Making the mighty Mekong safer
Ship’s captain joined police patrols after 13 friends were killed in 2011 massacre on the river
Tan Jianhua is not far past the midpoint of his career as a ship’s captain, but he knows he wants to spend the rest of it ensuring safer navigation on the Mekong River.
After years at the helm of a ship, Tan became a surveillance officer in Yunnan province’s border patrol police department, performing marine patrol and law enforcement duties on the river.
He took up the role five years ago, in response to a call for experienced helmsmen following a mass shooting on the river in October 2011 that shocked the world.
All 13 Chinese crew members aboard two cargo ships were killed and dumped in the Mekong River near the point where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, a notorious drug-producing region known as the Golden Triangle.
In response, China reached an agreement with the three neighboring countries to jointly patrol the river.
Tan became a member of the police patrol police in November that year.
“I was excited when I set off to patrol the river for the first time as a police officer. I am happy to see my old friends who are able to navigate the river without worrying about their safety or their lives,” the 40-year-old veteran seaman said. “I was acquainted with all of the 13 victims. We sailed together, we shared meals and we shot the breeze.
“Some of my old friends left the river after the massacre and some waited for things to get better. I chose to stay by the Mekong River because I have spent most of my career here.”
Tan is a native of Chongqing municipality who came to Yunnan soon after graduating from a river transport services school two decades ago.
He gradually worked his way up the ranks, becoming a captain in 2004.
Over the years, he has witnessed hundreds of accidents and garnered extensive experience in the region. He knows all the villages along the waterway and the hidden reefs and trees that lie in wait for unsuspecting mariners.
In 2008, after four years’ work, he completed a guide to navigating the 348-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River from Jinghong in Yunnan to Chiang Saen in Thailand.
Since the mass shooting, Tan’s squad has escorted 420 merchant ships, 116 of which needed assistance, as part of the 53 joint patrols that have been carried out by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
They have also uncovered more than 200 human trafficking cases in that time.
During his patrols, which start at Guanlei port, Yunnan, Tan not only takes charge of the ship, he coaches apprentices too.
“I hope they can steer the ship on their own next year. I feel that I need to pass on the skills I possess and help more people shoulder this noble responsibility,” he said.
For many of the officers in the water police squad, Tan is a selfless coach. He spends
number of merchant ships Tan Jianhua’s police squad has escorted since the 2011 massacre on the Mekong River.
much of his spare time giving free lectures on how to familiarize yourself with shipping passages and the skills of navigating a ship in difficult conditions. By doing so, he hopes to make the Mekong safer for all.
“Every time I pass through those waters where my 13 friends lost their lives, I cannot help thinking of them,” Tan said. “But I am happy now, to see my fellow sailors working on the river in safety and able to make more money to support their families. I will give every ounce of my strength to guarantee their safe navigation.”
Contact the writers at email@example.com
Tan Jianhua watches traffic during a patrol drill.
Tan (second from right) gives his apprentices a navigation lesson.