Mak­ing the mighty Mekong safer

Ship’s cap­tain joined po­lice pa­trols af­ter 13 friends were killed in 2011 mas­sacre on the river

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By LI YINGQING in Kun­ming and ZHANG YI in Bei­jing

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 zhang_yi@chi­


Tan Jian­hua watches traf­fic dur­ing a pa­trol drill.

Tan (sec­ond from right) gives his ap­pren­tices a nav­i­ga­tion les­son.

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