MEKONG RIVER PROBLEMS: DEVELOPMENT, CHINA, LAWLESSNESS AND POLLUTION

PROBLEMS AND POLLUTION ON THE MEKONG RIVER

The Mekong River is threatened by a wide-range of global and local environmental impacts including climate change, pollution, agriculture, logging, the aquarium trade, urban development, and a rapidly rising human population. Harmony Patricio told mongabay.com: Dams are just one piece; there are a lot of other changes happening in the system. Global climate change will affect precipitation and water temperatures in the region. There is industrial pollution, and logging causes increased sedimentation of the river. Mining causes mercury and other chemicals to leach into the river. The human population is growing very quickly in the region, and harvest pressure is increasing. As people get more money, the amount of food they consume per capita also goes up, so not only are there more people, but each individual is going to consume more. A lot of fish are collected for the aquarium trade and sold all over the world. Structural changes to the river, such as creating levees and dykes for flood control, are changing the habitat. Agricultural expansion causes competition for water, and contributes pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste. And industrial expansion is leading to filling wetlands for urban development. So there are many environmental challenges facing fish in the Mekong. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Many troubles confront the river and its denizens; water extractions, pollution, invasive species, and overfishing also threaten the ecosystem’s health. And the Mekong’s woes mirror those of freshwater systems worldwide, which are increasingly pressured by a growing human population that makes ever-greater water demands. The scale is enormous: people now appropriate more than half of the world’s accessible surface freshwater, leaving precious little for natural systems and other species to thrive. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“In the Mekong River Basin, agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and fertilizers; it also drives deforestation, which causes erosion. Chemical, nutrient, and sediment runoff from farms winds up in the Mekong River Delta, where it degrades water quality, shifts natural nutrient cycles, and alters wildlife habitat. The six nations in the Mekong watershed have initiated a regional program to encourage agricultural development. If not done mindfully, the accelerated development could worsen water quality. [Ibid]

Besides agricultural runoff, pollution from industry and municipalities is also a big problem for freshwater systems. In addition to contributing extra nutrients that promote algal overgrowth, municipal wastewater also carries thousands of chemicals from products used in daily life: cosmetics, soaps, pharmaceuticals, cleaning supplies, and more. Most of it winds up in aquatic systems.

The long-term consequences of dumping so many chemicals in the water are just coming to light. More than 200 species are thought to have adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors—such as estrogen and its chemical mimics—that get into the environment via human and veterinary pharmaceuticals in wastewater and farm runoff. Sightings of frogs with deformities, such as extra legs, mushroomed in the Midwest about a decade ago. Ecologists think chemicals or an interaction between chemicals and parasites could be causing the deformities. Indeed, chemicals in freshwater may be a factor in the alarmingly sharp worldwide decline of amphibians.

Why It Is Important to Conserve the Mekong River

Biologist Harmony Patricio told Mongabay: Given the immense human and development pressures on the Mekong River Basin, it's worth wondering how much of the river's environments can be salvaged, and, if degradation occurs, how many people—dependent on the river for their livelihoods and even their cultural identities—will be harmed? Such questions, which are being asked across the developing world, point to a similar theme: development at what cost? Most countries have been snagged by the idea of development hook, line, and sinker, but their focus remains on big, industrial projects, rather than smarter, smaller, and more locally-driven development. "The world needs to realize that the Mekong is like the Amazon rainforest. It's a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity, and the rest of the world needs to support local governments like Laos so they aren't so pressured to just develop without maintaining the balance of natural resources or aquatic diversity." [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 23, 2013 |~|]

“I think the important point is that it's not too late for conservation. They're at a turning point right now in the region. We can look back at hydropower development in places like California and see what things we would have done differently if we had known more about the fish biology and ecology, how we could have balanced fisheries with the use of the river for other purposes. The exciting thing about working in the Mekong is that all these decisions are begin made right now, so there's still time to move forward in a more sustainable way. There are lessons to be learned from the rest of the world about how to maintain your aquatic resources while still developing your economy and producing the electricity that you need. Doing that will require bringing people from all the Mekong countries to work together and collect standard data to keep tabs on the fish to inform management and development. The Mekong Fish Network can play a big part in supporting this type of research. |~|

