Mak­ing the Mekong safe for trade

Ship­ping in the re­gion is safer than ever thanks to joint ef­forts be­tween China and its neigh­bors, re­ports Hu Yongqi in the Golden Tri­an­gle

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVERSTORY -

Sirens blared a warn­ing across the ap­par­ently tran­quil Mekong River as a Chi­nese pa­trol fleet en­tered the waters of the Golden Tri­an­gle, Asia’s sec­ond- largest opium-pro­duc­ing re­gion.

Chi­nese bor­der po­lice loaded their guns in the cabin be­fore jump­ing through a hatch onto the deck in re­sponse to the Level 1 alert. The area is no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous and was for­merly the hunt­ing ground of a gang led by Naw Kham, a Myan­mar drug lord who was ex­e­cuted in March in Kun­ming, the cap­i­tal of Yun­nan prov­ince.

The Chi­nese of­fi­cers, who are sta­tioned in Xishuang­banna Dai au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture in Yun­nan, were or­dered to take cover be­hind bul­let and shell­proof pan­els.

Ji Guo­jun, a 26- year- old of­fi­cer, took up po­si­tion on a plat­form at the stern of the ship. Another of­fi­cer in full body ar­mor stood on the bow and sur­veyed the sur­round­ings through binoc­u­lars. Near at hand, he kept a ma­chine gun whose 6- cm- long car­tridges have a range of 2 kilo­me­ters. How­ever, there was noth­ing to see and the only sounds came from the wa­ter rush­ing by un­der the ship.

The of­fi­cers heaved a col­lec­tive sigh of relief, but it was the tens­est mo­ment of the 16th joint river pa­trol by forces from China, Laos, Thai­land and Myan­mar. Yun­nan Bor­der Po­lice Corps, a sub­di­vi­sion of the Min­istry of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity, sent three ships and more than 100 armed of­fi­cers to as­sess safety on the river.

The pa­trol fol­lowed its usual route on the 512- km round trip, which started at Guan­lei in Xishuang­banna on Nov 19 and ended at the port of Chi­ang Saen in Thai­land four days later.

The Mekong flows through six coun­tries, in­clud­ing China, Myan­mar, Laos and Thai­land, and is a vi­tal chan­nel for cargo ship­ping.

How­ever, in­ter­na­tional ship­ping was tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended in the Golden Tri­an­gle in Oc­to­ber 2011, af­ter 13 Chi­nese fish­er­men were kid­napped and mur­dered by Naw Kham’s gang. The drug lord was ex­e­cuted in March.

More than one month af­ter the at­tack, Chi­nese po­lice ini­ti­ated the joint pa­trols to main­tain safety on the river. Then the Yun­nan Bor­der Po­lice launched a new unit, called the Waters Di­vi­sion, to pa­trol the river and im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tions with China’s three neigh­bors, said Jin Shang­wen, chief of staff of the Yun­nan Bor­der Po­lice Corps, who also com­manded the 16th Pa­trol Fleet.

Ap­prox­i­mately 90 per­cent of the route runs along Laos’ bor­ders with Myan­mar and Thai­land. Drug smug­glers and deal­ers have long posed a threat to in­ter­na­tional ship­ping on the water­way, es­pe­cially in the north­east­ern ar­eas of Myan­mar that are un­der the con­trol of eth­nic ar­mies, mean­ing the ac­qui­si­tion and use of weapons are hard to con­trol, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cers.

“Our forces have helped to fa­cil­i­tate the pa­trols by co­or­di­nat­ing the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion, among other things, with our three neigh­bors. Now ship­ping on the Mekong is safer than ever and the cargo vol­ume has bounced back to the lev­els we saw be­fore the at­tack on the fish­er­men,” said Jin.

Bust­ing the smug­glers

The pa­trol fleet left a foggy Guan­lei Port in south­ern Xishuang­banna early in the morn­ing and ar­rived at Maung Mo, a Chi­nese po­lice base on the river­bank in Thon Ph­erng county in western Laos, 10 hours later.

A 20-minute drive south of Maung Mo lies the Golden Tri­an­gle Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone, which is con­trolled by a Chi­nese man called Zhao Wei. The zone is fa­mous for the sex­ual and gam­bling ser­vices on of­fer; once visi­tors clear se­cu­rity, they can gam­ble in casi­nos where a sin­gle win can net 80 mil­lion Thai baht ($2.5 mil­lion) and young bikini-clad women pro­vide “en­ter­tain­ment” for the cus­tomers. Even the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket coun­ters of­fer posters of the women.

