- - Tuesday, November 1, 2011

BANGKOK — The mysterious slayings of 13 Chinese seamen aboard two cargo ships laden with illegal drugs — and the arrest of nine Thai soldiers accused of killing them — has Southeast Asia scrambling to appease an angry Chinese government, demanding vengeance.

“China values the life and safety of every Chinese citizen, and demands a thorough probe of what happened,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao said, after the bound bodies of 12 of the merchant seamen were discovered floating in the Mekong River earlier this month.

“The murderers must be brought to justice,” he said, calling on Thai authorities to “severely punish the culprits.”

On Monday, officials from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand agreed to cooperate on security on the river that runs more than 3,000 miles from China through Southeast Asia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

In Beijing, Meng Jianzhu, China’s minister for public security, said the four nations will establish joint river patrols and share intelligence in one the world’s most notorious drug-smuggling regions.

China’s spotlight on the killings resulted in Thailand assigning an unusually large team of investigators. They include officials from the Central Investigation Bureau, Crime Suppression Division, Marine Police, Scientific Crime Detection Division, Police General Hospital and the foreign affairs division of the Royal Thai Police Office.

The Chinese seamen were killed Oct. 5 in an area dubbed “the Golden Triangle” because of the vast wealth drug warlords have made for several decades in mountainous jungles where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet.

Much of the Golden Triangle’s massive illegal opium and heroin production and smuggling began in the 1950s, but the drug lords recently expanded operations to include manufacturing amphetamine-type stimulants. The pills are easy to make and do not depend on seasonal farming conditions or high mountains where opium poppies thrive.

Thai authorities recovered nearly 1 million amphetamine pills on the two cargo ships.

The Thai soldiers charged with the killings surrendered to Thai police on Friday, proclaiming their innocence. The soldiers said they discovered one body on one of the ships after they had boarded the vessels. The other bodies were discovered in the Mekong River near the Thai port town of Chiang Saen.

All of the bodies were bound, blindfolded with adhesive tape and shot, Thai authorities said.

The soldiers, all described only as “officers,” are members of Thailand’s Pa Muang Task Force, which patrols the country’s northwest border.

Thailand’s National Police Chief Gen. Priewpan Damapong said the army and the government were not involved in the killings, according to China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency.

Gen. Priewpan “said the police suspect the servicemen acted on the order of some local tycoons, and further investigation is under way,” Xinhua reported Friday.

Thai army Maj. Gen. Prakarn Chonlayuth, who commands the Pa Muang Task Force, speculated that Nor Kham, a drug-lord based in Myanmar, had arranged the execution of the Chinese sailors.

Gen. Prakarn reportedly suggested that the ethnic Shan drug kingpin was extorting protection money from ships on the Mekong. If the boat owners refused to pay, the Shan gang would kill the crews, hijack the vessels and use the ships for smuggling drugs.

It was unclear where the nearly 1 million pills involved in the Mekong River case were made or destined to be sold.

“These drugs are affordable, easy to manufacture and highly profitable for criminal groups,” said Gary Lewis, a Bangkok-based regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Users don’t face the sort of stigma associated with ‘old-fashioned’ modes of drug administration such as injecting or smoking. This demand offers criminals entry into fresh and lucrative markets.”

Thai authorities seized nearly 50 million methamphetamine pills in 2010, nearly twice the amount recovered a year earlier.

During the 1990s, Myanmar-based rebels known as the United Wa State Army dominated parts of the Mekong’s western shore and allegedly smuggled drugs throughout the region and overseas.

Several years ago, Washington issued an arrest warrant for rebel leader Wei Hsueh-kang for involvement in illegal drugs.

In mid-October, the rebels issued a statement denying any links to the murder of the Chinese sailors.

The ethnic Wa and Shan are among several minority groups in northeast Myanmar involved in drugs while simultaneously fighting for autonomy or independence.

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