border review | 1 February 2012

Andrew Marshall on the the Mekong incidents

In October 2011, a Chinese cargo vessel was attacked on the Mekong. Thirteen sailors died. Initial reports blamed Naw Kham, the legendary pirate and drug lord. Later it seemed that a unit of Thai special forces was arrested for their alleged involvement. A special report by Andrew Marshall (Reuters) now reveals that nothing is clear yet. The Thai soldiers have not been charged with any crime (they are still on duty) and USD 6 million worth in Methamphetamine pills was found on board the ship. If you are interested in the story of a modern day freshwater pirate, the business in meth as opposed to opium, the Shan rebels, and the role of a Chinese casino and Special Economic Zone, read this fascinating piece. Here is a teaser:

Opium and heroin are no longer the Golden Triangle’s only products. Since the late 1990s, secret factories in Shan State have churned out vast quantities of methamphetamine. This highly addictive drug is known across Asia in pill form by the Thai name yaba (“crazy medicine”) and in its purer crystalline form as ice or shabu.

It is now the top drug in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reported in 2011. Naw Kham’s rise coincided with this explosion of meth use, which transformed the ill-policed Mekong between Myanmar and Laos – Naw Kham’s patch – into one of Southeast Asia’s busiest drug conduits.

Every year hundreds of millions of Myanmar-made methamphetamine pills are spirited across the river into Laos or down into Thailand. The trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars – enough to corrupt poorly paid law enforcement officials across the region.

Narcotics are not the Mekong’s only contraband.

Other lucrative goods include: endangered wildlife such as tigers and pangolins; weapons, stolen vehicles and illegal timber; and, in the run-up to this month’s Tet celebrations, thousands of dogs in filthy cages bound for restaurants in Vietnam.

There is human contraband too. Illegal migrants from Myanmar and Laos are bound for Thailand’s booming construction or sex industries, while a constant stream of North Koreans journey across southern China and through Laos to surrender to the Thai authorities, who obligingly deport them to South Korea.