While the trade in nar­cotics has won the Golden Tri­an­gle global no­to­ri­ety, the fight against the drugs smug­glers never stops. With the as­sis­tance of Xishuang­banna pub­lic se­cu­rity bureau, the Waters Di­vi­sion ar­rested five smug­glers in March and im­pounded 579.7 kilo­grams of crys­tal meth with a street value of more than 500 mil­lion yuan ($82 mil­lion).

Ear­lier this year, drug deal­ers tried to at­tack the pa­trol with a line of float­ing bombs. How­ever, they mis­cal­cu­lated the wa­ter speed, mean­ing the bombs sank and failed to ex­plode af­ter be­com­ing lodged in rocks on the riverbed.

“Along the river, the beauty of the trees and flow­ers present won­der­ful sights for trav­el­ers, but drug smug­glers of­ten use th­ese tran­quil forests as cam­ou­flage and at­tack our ships from hid­den po­si­tions. Ev­ery­one on board is ex­tremely anx­ious about the hap­pen­ings along the river­bank,” said Ji.

The Waters Di­vi­sion em­ploys nine ex­pe­ri­enced cap­tains, each of whom has been nav­i­gat­ing the Mekong River for at least 10 years. “The fluc­tu­at­ing wa­ter level poses a dan­ger. In the rainy sea­son, the wa­ter rises and we have to try to re­mem­ber the ex­act lo­ca­tions of sub­merged rocks,” said one of the cap­tains, Li Yuan­gang, 44.

Dur­ing the dry sea­son, which runs from Jan­uary un­til May or June, the wa­ter level in Xishuang­banna and the neigh­bor­ing ar­eas in Myan­mar and Laos falls dras­ti­cally, mak­ing nav­i­ga­tion even more per­ilous, ac­cord­ing to Li. “Dur­ing that sea­son, rocks stick out of the wa­ter and ships are of­ten stranded in the nar­rowed wa­ter­course,” he said.

Last year, a Lao­tian ves­sel sent out an SOS af­ter it ran aground on a sand­bank. Li and his crew at­tempted to pull it free by us­ing a 1-me­ter­diam­e­ter metal pole driven deep into the earth of the river­bank as a wind­ing post for a steel hawser, but the ship wasn’t pow­er­ful enough to dis­lodge the stranded ves­sel, which was heav­ily over­loaded. San­lang Wanger­jia, head of the Waters Di­vi­sion, or­dered the cargo to be trans­ferred to other ships and six hours later the ves­sel was float­ing freely again.

Mer­chant ships, which usu­ally weigh less than 200 met­ric tons, find it easy to nav­i­gate the river, but the 450- ton pa­trol ves­sels are dif­fi­cult to ma­neu­ver in shal­low wa­ter. As a pre­cau­tion, be­fore the voy­age be­gan the cap­tains drew up charts show­ing the pre­cise lo­ca­tions of sand­banks and prom­i­nent un­der­wa­ter rocks.

Around six months ago, the cap­tains came up with the idea of re­quest­ing a hy­dropower plant up­stream in Jinghong, the cap­i­tal of Xishuang­banna, to raise the wa­ter level and fa­cil­i­tate nav­i­ga­tion, said Li. “It worked re­ally well and the river be­came much safer,” he said.

Co­op­er­a­tion ex­tended

Cur­rently, the joint head­quar­ters at Jinghong is home to 12 po­lice of­fi­cers from Laos, Myan­mar and Thai­land. They co­or­di­nate the pa­trol boats’ work and take charge of any emer­gen­cies in the area. Some of the non-Chi­nese of­fi­cers are learn­ing Man­darin so they can act as in­ter­preters and fur­ther im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Po­lice Colonel Charkerit Mongk­ouri, head of the 11th di­vi­sion of the Thai Ma­rine Po­lice, un­der­took his sixth tour of the Mekong with Chi­nese ships in Novem­ber. He com­mands 153 men in the Thai prov­inces of Nangkai and Chi­ang Rai and is re­spon­si­ble for the se­cu­rity of the north and north­east­ern parts of Thai­land.

More than 60 of­fi­cers based at three sta­tions pa­trol the stretch of the Golden Tri­an­gle where the river serves as the bor­der for Myan­mar, Laos and Thai­land. Charkerit said the highly vis­i­ble pa­trols had over­awed those in­volved in the drugs trade on the river.