“It's quite frustrating that there is a lot of money being poured into development in the Mekong, but it's hard to get that same level of commitment for environmental research, monitoring, or conservation. In river basins like the Columbia, billions of dollars are spent every year to study, monitor and manage a few species, mostly salmon. Why is the Columbia more deserving of that research and attention than the Mekong? The world needs to realize that the Mekong is like the Amazon rainforest. It's a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity, and the rest of the world needs to support local governments like Laos so they aren't so pressured to just develop without maintaining the balance of natural resources or aquatic diversity. The local governments are trying to bring their people out of poverty and meet their development goals. The international community needs to take some responsibility and take action for this really unique and precious place, to care about it like we care about the Amazon. Even if you don't live there, it's important to know that places like it exist, that those species and diversity exist somewhere. Many people feel that way about the Amazon—I think we need to think that way about the Mekong too. |~|

Invasive Species in the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “ Biological introductions to waterways, like chemical introductions, are extremely problematic. In their own communities, most species are held in check by natural predators or other environmental constraints. But organisms from afar can crowd, devour, or outcompete native species in their new neighborhoods, and can even change entire ecosystems. Most biological introductions by people are accidental, but some, such as fishes stocked for anglers or plants brought in to stabilize soils, are intentional. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“Mimosa pigra, a spiny shrub native to the Americas and planted abroad as an ornamental or to control erosion, is now one of the world’s worst aquatic invasive species. Once established, it quickly forms dense stands and outcompetes native plants. First spotted on the Mekong in 1979, it spreads in floodwaters and in truckloads of construction sand, and is now devastating parts of the watershed. The mimosa has taken over several irreplaceable wetlands, doubling its area almost every year in some places. Several endangered water birds that depend on native grasses for food and shelter are undergoing population declines as mimosa stands replace their habitat. [Ibid]

“Controlling freshwater invaders and mitigating the damage they cause costs some 9 billion dollars each year in the U.S. alone. Yet the rate of invasions everywhere is on the rise as global commerce, trade, and travel increase. So much for the organisms people add to freshwater systems. What about the ones—too many—that we take out? Overexploitation for food, medicine, and recreation poses a major threat to freshwater birds, crocodiles, fishes, frogs, and turtles, as well as some invertebrates. More than 40 million people rely on the waters of the Mekong River Basin for their protein and income, and they are overfishing numerous species—indeed entire fish assemblages in certain areas—as a result. [Ibid]

Consequences of Irrigation Agriculture on the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, Another destructive practice is crop irrigation, the biggest consumer of freshwater both along the Mekong and worldwide. Most of the water withdrawn from the Mekong goes to irrigating crops, mainly rice. Demand for irrigation water has risen dramatically in the past decade, as new acreage has come under cultivation and new irrigation schemes have enabled farmers to produce a second or third rice crop each year. Removing so much water from freshwater systems can be devastating for wildlife, exacerbating flow problems caused by upstream dams. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“Worldwide, irrigation guzzles about 70 percent of the freshwater people use. To grow food for expanding human populations, people divert rivers, drain inland seas, and extract fossil groundwater collected over thousands of years, often at unsustainable rates. Worse, current agricultural practices often waste as much water as they use: about half the water that flows through conventional irrigation systems never actually reaches a crop plant. A lesser—though still formidable—amount of water is siphoned off to slake the thirst of cities and industry, and when you add it all together, it’s clear that people are using more than their fair share. The Mekong still manages to reach the sea. But at least ten other major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile, Rio Grande, and Yellow, now regularly run dry before they reach their outlets. [Ibid]

“Agriculture, in addition to being the greatest consumer of freshwater, is also a major polluter—another bane for wildlife. In the Mekong River Basin, agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and fertilizers; it also drives deforestation, which causes erosion. Chemical, nutrient, and sediment runoff from farms winds up in the Mekong River Delta, where it degrades water quality, shifts natural nutrient cycles, and alters wildlife habitat. The six nations in the Mekong watershed have initiated a regional program to encourage agricultural development. If not done mindfully, the accelerated development could worsen water quality. [Ibid]

