Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Economist view on the developing Mokong River Story

Mekong mayhem
New water sheriff
An unprecedented Chinese response to a river’s lawlessness

Nov 19th 2011 | CHIANG SAEN | from the print edition

MIST-DRAPED mountains and the serene ambience of the Thai city of Chiang Saen beguile visitors to the Mekong river in an area dubbed the Golden Triangle. This is where the borders of three countries, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, converge.

But the serenity was shattered on October 5th by the sight of corpses floating downriver. Thirteen Chinese from two commercial vessels had been shot dead near Chiang Saen port and their bodies tossed overboard. Thailand’s police found over 920,000 amphetamine tablets on board the boats, plying between China’s Yunnan province and the Thai port. An angry Chinese government suspended its shipping on the Mekong until better security could be put in place. The ministers of China’s three Mekong neighbours were summoned to Beijing for urgent talks.

At first the Thai army unit with responsibility for anti-narcotics and border security blamed the killings on an armed group of drug-trafficking bandits led by the notorious Naw Kham. But then a huge investigation led by the head of the Thai police, General Priewpan Damapong, sprang a surprise. It uncovered evidence that the shots were fired not from the guns of drug gangs or river pirates, but from the weapons of Thai soldiers. Nine Thai officers from the anti-narcotics unit have since been charged with murder. Embarrassed, Thai authorities insist this is a rogue group, on the payroll of a drug warlord.

The killings have triggered a flurry of measures to beef up security along the waters of the Mekong. Hurriedly, a regional-security agreement was signed on October 31st. All four countries pledged to share intelligence and engage in joint patrols along the stretch of the Mekong between China and the Golden Triangle. The agreement also allows for “special campaigns to eradicate criminal organisations”. Reports from China suggest up to 1,000 of the country’s armed police will fan out along the river: an unprecedented projection of armed force beyond China’s borders. Waterborne traffic between Yunnan and Thailand is expected to resume soon, with armed Chinese guards.

To some neighbours, armed Chinese patrols taking on river pirates and insurgents (much of the drug business is linked to border insurgencies in Myanmar) conjures up images of gunboat diplomacy. They worry about a loss of sovereignty as China polices beyond its borders. One Thai businessman thinks that the new agreement will let China send its own security forces to protect local Chinese interests, such as a casino across the river in Laos and Myanmar. Reports of extortion, kidnapping and drugs at a casino on the Lao border with China forced its closure this year. Much anti-Chinese feeling attends casinos in Laos. China’s gunboats, meant to still tensions, may stoke them instead.

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