Naw Kham, the Burmese Golden Triangle militia leader convicted of murder, kidnapping, drug smuggling and ship hijacking on the Mekong River, is still waiting for sentencing after pleading guilty to the charges three weeks ago.
His capture brought an end to a year-long manhunt, but still leaves unanswered questions for the victims’ unconvinced families. The case caused such a massive public outcry that observers believe a death sentence is the only possible outcome.
However, Chinese courts are usually very swift to hand out punishments—sometimes in just a matter of hours—and the unusual delay in the case of Naw Kham has led to unsubstantiated speculation regarding an appeal.
The Intermediate People’s Court of Kunming, in the capital of the China’s southwestern Yunnan Province bordering the Golden Triangle, heard Naw Kham and five other defendants plead guilty on Sept. 21, when the three-day trial hearings closed one day ahead of schedule.
Despite the lack of an official sentence, on Sept. 27 the Yunnan provincial government organized a ceremony recognizing security services for capturing Naw Kham and his five associates. Around 2,000 representatives of the judiciary, executive and legislative branches including provincial Party Secretary Qin Guangrong, Vice-Minister for Public Security Zhang Xinfeng and the head of the provincial People’s Supreme Court Xu Qianfei participated in the event, according to the microblog of the Yunnan Public Security Bureau.
The case has fundamentally changed the way Chinese authorities deal with local militia groups in the Golden Triangle—the lawless border area shared by Burma, China, Laos and Thailand.
The previously hushed arrangements with individual armed groups have been replaced by a more transparent cooperation framework with the state authorities of the countries along the Mekong River. This comes as local military groups are redrawing lines of allegiance among themselves and moving closer to cooperating with Chinese and Burmese government authorities.
Naw Kham, a Burmese citizen, is accused of masterminding an attack by his armed group on two ships, the Huaping and the Yuxing 8, on the Mekong on Oct. 5 last year. The attack led to the death of 13 Chinese sailors. A Chinese diplomatic initiative following the murders led to the establishment of a first multinational security force under Chinese leadership to guarantee safety on the historic waterway.
In court, the militia leader initially denied planning the attack and murders in a weak but calm voice through an interpreter. He later said subordinates had committed the crimes without his knowledge. Prosecutors said that he attacked the two boats because they had failed to pay protection money to ensure safe passage.
A relative of two of the victims also refuted the official account. “We have worked on ships on the Mekong for 14 years and never once heard that Chinese ships pay protection money to Naw Kham,” Mekong shipper He Xilun, who lost both his older brother He Xixing and sister-in-law Chen Guoying in the attack, recently told The Irrawaddy.
“I am saying, that in this trial the truth has not been revealed. I don’t know why [the attack]happened,” he said. “We only know the tip of the iceberg in this case, I hope the country will continue to look into this and find out the truth.
“I think Naw Kham and the part of his group that is on trial should be sentenced to death,” he said, not doubting that the true culprits had been identified even if the cause remained shrouded in mystery.
Lin Li, an attorney with the Kunming-based Liu Hule Law Firm, represented Naw Kham in court. Lin, who had been appointed by the Kunming Municipal Legal Aid Centre, told journalists in Kunming late last month that her client was not very talkative but was informed of the possible outcomes of the trial.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy, she declined to comment on her strategy for the defense of a drug lord—a criminal case outside her usual field of expertiseof real estate and construction.
All six defendants had been arrested in Laos and Burma in cooperation with a specially formed Chinese investigative team in the spring after arrest warrants were issued by a prefecture-level court in Yunnan Province.
Conflicting reports say that Naw Kham was either arrested in Bokeo Province, Laos, or while crossing the Mekong from Shan State, Burma, into Bokeo Province after Burmese authorities raided hideouts on April 25. He was extradited from Laos to China on May 10.
Naw Kham, an ethnic Shan, was born in 1969. He worked his way up under the auspices of Khun Sa, the notorious head of the now defunct Mong Tai Army (MTA), who died in Rangoon in 2007 after working out a deal with the then-Burmese military junta not to be extradited to the United States on drugs charges.
Since 2006, Naw Kham ran a protection racket taxing drug smugglers along the Mekong, the Shan Herald Agency for News reported quoting a former MTA associate. Xian Yanming, a member of the Chinese investigative team, told Chinese Central Television last week that Naw Kham had been operating since Khun Sa’s retirement in the late 1990s with a force of around 100 men. Xian said he considered Naw Kham responsible for the death of 16 people since 2008 including three Chinese policemen.
Methamphetamine worth US $6 million was found on the two ships and it remains unclear where the drugsoriginated from. After the October killings, a raid by Lao authorities at the largely autonomous Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) led to the confiscation of unconfirmed but reportedly large amounts of narcotics.
He Xilun, a co-owner of the Yuxing 8, denied reports that the two ships were associated with the Golden Triangle SEZ. “These are all lies,” he said. “We, two ship-owners, don’t know Chairman Zhao,” referring to the zone’s Chinese-born chairman Zhao Wei.
The SEZ is understood to generate a substantial part of its income from gambling by Chinese visitors at its King Romans Casino. Bus tours operate regularly from the Chinese border to the SEZ. An associate of Zhao declined to comment on what the territory’s leadership considered the motives behind the attack in a recent conversation.
However, Zhao himself said that SEZ was massively impacted by the attack. The number of visitors fell from several thousands to less than 20 per day after the incident, he said in an interview published on the zone’s website in August. He has attracted $650 million in capital since August 2007, Zhao said. Only in 2010 was his territory officially granted legal status by the Lao government.
Questions remain over the role of Thai soldiers accused by Chinese authorities of being involved in at least one of the murders. Thai and Chinese officials were cooperating on their prosecution, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Nie Tao, a member of the Chinese investigative team, last month.
The Kunming court also heard a civil lawsuit filed by the murdered sailors’ relatives. Naw Kham said in court that he was willing to pay 30 million Thai baht ($975,000) as compensation to the victim’s families, according to court reports.
The Naw Kham trial was the first of a foreigner for crimes committed against Chinese nationals outside the country’s territory. Although China does not publish the number of people it executes every year, Amnesty International estimates several thousand receive death sentences.