Helping the Mekong River

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, “Fortunately, there is much people can do. We can remove obsolete dams and design new ones that take into account natural patterns of river flow. We can reduce the need for massive water extractions by changing the way we grow our food and our cities; more efficient irrigation techniques and increased capture of rainwater, even in wet areas, would help. Conservation may be the best “new” source of water, particularly as climate change begins to shift water supplies globally. We can start to reduce our polluting ways by avoiding harmful chemicals in the first place. In the end, keeping more water in freshwater habitats and maintaining its quality must be a top global priority. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

“The future of the Mekong lies in the balance. Today, it remains one of the world’s least-degraded large rivers, but the primacy of economic growth threatens to tip the balance towards decline across the entire river system. Still, there are hopeful signs. Several transboundary initiatives are in the works among the six nations that share the Mekong, which should help balance the needs of people and wildlife. Then there’s the Mekong River Commission. Formed in the 1950s, the commission has moved away from its original focus on dams and irrigation projects toward more holistic management that takes environmental health into consideration. But the MRC is only as strong as the resolve of the governments it represents; China and Myanmar are not members, which may undermine its effectiveness in protecting the basin. [Ibid]

“Internationally, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, with 155 signatory nations, guides conservation of 1,675 globally important wetland ecosystems. As with the Mekong River Commission, however, Ramsar’s strength rests on the decisions of its signatories: it has no enforcement mechanism. It should come as no surprise, then, that—as with conservation choices in general—most decision makers have consistently chosen short-term economic gain over the long-term health of aquatic systems. [Ibid]

Development of the Mekong River

Development of the Mekong River is still minimal but large amounts of water that flow into it are being siphoned off by large dams, small dams, canals and irrigation projects along it tributaries. The Mekong and its tributaries have the hydroelectric potential of all the oil in Indonesia. A large amounts of development has already by done. More than 50 dams built by the Asian Development Bank have built on the Mekong in recent decades. There are plans for many more.

The Mekong flows through some poorest countries and regions in the world. For many the countries that border it development of the river is vital to the development of the country. The river has been protected over the years by a lack of development, and more recently by wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The benefits of development on the Mekong River are unevenly distributed. Despite abundant rainfall throughout the rgeion, mre than 80 million people lack reliable access to safe drinking water. One in five residents live below the poverty line.

The Mekong River Commission (MBC) is an organization with representatives from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam committed to water utilization, basin development and environmental protection. Myanmar and China are not members just observers. In October 2011, China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar signed a security agreement to crack down on cross-border crime and secure transportation targeted in part at Golden Triangle drug trafficking.

China, the Mekong River and Southeast Asia

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Beijing has invested heavily in the Mekong as part of a strategy to expand its economic and diplomatic influence in Southeast Asia, dynamiting some sections to allow bigger ships to pass, streamlining import and export procedures, and improving shipping support facilities. The Mekong is an increasingly lucrative trade route. Cargo volumes between Thailand's Chiang Saen and ports in China's Yunnan province have tripled since 2004, with about 300,000 tonnes of mainly agricultural goods now transported along the Mekong every year, Mekong River Commission statistics show. But as Chinese influence grows, it is encroaching on a region dominated for decades by a much more profitable trade: narcotics. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“New patrols by Chinese gunboats, ostensibly conducted with Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, are a major expansion in Beijing's role in regional security, extending its law enforcement beyond its borders, down a highly strategic waterway and into Southeast Asia. They come as the U.S. re-engages with Asia, where Thailand is one of its oldest military allies. "This tough new China policy toward any obstacles to their Mekong commerce could in future be met with charges of gunboat diplomacy," said Paul Chambers, an American academic who co-authored "Cashing In Across The Golden Triangle" with Myanmar economist Thein Swe. "In the future, some Mekong states may increasingly turn to the U.S. to offset China's influence." /=/

“Laos has set up a special economic zone on the Mekong River on its border with China. “The area it occupied was so large and strategically located that it might one day be used as a Chinese military base, a Thai official in Chiang Rai said. That might be far-fetched. But the Golden Triangle SEZ and similar schemes elsewhere in Laos and Myanmar "signify that China is prepared to remain entrenched in the Greater Mekong Subregion," said Chambers. "They provide an exit for southwestern China to entrepots in Myanmar and Thailand, and then to markets abroad. Such schemes in fact need security to protect them." /=/

