A shootout on the Mekong River between Myanmar’s army and a rebel militia killed one and injured three Chinese sailors and motivated a manhunt that involved the security forces of four nations.

Manhunt is on for Mekong Robin Hood
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI – A shootout on the Mekong River between Myanmar’s army and a rebel militia killed one and injured three Chinese sailors and motivated a manhunt that involved the security forces of four nations. The mid-February incident underlined the still-lawless nature of the notorious drug-producing Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet and where China is making strong trade and investment inroads.

The ethnic Shan rebel Naw Kham, 48, the target of the manhunt, is a former member of drug lord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army and current leader of the Hawngleuk militia, known to be active around the Myanmar border town of Tachilek.

Naw Kham is wanted dead or alive by certain regionalgovernments and stands accused by Western counter-narcotics officials for drug trafficking. Yet he remains immensely popular among many of the Golden Triangle’s poor rural residents, who see him as a sort of modern-day Robin Hood for his daring attacks on rich Chinese commercial interests.

As a government-sanctioned militia leader, he was known to have close contacts with certain factions of Myanmar’s army, particularly the divisions responsible for the remote Shan State. Those contacts included ties to Major General Ko Ko, previously commander of the Tachilek area in the late 1990s and currently chief of the army’s Bureau of Special Operations Number 3, which is responsible for the Pegu and Irrawaddy Divisions.
Those top-level connections haven’t always been enough to protect his interests. On January 10, 2006, in what the Myanmar government at the time referred to as a “successful operation”, Naw Kham’s compound in Tachilek was raided. A large stash of methamphetamine pills and production equipment, as well as a cache of 150 weapons and ammunition, were seized.

Thai and Chinese anti-narcotics officials provided intelligence for the sting operation, according to Myanmar officials who held a press conference after the raid. That wasn’t enough, however, to actually nab Naw Kham, who, presumably with the help of his Myanmar military connections, was tipped off to the raid and not in residence when officials converged on his compound.

He later regrouped with his militia members to a Golden Triangle area closer to the Mekong River. In 2007, his militia began to levy a protection “tax” on boats traveling along the waterway, as well as overland transport through the remote areas he controlled. Naw Kham has consistently claimed he serves the non-ceasefire Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), but this has been denied by the group’s leader, Yord Serk.

According to a report by the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), an exile-run news group internationally renowned for its coverage of the drug trade, Naw Kham’s group collected 5,000 baht (US$141) per kilogram of heroin and 2.5 to three Thai baht per pill of methamphetamine, as well as taxes on legitimate commercial goods.

By 2007, the Myanmar government had eased its pursuit and Naw Kham was, according to Western counter-narcotics officials, maintaining houses near Tachilek in Myanmar, in Laos’ Bokeo province as well as near Chiang Saen in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. “Sure the [Myanmar military] helped him,” claims SHAN editor Khunsai Jaiyen. “Naw Kham’s group was too small to operate in the tri-border area without protection.”

Naw Kham’s extortion activities have won him some powerful enemies. According to a Western counter-narcotics analyst with extensive knowledge of drug trafficking activities in the area, Naw Kham had started to confiscate drug shipments that he was paid to protect and on-sold the narcotics for his own profit. That is known to have peeved the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest drug trafficking organization in Myanmar, situated along both the Chinese and Thai borders. The UWSA is known in 2008 to have sent a contingent to confront him, but were apparently blocked by the Myanmar Army.

Chinese enemy
Naw Kham is known to have made an even more powerful enemy in Beijing. A string of shootings of mostly Chinese cargo vessels on a stretch of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle in early 2008 culminated in an attack in February on a Chinese maritime police patrol boat, the Jang Guojong 007. Three Chinese police officers were seriously injured in the attack which the Myanmar exile media, as well as Lao and Thai government sources, say was the work of Naw Kham’s militia.

Several reasons, none of them confirmed, were put forward for the attack. They include: the protection of illegal drug shipments; retaliation against another drug trafficking organization for using the patrol boat to transport narcotics down river and undercut Naw Kham’s enterprise; as a warning to Chinese businessmen building a casino in nearby Tonpheung on the Laotian side of the river to pay his militia protection money; or to steal outright money being transported by the boat to the multi-million dollar casino project.

Whatever the reason, Western counter-narcotics officials say Beijing was infuriated about the incident and put strong diplomatic pressure on the Lao, Thai and Myanmar governments to capture Naw Kham. A source close to the Lao government said that Lao leaders were displeased by the attack, which caused Vientiane to lose face since the attack occurred on Laos’ stretch of the Mekong.

The Myanmar government, some say bowing to Chinese pressure, staged on February 18 another attack on Naw Kham’s militia. The events surrounding the Mekong firefight are still murky, but what is known is that four Chinese cargo boats were stopped by Naw Kham’s men at an island in the river and ordered to pay protection money. Soon thereafter, soldiers from the Myanmar army’s Light Infantry Battalions 359 and 526 situated in Tachilek attacked Naw Kham’s militia members.

