China and SE Asia nations jointly work to fight crime on crucial waterway

By Li Ruohan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/10 19:33:39

Chinese police prepare for the 35th joint patrols on the Mekong River with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in June 2015. Photo: Xinhua

China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand on September 23 wrapped up their ninth joint patrols on the Mekong River this year, with the aim to safeguard the major trade route in the China-ASEAN free trade area that has been troubled by crime and violence.

This has been the 50th round of joint patrols since December 2011, when the four countries began the patrols weeks after a gang hijacked two Chinese cargo ships and killed 13 Chinese sailors in Thai waters, which triggered safety concerns on the key waterway.

As of September, law enforcement officers from the four countries have conducted 48 joint searches in key areas of the Golden Triangle drug-producing region, during which 718 vessels and 3,151 crewmen were inspected and the crewmen of 138 vessels were rescued, the China News Service reported.

Drug trade

The 4,880-kilometer long Mekong River is dubbed the "Golden Channel" linking Cambodia, Vietnam and the four countries.

Since free navigation of the Mekong River began in 2001, more than 4 million tons of cargo have been transported along the river, representing a trade volume of more than 30 billion yuan ($4.6 billion), the Xinhua News Agency reported in March.

The river, however, has also witnessed an increase in extortion, robbery, human trafficking and drug smuggling, especially in the notorious Golden Triangle.

The high-profile boat massacre in 2011 - which was planned by a drug cartel led by Myanmese drug trafficker Naw Kham - led to the four countries' speeding up plans to jointly launch a cooperation mechanism to maintain safety and peace along the Mekong.

Worried by the "China Threat" theory, safety cooperation among China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand was comparatively poor before the mechanism was launched, but the incident forced decision-makers to realize that national interest should be the priority, an expert on Southeast Asia studies based in Southwest China's Yunnan Province told the Global Times Sunday on condition of anonymity.

Apart from the routine patrols, China also initiated the Safe Mekong joint operation from April to June 2013, during which 1,784 cases were uncovered; 9.8 tons of drugs and 260 tons of precursor chemicals seized; and 2,534 drug crime suspects arrested, Xinhua reported.

In 2012, over 120,000 drug-related cases were exposed, an increase of 19.8 percent from the previous year, among which 49,138 cases were related to methamphetamine and 43,411 related to heroin.

The cooperation mechanism and joint patrols have made the waterway safer, Song Qingrun, a research fellow with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times on Saturday.

Rocket threat

Each patrol, which involves more than 100 law enforcement officers and dozens of vessels, brings life-threatening risks for officers, Wu Jianmin, an official with the Ministry of Public Security who worked as a liaison officer in Thailand when the massacre occurred, told the Global Times.

For instance, during the fourth patrol, which went out just days after the Kham's execution, Kham's followers armed themselves with two rocket launchers to enact revenge.

"The list could go on and on, but none of them have succeeded, due to police endeavors and the sound intelligence collecting system," said Wu.

Despite this intelligence system, hunting down drug dealers in the region is difficult as local residents and officials often give shelter to the suspects, said the anonymous expert.

For example, Kham's gang used to bribe local army and government officials to shield their existence and offered to mend local infrastructure to garner the trust and help of local residents, the Beijing Times quoted the investigators on Kham's case as saying.

The investigation eventually switched from an intelligence-led approach to a more concrete angle of attack, gradually taking down Kham's strongholds to squeeze his range of movement before capturing the outlaw in 2012, according to the Beijing Times.

Newspaper headline: Mekong Mafia

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