Impact of China on the Mekong River

China wants to develop the Mekong River to exploit its hydroelectric potential and to help the impoverished Yunnan Province. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “China's ravenous appetite for hydroelectric power at home and its thrust southward into Southeast Asia in search of trade is changing the very character of the Mekong. This is true not only in China itself, but also for the five nations and 60 million rural people downstream for whom the great river serves as their life's blood....China has completed two dams. It is pushing ahead with three more and has three others on the drawing board. Just about 70 miles away from here, China has blasted reefs and rocks at the border of Laos and Myanmar to clear the way for its trading vessels to reach new markets deep into Laos. The effects of the river projects that serve China's colossal upstream ambitions have been visible for several years, but are growing more worrying, say conservationists and those who live on the river. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 19, 2005]

Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - have settled into an era of relative peace and have shed their old fears of China, indeed, are currying favor. Booming Thailand is seeking more trade with China. Impoverished Laos and Cambodia want China's aid to kick-start their economies. Myanmar shares China's passion for hydropower to supply future growth. "China seems to be doing this with impunity," said Aviva Imhof, director of Southeast Asia programs at International Rivers Network, a nongovernmental group in Berkeley, Calif. "The Mekong is slowly being strangled to death. Why aren't the downstream governments challenging China's activities?"

The concern extends beyond environmental groups and fishermen. Ted Osius, until recently the State Department's regional environmental affairs officer and once a senior White House adviser to Vice President Al Gore, suggests that an unchecked China could turn the Mekong into an ecological disaster, akin to the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. "China has a poor record on river protection," Mr. Osius said in a speech in Bangkok, noting that 80 percent of the Yangtze's historic flood plain has already been cut off by a dike and levee system.

Today China's economic and political power along the Mekong is unrivaled. More than ever, it is being strengthened and extended through growing trade and diplomatic ties and its use of new multilateral tools, like the Asian Development Bank. The bank, a major lender for poverty alleviation, was until now dominated by Japan. China contributed to its capital fund for the first time in 2004 - gaining more power over how the bank's loans are distributed. The impact was immediate. The bank added a new vice president, Jin Liqun, a former deputy finance minister in Beijing. Most important, the bank's grand plan for roads, bridges and a telecommunications network to knit southern China together with the five other Mekong River countries - a plan 10 years in abeyance - got a quick boost.

Long-stalled work was suddenly under way on a 152-mile road from Yunnan Province across untamed territory to Houey Xai, a Laotian river town just a few hundred yards across the Mekong from Sri Sumwantha's village. Although relatively short, the road provides the vital link to China. A bridge is also in the works to replace the little ferryboats now used to cross the river. By the end of the decade, China could be connected by roads that cross the Mekong, head down to Bangkok and then run on to Malaysia and finally Singapore. "China's donation gives them a seat at the donor's table," said Bruce Murray, the bank's representative in Beijing. "When they give, donors always have a certain agenda."

China's new clout can be felt on other important projects as well. One of the most controversial is a $1.3 billion dam proposed for the Theun River, a major Mekong tributary in Laos, a plan that has been fought over for more than a decade. The World Bank is expected to approve loan guarantees for the dam in March. American diplomats say they have quietly supported the World Bank's role - its first dam project in a decade - for fear that otherwise China will step in. "The Laotians have told the World Bank that if the bank does not guarantee the dam and make it go ahead, they will turn to the Chinese," an American official said. The United States is reluctant to have China build and manage one of Southeast Asia's biggest dams, he said.

China, diplomats and conservationists say, would be much less fussy about the dam's impact than the consortium seeking World Bank support, led by Electricity Generating Authority Thailand (EGAT) and France's state-owned Electricité de France.

