Drugs Kingpin Extradited for Mekong Murders

By Patrick Boehler 11 May 2012

Laotian authorities handed over Golden Triangle drug lord Sai Naw Kham to Beijing on Thursday—16 days after his reported arrest for the killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last autumn.

The 42-year old is understood to have started his trafficking career under late drug warlord Khun Sa—the leader of the now defunct Shan rebel Mong Thai Army.

“After joint work by the Chinese, Laotian, Burmese and Thai police, we now have sufficient evidence to prove that Naw Kham and his gang members … have in collusion with illegal Thailand military personnel planned and executed the [murders],” said the head of Chinese investigative group Liu Yuejin in a press statement published by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on Friday.

Liu, who is also the head of the narcotics control bureau of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, had been given the task of investigate October slayings.

“Naw Kham has been a leading figure in the production, transport and sale of drugs and other criminal activities in the Mekong River area,” Liu said.

“Chinese police captured two [more] suspects in the case of the killings on Oct. 5. According to their statements, Naw Kham is an important person in this case.”

“Mr [Naw Kham] is a key figure in disturbing the peace along the borders of Laos, China, Thailand and Myanmar,” Brigadier General Sysavath Keomalavong, director general of the Laotian General Police Department, was quoted by the Vientiane Times on Friday.

Naw Kham will face trial in China under Chinese law for the crimes of murder and piracy, according to the Chinese ministry’s statement.

The Burmese national is generally regarded as the mastermind behind an assault on two Chinese freight ships in the Thai part of the Mekong River. All 13 Chinese members of the Huaping and Yuxing 8 vessels were killed in the attack, which caused a media uproar in China.

Synthetic drugs, methamphetamines known as “yaba,” were found on the ships after the assault. Xian Yanping, the deputy head of the Yunnan provincial department for public security, told Chinese Central Television that the two boats were captured by Naw Kham’s men in Burmese waters, where they loaded on the narcotics. Once in Thailand, they killed the 13 crew members and unloaded their illicit cargo.

The assault led to the establishment of multinational armed police patrols along the Mekong River in December, headquartered in the sleepy Chinese port of Guanlei, and the formation of a Chinese special investigative unit tasked to hunt down Naw Kham.

On April 28, after the Chinese unit and its Burmese and Laotian counterparts raided some of his hideouts and arrested several associates, Naw Kham apparently crossed from Burma into Laos by boat to negotiate with Laotian authorities on how to evade arrest there.

But the Laotian police arrested the party as soon as they docked at the pier. Armed with rifles and guns, they surrendered after several warning shots were fired, according to the Chinese account released on Friday.

However, the Bangkok Post quoted a Thai security source in April who claimed that Naw Kham, his Laotian right-hand man Tao Maitaeng and six other collaborates were captured during a raid in Bokeo Province.

Unconfirmed rumors followed that Naw Kham offered 20 million Thai baht (US $640,000) “bail” to the Laotian captors for his release, while others said that the Chinese authorities promised a two million Chinese yuan ($3.16 million) reward for his deportation to China.

Around 11 am yesterday, a short “ceremony” was held at the VIP section of Vientiane Airport marking the handover of Naw Kham with a “memorandum of understanding” signed. At 2 pm the Chinese delegation left by plane with Naw Kham for Beijing, where they arrived two hours later.

Reporters saw Naw Kham formally sign his arrest warrant in Beijing, after which he was taken into police custody. On Thursday evening, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu met with members of the special investigative team headed by Liu and congratulated them on the capture.

Liu Jun, a member of the Chinese investigative team, told Chinese Central Television on Friday that Naw Kham was then taken to Yunnan, the Chinese border province next to Burma, where he will stand trial.

“The arrest of Naw Kham means that we have eradicated his criminal gang,” Liu said, adding that Chinese police will continue along with Burmese, Thai and Laotian authorities to hunt down his associates who are still at large.

Naw Kham remained listed on the Interpol website as wanted by Burmese police on Friday.