occurred on October 5, 2011, cargo transportation and tourism were temporarily suspended. Photo: CFP

Naw Kham, the leader of an armed Myanmar drug cartel, and his three accomplices, were executed by lethal injection on Friday in Kunming, Yunnan Province, for the killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River.

The execution is likely to have an influence on criminal activity in the notorious Golden Triangle region, where he was based and the results of increased action by authorities on this 4,180-kilometer-long river, which originates from China and flows through Southeast Asia, are already being felt. A recent joint patrol by China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the eighth thus far, has also helped curtail the drug trade.

However, Hu Zujun, director of the anti-drug bureau under the Yunnan Provincial Department of Public Security, told the Global Times that the region will still be China's biggest drug source for quite some time, and there is a long way to go before the problem can be eradicated.

A sinking ship

A Myanmar news portal based in New Delhi, India, reported that since the drug lord was transferred to China, his followers and those who offered him sanctuary have all fled. "He was abandoned," the report said.

A senior official from an ethnic minority region in northern Myanmar told the Global Times that he had thought the Chinese authorities would execute Naw Kham, but was surprised it had happened so soon. "Many forces in the region who have been paying attention to his fate are contemplating what this might mean for themselves."

Naw Kham was captured after being tracked for 11 months by some 200 police officers dispatched by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, a campaign that was launched in concert with police in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

Wu Ruzhen, a Chinese police liaison officer in Myanmar, said since Naw Kham was netted, no Chinese boats have been hijacked or robbed.

A local resident in Pangkham, in northern Myanmar's Wa State, told the Global Times that local authorities have strengthened their efforts to crack down on the drug trade. "There have been more spot checks on drugs at hotels and entertainment venues at night."

China's foreign ministry said the case highlighted the country's determination to tackle cross-border crime, while some media said China had demonstrated its ability to protect its citizen's rights and interests overseas.

Alternative to drugs

The Golden Triangle started to channel drugs into China 30 years ago. In its heyday in the 1990s, it had around 165,000 hectares of opium poppy fields.

Hu said that due to diplomatic pressure, crackdowns and the rise of alternative plantations, the area shrank to a historical low of 18,600 hectares in 2006 due to programs initiated by the Chinese government that encouraged the replacing of the plantations with other crops.

By November last year, there were some 200 companies from Yunnan participating in a program to replace drug plantations with banana, rubber and sugarcane plantations over approximately 200,000 hectares of land, with an investment of 1.6 billion yuan ($257 million).

Naw Kham even claimed to want to be involved in a different business, saying that the reason he was involved was to feed his children and earn them tuition fees. "They could find a better job and I hope to live with them when I am old," he said.

A senior official from the Wa State told the Global Times that the region will never have a future unless it moves away from producing illegal drugs.

"Many officials there have sent their children overseas for an education, as a way of ensuring the next generation stays far away from the Golden Triangle," he said.

Joint cooperation with officials and even armed ethnic forces in neighboring countries is badly needed, as the 4,060-kilometer-long border between Yunnan and these countries is dotted with clandestine drug-trafficking routes. "Nothing can be done except plugging these holes along the border," Hu said.

A top leader of an armed ethnic group in northern Myanmar said that they had also cooperated with Chinese police to catch another drug lord.

Zhang Weiting, a prosecutor from the Yunnan Provincial Procuratorate, told the Global Times that Naw Kham's gang was able to be put on trial in such a timely manner thanks to multilateral cooperation. "Firsthand evidence came from Thailand and 13 foreigners even testified in court," he said.

An evolving problem

However, efforts to halt the drug trade have been impeded by the volatile regional situation and the fact that the drug plantations are creeping back.

Land occupied by drug plantations surged to 33,000 hectares in recent years. "This is closely linked with the situations among different regions. The Wa State does the best job, while the Konkang area in the Shan State saw the most severe resurgence," Hu said.

Konkang has witnessed standoffs between government forces and armed ethnic rebels, and is one of the places with the largest area of drug plantations. Since the government army's attack in 2009, the drug business has surged as a way to financially support the ethnic rebels.

Lin Ruzeng, a Chinese businessman in Konkang from Fujian Province, said that Myanmar's government troops, which control the area, do not acknowledge contracts signed previously between businessmen and the ethnic forces when it comes to replacing drug plantations. "Many investors lost their money without any compensation, while in the Kachin State, where there have been wars, no one takes care of the crops."

Hu said new types of drugs, which require less advanced technology and are not limited by seasonal harvests, have flooded into China.

Of the 16 tons of drugs intercepted by Yunnan police last year, methamphetamine accounted for around two thirds of the total. In 2010, Chinese police for the first time seized more methamphetamine than heroin over the course of the year, and over the following years, the share of crystal meth has risen.

"Myanmar is China's largest source of new types of drugs," Hu said.

Vichai Chaimongkhon, director of the Narcotics Control Office Region in Thailand, was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying that a new drug gang controlled by Jasi Bo has taken over from Naw Kham in leading an armed group that is active along the Mekong River.

The group, which employs 40 to 50 armed men, extorts protection money from boats on the river, he said.

Hu admitted that the removal of this gang has only had a limited influence on narcotics control efforts. "After all, the gang controlled by Naw Kham only transports the drugs, instead of manufacturing them. After marine transportation is cut off, they will move to land-based methods."

Agencies contributed to this story

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