Chinese Gambling Haven on the Mekong River in Laos

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “On the Laotian bank of the Mekong, clearly visible from where the ill-fated Chinese ships stopped, an enormous crown rises above the tree line. It belongs to a casino, part of a burgeoning gambling empire hacked from the Laotian jungle by a Chinese company called Kings Romans in English and, in Chinese, Jin Mu Mian ("golden kapok"), after the kapok trees that carpet the area with flame-red flowers. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Kings Romans controls a 102-sq-km (39-sq-mile) special economic zone (SEZ) which occupies seven kilometer (four miles) of prime Mekong riverbank overlooking Myanmar and Thailand. The company's chairman is also the SEZ's president: Zhao Wei, a casino tycoon who hails from a poor peasant family in China's northeastern Heilongjang province. Zhao was unable to talk to Reuters because he was preparing to welcome Laotian president Choummaly Sayasone to a Chinese New Year festival, said Li Linjun, Kings Romans tourism manager. Li offered a tour of a Special Economic Zone into which he said the company had so far sunk $800 million./=/

“Fountains and golden statues flank the main road from the pier to the casino. Across the road is a banner in Chinese exhorting people to "join hands to beat drugs." Two gargantuan lion statues guard the entrance to the casino. Inside, beyond the security gates, a marble staircase lit by a giant chandelier sweeps up to a golden statue of a nameless, bare-chested Roman emperor. The ceilings are decorated with reproductions of Renaissance frescoes. Under construction nearby is a karaoke and massage complex, fashioned after a Chinese temple. The resort also offers a shooting range, complete with AK47 and M16 assault rifles, and a petting zoo. /=/

“An average of about 1,000 people visit the casino every day, said Li. (Gambling is illegal in both Laos and China.) But Zhao Wei didn't intend to create a "little Macau," mimicking China's casino-stuffed enclave on the Pearl River estuary. Li notes that Kings Romans controls an area "bigger than Macau" - three times bigger, in fact - and plans to build an industrial park and ecotourism facilities. In February 2012, said Li, construction began on what will be the second-largest airport in Laos after Wattay International Airport in the capital Vientiane. /=/

“Perhaps aware of anti-Chinese resentment, Li hailed Kings Romans as a model of responsible investment. About 40 percent of the complex's 3,000 workers were Chinese, he said, but the rest came from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. He then showed off a compound with scores of modest concrete houses which he said were given free to local Laotians who had once lived in wooden shacks. "These might be the happiest people in Laos," he said. Li called Laos "our second homeland." The SEZ certainly felt a lot like China. Most croupiers are Chinese. Most gamblers pay in Chinese yuan or Thai baht. The mobile phone signal is provided by a Chinese company. Street signs are in Chinese and English. The passports of visitors are processed by Chinese and Laotian immigration officers. The area is protected by the Lao People's Army, said Li, but when Reuters visited, the only car patrolling the streets belonged to the Chinese police. /=/

“Kings Romans has brushed against both the drug trade and the drug lord-pirate leader Naw Kham. In April 2011, a casino boat was seized by the freshwater pirate's men near Sam Puu Island and 19 crewmen held for a 22-million-baht ($733,000) ransom, which Zhao Wei paid, the Shan Herald Agency for News reported. Then, in September, an operation by Laotian and Chinese officials found 20 sacks of yaba pills worth $1.6 million in the casino grounds, according to Thai media reports. Li denied all knowledge of the yaba bust or that the kidnapping had even taken place, stressing that Zhao Wei came to the Golden Triangle to build an economic alternative to the narcotics trade. He said he had never heard of Naw Kham. "Maybe it's gossip. That's why they call this place the mysterious Golden Triangle." /=/

Lawlessness in Mekong Region

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “A thin line divides tourism, trade and terror in the Golden Triangle, where the lawless borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In Myanmar, where the jungly banks of the Mekong River vanish into the mist, lies an anarchic realm of drug smugglers, militiamen and pirates on speedboats. "I'm scared to go any further," says Kan, a 46-year-old boatman, cutting his engine as he drifts just inside Myanmar waters from Thailand. "It's too dangerous." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

In December 2011, three Myanmar soldiers were reportedly killed in December when their joint patrol with Laos clashed with armed bandits about 20 kilometer (12 miles) upriver from the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, near the Mekong pirate Naw Kham's haunt of Sam Puu Island. See Murder of 13 Chinese Below. /=/

“New patrols by Chinese gunboats were supposed to restore peace to the region. But a visit to the Golden Triangle also found that attacks on Mekong shipping continue. Incongruously, just across the river, on the Laos side of the triangle, Reuters also discovered a vast casino complex catering to Chinese tourists. Its Chinese owner regards it as a "second homeland"; others worry it could morph into a strategic Chinese outpost. /=/

