- - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BANGKOK — A drug lord from Myanmar and five of his gang members have pleaded guilty in China to murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year and loading nearly 1 million illegal amphetamine pills onto their two cargo ships during a murky smuggling operation.

The Chinese sailors were blindfolded, tied up and shot onboard their vessels on Oct. 5, sparking demands by China for a full investigation and better security.

Thailand, Myanmar and Laos responded by agreeing to allow Chinese border police gunboats to join them in patrolling a narrow stretch of the Mekong River — beyond China’s territory — in the heart of Southeast Asia.

At the court hearing Friday, notorious drug lord Naw Kham, smiling and folding his hand as if in prayer, begged for leniency, knowing he faces a possible death sentence. He then pled guilty to murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking two ships.

Hours earlier, all five of his gang members also pleaded guilty to the same charges.

Naw Kham is a minority ethnic Shan citizen of Myanmar, a country formerly known as Burma.

He and his gang members were arrested in April across the Mekong River in Laos and extradited in May to stand trial in southern China’s Yunnan province.

When the trial opened Sept. 20 in the Intermediate People’s Court of Kunming city, Naw Kham had claimed he was innocent.

Wearing headphones for translations during the trial conducted in Mandarin Chinese, he suddenly changed his plea to guilty after all five co-defendants testified that he was their leader and had orchestrated the deadly attack.

The five other men were “foreigners” and also asked for leniency, China’s government-controlled Xinhua news agency said. Xinhua did not identify the nationality of the co-defendants. Thirteen witnesses from Laos and Thailand testified at the trial.

The court will sentence all six men “following a review of the case,” Xinhua said.

For several years, Naw Kham allegedly extorted protection money from Chinese ships on the Mekong, killing sailors who refused to pay and then hijacking their vessels to smuggle drugs.

Shortly after the slayings last year, nine Thai army officers investigating reports of an assault boarded two ships and announced they discovered 920,000 hidden amphetamine pills and one dead Chinese man.

Twelve more corpses were found floating on the Mekong nearby, about 12 miles north of the Thai riverside border town of Chiang Saen.

The soldiers were later arrested on suspicion that they were part of Naw Kham’s smuggling operation. They are still being held in a Thai jail and maintain their innocence.

Xian Yanming, deputy director of the Yunnan provincial public security bureau, said the prosecution argued that Nor Kham colluded with renegade Thai soldiers in premeditated attacks on Chinese ships.

“Kham’s group would hijack Chinese cargo ships, conceal drugs on board to frame the crew and then send them into Thai waters to make it appear that the authorities had uncovered a major drug-related case and killed the ‘drug traffickers,’” he told the China Daily.

“Meanwhile, Kham’s drug-trafficking ships would have unimpeded passage through Thai waters.”

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung praised the cooperation between Thai and Chinese police and prosecutors.

“We have worked closely with Chinese authorities in this case and provided all evidence to the Chinese side,” he said.

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