“When the pa­trol teams su­per­vise se­cu­rity, it’s def­i­nitely a good thing for peo­ple us­ing the transna­tional river. The place is now much safer and we have seen an in­crease in the vol­ume of goods en­ter­ing and leav­ing Thai­land in this area since the end of last year,” said Charkerit.

How­ever, be­cause Thai law pro­hibits for­eign po­lice from en­ter­ing the coun­try’s ter­ri­to­rial waters, a lo­cal ma­rine po­lice ves­sel met the pa­trol fleet when it ar­rived at the port of Chi­ang Saen. Hav­ing made con­tact and re­ported their find­ings, the ves­sels in the fleet re­turned home.

Jin Shang­wen said the fact that the pa­trols in­volve four coun­tries means diplo­matic ties are even more im­por­tant than usual. Ev­ery morn­ing dur­ing the pa­trol, Jin con­vened a tele­con­fer­ence with China’s Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Min­istry to re­port his po­si­tion and that of the pa­trol. Lao­tian and Thai rep­re­sen­ta­tives and their in­ter­preters joined Jin as he spoke with of­fi­cials in Bei­jing.

Ce­ment­ing re­la­tions

Sports have be­come a cru­cial means of ce­ment­ing re­la­tions be­tween the Chi­nese of­fi­cers and their for­eign coun­ter­parts. In Oc­to­ber, a Waters Di­vi­sion soc­cer team played a game against a team from the Ma­rine Po­lice in Wan Pon, a Myan­mar town just across the river from Maung Mo. The fi­nal score was 2-1 to the Chi­nese team.

On Nov 20, Aug Zaw Mint, di­rec­tor of the Wan Pon Ma­rine Po­lice, chal­lenged Jin and his men to a tug-of-war con­test. More than 300 vil­lagers at­tended the event, held at the soc­cer field. Once again, the Chi­nese were vic­to­ri­ous. Women per­formed tra­di­tional dances for the guests and the loud­speak­ers broad­cast pop­u­lar Chi­nese songs trans­lated into the lo­cal di­alect.

In the af­ter­math of the sport­ing con­tests, Aug Zaw Mint and Jin had a long se­ries of dis­cus­sions about fu­ture co­op­er­a­tion.

On Nov 20, Jin met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the three neigh­bor­ing coun­tries at Maung Mo to dis­cuss im­prov­ing the ef­fi­ciency of joint res­cue op­er­a­tions on the river. The meet­ing reached a con­sen­sus that in­ter­na­tional ship­ping should be gov­erned by stricter nav­i­ga­tion rules, and that the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion be­tween the four par­ties needs to be im­proved. Vi­done, chief of staff of Bokeo prov­ince in Laos, sug­gested that China should take the lead role in the pa­trols.

The Yun­nan Bor­der Po­lice pre­sented pa­trol boats to Laos and Myan­mar last year and thanks to in­ter­ac­tion such as this, the col­lab­o­ra­tion is go­ing from strength to strength. In 2014, Thai­land will de­ploy two new hy­dro­jets, each cost­ing 2 mil­lion yuan, to over­see its stretch of the water­way.

The Chi­nese pa­trol fleet checked pass­ing ves­sels in the com­pany of of­fi­cers from Laos and Myan­mar. Lech, a 29-year-old farmer and shipowner from Thon Ph­erng in Laos had just paid 3.6 mil­lion yuan for a new ves­sel. He said he wanted to earn ex­tra in­come by trans­port­ing cat­tle to river­side towns once his crops are har­vested ev­ery year. He claimed he could make 9,000 yuan per trip.

“Th­ese multi­na­tional pa­trols will stop the rob­bers and drug gangs in­ter­cept­ing our cargo on the river,” he said. “Hope­fully, that will mean my busi­ness will pros­per in the years to come.” Con­tact the writer at huy­ongqi@chi­nadaily.com.cn Li Yingqing and Guo Anfei con­trib­uted to this story.

PHO­TOS BY HU YONGQI / CHINA DAILY

Chi­nese pa­trol boats berthed at Maung Mo in Thon Ph­erng county in western Laos. The pa­trol fol­lowed its usual route on the 512-km round trip that started at Guan­lei in Xishuang­banna on Nov 19 and ended at the port of Chi­ang Saen in Thai­land four days later.

Chi­nese and Lao­tian bor­der po­lice check a Lao­tian mer­chant ship.

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