“This area, which lies at the heart of the Golden Triangle, has long famous for drug smuggling. But “these days narcotics are not the Mekong's only contraband. Other lucrative goods include: endangered wildlife such as tigers and pangolins; weapons, stolen vehicles and illegal timber; and, in the run-up to this month's Tet celebrations, thousands of dogs in filthy cages bound for restaurants in Vietnam. There is human contraband too. Illegal migrants from Myanmar and Laos are bound for Thailand's booming construction or sex industries, while a constant stream of North Koreans journey across southern China and through Laos to surrender to the Thai authorities, who obligingly deport them to South Korea. /=/

Murder of 13 Chinese on Mekong Ships Loaded with Drugs

Reporting from the Thailand-Myanmar border on the Mekong River, Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “It was here, according to the Thai military, that 13 Chinese sailors— blindfolded, gagged, terrified—on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were murdered in early October 2011. It was the deadliest assault on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times. But a Reuters investigation casts serious doubts on the official account of the attack.[Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The Thai military says the victims were killed upriver before their ships floated downstream into Thailand. But evidence gleaned from Thai officials and unpublished police and military reports suggests that some, if not all, of the sailors were still alive when their boats crossed into Thailand, and that they were executed and tossed overboard inside Thai territory. /=/

“On the morning of October 5, 2011—near the Thai border town of Sop Ruak, near the Mekong pirate Naw Kham's haunt of Sam Puu Island—the two cargo ships, Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, drifted down the Mekong into Thailand. The Hua Ping was carrying fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8 had apples and garlic. Sometime after they crossed the border, the ships were boarded by an elite Thai military unit called the Pha Muang Taskforce, named after an ancient Thai warrior king. On the Yu Xing 8's blood-splattered bridge, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as its captain, Yang Deyi, the taskforce said. The Hua Ping was deserted. /=/

“Aboard the two ships were 920,000 methamphetamine pills with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. The corpses of the 12 other crew members were soon plucked from the Mekong's swirling waters. Their horrific injuries were recorded in a Thai police report. Most victims had been gagged and blindfolded with duct tape and cloth, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had massive head wounds suggesting execution-style killings; others had evidently been sprayed with bullets. Li Yan, 28, one of two female cooks among the victims, also had a broken neck. /=/

Drug Lord Behind the Murder of the 13 Chinese on the Mekong?

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “The assailants remain unknown. Initially, the prime suspect was a heavily armed Mekong pirate who terrorizes shipping in Myanmar. As a furious Beijing dispatched senior officials to Thailand to demand answers, a suspect for the massacre emerged:Naw Kham, the fugitive "freshwater pirate" of the Mekong, a member of Myanmar's ethnic Shan minority whose hill tribe militia is accused of drug trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“The freshwater pirate has capitalized on growing resentment towards China's presence along the Mekong. Cheap, high-volume Chinese goods are squeezing Thai and Myanmar farmers and small traders, and threatening to turn Laos into what Paul Chambers called "a mere way-station." /=/

“So when the crew of the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 were fished from the Mekong, Naw Kham seemed the obvious culprit. Yet both Kheunsai Jaiyen and Thai MP Sunai Chulpongsatorn, who chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, remained unconvinced. Sunai believed that a Naw Kham legend had been created by attributing attacks by other Mekong bandits to him. "There are many Naw Khams, not just one," he said. "It's like in a drama. He's a made-up character. He exists, but it seems he has been given a lot of extra importance." /=/

“Lost in China's outrage over the massacre was the possibility that the Chinese sailors were themselves involved in the drug trade. One theory holds that Naw Kham suspected that the Chinese vessels contained large shipments of narcotics, and dispatched men to seize the illicit cargo and brutally murder the crew to deter others from running drugs through his territory.” /=/