During the firefight one of the Chinese boats was hit by either a rocket-propelled grenade or a grenade fired by a M79 grenade launcher. Four Chinese on the boat were wounded, one of whom later died of his injuries. The Myanmar military, associates of Naw Kham and individuals who claim to be witnesses to the fight, give conflicting accounts about who fired the grenade. What seemed more clear from the incident was that certain Myanmar army officials were given marching orders to stop protecting Naw Kham.
Some analysts say that Chinese pressure on the Myanmar, Lao and Thai governments had been building steadily since the 2008 patrol boat attack. They suggest that plans for this year’s counterattack were hatched at a February 7 meeting between Myanmar and Thai security officials, which may also have been attended by Chinese representatives. The Bangkok Post, a Thai English-language daily, reported that Chinese police had joined both Myanmar and Lao security forces in the chase.

Naw Kham escaped the initial attack, which killed five of his men, but the ensuing manhunt is believed to have decimated his organization. According to SHAN, as of February 24, at least 34 of his men had been arrested by Myanmar soldiers and police. Others are believed to have fled to Laos, where according to sources in the area they were either killed or arrested by Lao security forces.

Myanmar’s army chief of staff General Thura Shwe Mann, the number three ranking official in the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), made a two-day visit on February 24 to Laos, where security was reportedly at the top of the agenda in talks with Lao President Choummaly Sayasone and Minister for National Defense Lieutenant General Duangchay Phichit.

Jungle gang
Naw Kham’s militia, with at most 50 men and their family members, was run more like a gang than a fighting force. Yet he is known to have received generous support from villagers and influential businessmen in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand who are believed to have benefited from his drug trafficking activities. With his ability to move and operate in an area patrolled by three sovereign countries, he almost certainly also received protection from certain Myanmar, Lao and/or Thai security officials.

Some of that support arose from Naw Kham’s charisma and business savvy; his extortion rackets and drug trafficking activities are believed to have generated rich profits. More significantly, he was able to tap a growing undercurrent of resentment about China’s growing commercial influence in the Mekong region. Many villagers in the area were happy to see him “tax” Chinese cargo vessels, which often carried products that undercut the price of their local foods and wares.

He is known to have a particular following in the Tonpheung district in Laos’ northwestern Bokeo province, where a huge Chinese casino and hotel project has forced many from their homes with little or no compensation. As an added insult, the Chinese company responsible for the project imported Chinese workers for the project instead of hiring displaced and underemployed local villagers.

Some say the displaced villagers saw Naw Kham as the only way to challenge the Chinese investors, who are working hand-in-hand with the Lao government through a concession arrangement. Sources along the border say that villagers have supported some of Naw Kham’s operations, including allegedly the 2008 attack on the Chinese patrol boat. According to SHAN’s Khunsai, the gunmen were Naw Kham’s in that particular incident, but they were given back-up support from Lao villagers.

They are battling against big money interests. The four-star, 689-room hotel and casino is being constructed by the Kings Romans Group Co Ltd (also known as the Dokngiewkham Company) and is expected to open in the coming months and be fully operational by 2010. Provincial vice governor Amphone Chanhthasomboun told the Vientiane Times in August that the project would cost about US$300 million, although other in-the-know sources predict the project is worth closer to $200 million.

The casino and hotel are only the start of a Chinese-financed new town on the Mekong, situated around 46 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital of Huay Xai. A 827-hectare concession, granted by the Lao government in 2007, gives the Chinese company rights for 50 years with an option to extend for an additional 25 years.

The Lao government retains a 20% share in the so-called “economic zone”, which will entail 47 projects, including hotels, golf courses, shopping centers, schools, universities, hospitals and water systems. The entire project is slated for completion in 2018 and will include investment of $2.2 billion. Huay Xai’s rundown airfield is also scheduled to be upgraded to an international airport as part of the broad scheme.

The enterprise, some in Laos fear, will be similar to Boten in Laos’ Luang Nam Tha province, where Lao villagers were forcibly displaced and now live in a shantytown to make way for a Chinese-invested casino, hotel and shopping area populated almost exclusively by Chinese visitors. What happened at Boten is well known in Bokeo province and has fueled resentment against Chinese in northern Laos, where growing numbers of migrants are settling and seen to be dominating business opportunities.

Local resentment over Chinese investment and settlement has been compounded by China’s controversial control over the upper reaches of the Mekong, where Beijing has erected a series of dams that environmentalists say has adversely altered the river’s flow. Locals claim that water levels are adequate when Chinese vessels are scheduled to travel down the river, but are lower when Thai vessels attempt to make the trip upstream. Chinese officials counter that only 18% of the Mekong’s flow originates in China and so its dams do not significantly affect downstream water levels.

The Mekong has in recent years become a profitable transportation route between northern Thailand and China’s otherwise remote and landlocked southwestern Yunnan province. The river route became economically viable after the dredging and blasting of river rapids in Laos and Myanmar in 2004. China sees the route as an outlet for manufactured goods from Yunnan and to import agricultural products and fuel from Thailand. Although a faster land route linking China and Thailand through northwestern Laos was completed last year, the lack of a bridge across the Mekong means that the river route is still profitable.

It will likely be more so with Naw Kham’s extortion racket driven out of the area. Naw Kham is still at large and was always a small player in a region increasingly being driven by big powers. Yet he captured the imagination of many locals fuming over the perceived exploitative nature of growing Chinese investments in the Golden Triangle area.

And in such an environment, even hit-and-run characters like Naw Kham can take on the stature of local folk hero.

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