Thai Commandos Responsible for Murder of the 13 Chinese on the Mekong

Later the investigation turned to nine members of an elite anti-narcotics taskforce of the Thai military. Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: On October 28, nine members of the Pha Muang Taskforce appeared before police in the northern city of Chiang Rai to answer allegations of murder and tampering with evidence. During a visit to Bangkok in late October, China's vice minister of public security, Zhang Xinfeng, described this as "important progress" and concluded: "The case has been basically cracked." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Thai police have interviewed more than 100 witnesses and are still investigating. Despite reports to the contrary in Chinese and Thai media, the nine soldiers -- who include a major and a lieutenant -- have not been charged with any crime and remain on active military duty. The Pha Muang Taskforce says its members boarded the Chinese ships after they had moored near the Thai port of Chiang Saen. But a prominent Thai parliamentary committee, which is also investigating the massacre, not only undermined this assertion but alleged official complicity. /=/

"Circumstantial evidence suggests that Thai officials were involved in the sailors' deaths," the House Foreign Affairs Standing Committee said on January 12 in an apparent reference to the military task force. "However, their motive, and whether it is connected to the drugs found on the ships, remains inconclusive," it said in preliminary findings seen by Reuters. /=/

“The Pha Muang Taskforce, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, insists that Naw Kham, and not its nine soldiers, is responsible for murdering the Chinese sailors. Reuters has obtained the taskforce's report of the incident to the foreign affairs committee in November. It stated that on October 5 the Pha Muang force boarded the two cargo ships in Chiang Saen after learning they had been attacked near Sam Puu Island. They reported finding the dead captain on the Yu Xing 8's bridge and, in its hold, a cardboard box with 400,000 methamphetamine pills. Another 520,000 pills were hidden in three sacks aboard the Hua Ping. /=/

“Both ships were peppered with bullet-holes. There were 14 bullets or bullet casings on the Hua Ping's decks, said Thai police, and two blood trails apparently indicating where bodies had been dragged and tossed overboard. For Pha Muang, it was just another incident in its self-declared 11-year-old mission "to help secure the well-being of civilians residing along the three-nation border." But the taskforce's account has crucial gaps, said MP Sunai, the parliamentary committee chairman investigating the murders. /=/

“Pha Muang said the ships had already docked near Chiang Saen when its soldiers boarded them. But if one ship had only a dead captain aboard, and the other no crew at all, how did they drift down the fast-flowing Mekong without running aground, then safely moor near Chiang Saen? "It's a 200-tonne ship," said Sunai. "With nobody steering, it would have lost control long before it reached the riverbank." /=/

“The same point is made by a senior Thai official in Chiang Rai province who is close to the investigation and spoke on condition his name and exact profession were not identified. The boats could not have docked without both a captain and engineer on board, and they would probably need to read Chinese to understand the controls, he insisted. He was also convinced that some, if not all, of the Chinese sailors were alive when their ships reached Thailand. According to witnesses, he said, four smaller boats had escorted the two ships through Thai waters to the sound of gunfire. When the ships moored, about seven men jumped from them onto the smaller boats, the Thai official said, which then sped upriver again. The Thai official couldn't say who these men were, but believed that the military, who had sealed off the area, watched them go. /=/

Impact of the Murder of 13 Chinese on Mekong Ships Loaded with Drugs

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: The morning after the report was issued “unknown assailants on the Myanmar riverbank lobbed two M-79 grenades at four Chinese cargo ships and a Myanmar patrol boat. Both missed. Ten days after that, yet another Chinese ship was fired upon from the Laos bank. Again, nobody was hurt - and nobody identified for the attack. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“All Chinese shipping on the Mekong was suspended after the October massacre, which sparked popular outrage in China, with photos of the sailors' bodies circulating widely on the Internet. Shipping resumed five weeks later, with the departure of 10 cargo boats from the Mekong port of Guanlei -- protected by heavily armed Chinese border guards on speedboats./=/

“The Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 are still moored at Chiang Saen, across the river from the casino, their rusting flanks cordoned off with police crime-scene tape. Nearby, workers are loading dried goods and soft drinks onto another Chinese ship, the Hong Li, bound for the Myanmar port of Sop Lui. "Of course we're worried about security, but we're encouraged by the presence of Chinese patrols," said a crew member, who only identified himself by the family name Deng. Asked about his 13 dead compatriots, he echoed what is now a common misperception in China: nine Thai soldiers have admitted their guilt and will be held responsible for the killings. "We want the truth. That's the most important thing," said Deng, before the Hong Li sailed up the Mekong and into the void.” /=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014


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