China’s Drug War, Part I: The Mekong Incident

CCTV interview prior to execution. Caption: “Their pain (referring to the mothers of the dead bargemen) is the same as mine.”

On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen.[1] What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.

Image 湄公河惨案主犯糯康等四人在云南执行死刑 March 1, 2013

The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.

Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.

Overall percentages of problem drug users remain low in China, but given its large population (1.3 billion, ~more than 4x US population), the large and rapidly growing number of total users presents challenges to treatment infrastructure and policing demands. Admittedly, there is great variation in estimated numbers–in 2013, the Ministry of Public Security (PSB) reported that the number of registered addicts had finally surpassed two million while the 2012 UNODC estimate of Chinese methamphetamine users alone is about the same number—two million. A year earlier, the UNODC ATS Assessment suggested that such substances had supplanted heroin and cocaine in terms of global consumption. Looking at domestic and international reports from the last ten years, it is clear that with particular psychoactive substances–such as methamphetamines (and similar amphetamine type stimulants (ATS))–the Chinese drug market is experiencing such dramatic growth that the earlier comparisons to 1970s US rates of cocaine use will fail to capture the scale of consumption. And as Yong-an Zhang and others have suggested, it seems increasingly likely that ATS consumption will, if it has not already, unseat opiates as the psychoactive substance of choice.

Certainly, in terms of drug policy as well as international relations, the scale of available resources, the rapidly expanding outreach and policing efforts suggest that the Chinese government’s positions will substantively affect the global drug debate in years to come. Hence, this post offers the Naw Kham case as a starting point of discussion, exploring what this instance might tell us about points of continuity and discontinuity in a Chinese “war on drugs.”

Naw Kham and the Mekong incident of October 5, 2011 (10.5 湄公河惨案)

The two moored vessels on the Mekong river.

On October 5, 2011, two cargo vessels, Huaping  (华平号) and Yuxing #8 (玉兴8号 ), were boarded on the Mekong River. Thirteen boatmen were found dead, and a large cache of methamphetamines and some weapons were discovered by Thai security forces.

The thirteen dead Chinese bargemen have sometimes been reported as being “fishermen” in English language publications, and that’s a mistranslation of the more ambiguous “chuanyuan” (船員) that has been used in local news coverage (misuse here (BBC), and (Daily Mail) here). This is one small example of the confusion over basic details that highlights the persistent ambiguity concerning many aspects of the Oct. 5 incident. Several questions remain publicly unanswered: what were the boatmen doing in the Mekong at that time? What were the provenance of the weapons and drugs found on the abandoned vessels? Were all of the accused traffickers present at the time the crime was committed? Why did they need the barges in the first place, when they possessed other vessels? What were the roles of the nine Thai soldiers that were initially accused of these murders? Many of these questions cannot be answered definitively until the Thai or PRC interrogation and evidence records are made available.

Shortly after the killings, the pictures (warning: blurred, but disturbing) of the dead boatmen circulated heavily on Chinese websites (some unblurred pics, extensive comments section) and social media platforms. Graphic documentation of the boat interiors and pictures of Thai authorities fishing out bodies inflamed public sentiment. Within a week of the discovery of the bloody vessels, it was clear that the handling of this case would be distinctive, and the ways in which it was going to be read as an abrogation of state power and sovereignty rapidly became apparent. The domestic media closely followed developments in the case, including the state’s public comforting of the boatmen’s relatives through monetary compensation (133,000 RMB or ~21, 670 USD).

Briefly, there are three noticeable shifts in this case that may have ramifications for future PRC drug policy:

1) Wag the dog: does drug regulation now drive international relations? Or vice versa?

Uncharacteristically after the murders, the PRC immediately used diplomatic channels to push for a Chinese-advised investigation into a Thai criminal case, as well as supervised joint patrols of the Mekong River. Whatever potential extraterritoriality issues may have been evident in the manhunt and extradition of Naw Kham seem to have been quietly bracketed aside. Within days of the killings, top Chinese officials (Prime Minister Wen Jiabo and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu) contacted their counterparts in Myanmar and Thailand to urge strong cooperation on this case. PSB advisors were immediately flown down to Thailand, and the head of the Public Security Bureau’s narcotics division decamped to Yunnan and set up a temporary office from which he could manage international operations.

The PSB has offices in multiple countries and according to Liu Yuejin, they began to squeeze their network of informants. Local wanted posters (e.g. Thai ONCB) began to circulate with a 2 million baht bounty for Naw Kham. (Interestingly, Thai newspapers suggested after Naw Kham’s arrest that the trafficker himself had counter-offered 20 million baht for his own head). And so, while the PRC publicly praised Lao police for making the final arrest, the breaks in this case were most likely a result of active Chinese involvement. It is clear that the PRC may no longer be content to leave certain matters in the hands of its neighbors—most of whom are drawn increasingly closer into the Chinese orbit via economic relations.

2) PRC sovereignty

In late April 2012, Naw Kham was captured in Laos and on May 10 he was flown to China on a chartered plane.[2] He faced trial in the intermediate court in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and was sentenced to death with three of his associates in November (China Daily (Eng)). Two others received commuted death sentences.

As mainland observers (including one of the judges who oversaw the trial) noted publicly, this was the first time that the PRC had not allowed foreign countries to investigate and prosecute crimes concerning Chinese nationals that had occurred on their own soil. Instead, the suspects were brought back to Kunming, Yunnan province, and Lao and Myanmese policemen were also flown in to testify against the traffickers. Most Chinese media outlets have praised prosecution of the foreign suspects in Chinese courts as indicative of the country’s growing global dominance. One is tempted to draw a continuous line from the Opium War to the present in the PRC’s nationalist narrative, and point to the ways in which questions of sovereignty and drug use have remained persistently inseparable since the late 19th century. Such discursive positions may mean that the aberrance of drug consumption has a particular political history that might play a role in limiting the scope of available treatment and policy choices.

3) Drones and the growing militarization of China’s “war on drugs.”

What was also remarkable about the Naw Kham operation was the open discussion concerning the use of drones (unmanned air vehicles (UAV)). Within US borders, it has perhaps been difficult to appreciate how closely other countries have been watching our domestic debate over drone policies, or how American positions on such issues still have the power to set the anchor point, or point zero, in a global debate. That the PRC has been developing and expanding its drone capacities has not been a surprise, but the open recognition that it had been using such aircraft to monitor traffickers was new. Furthermore, we now know that as Lao security officers encountered local resistance in their efforts to secure Naw Kham, the PSB began to seriously consider using drones to kill him. In later interviews, Liu Yuejin would say that they did not do so because of extraterritoriality issues, while other media sources would report that the PSB faced pressure from above to bring Naw Kham in alive.

Whether China continues to be circumspect in its deployment of drones and their capacity to survey and kill suspects without trial remains to be seen. How this convergence of drone policies and criminal policing will play out in the Chinese drug war is unclear.

The next post will examine PRC drug discourse in the aftermath of the October 2011 Mekong incident.

[1] There are some variations in how basic facts have been identified in this case. Sometimes, Chinese materials sometimes describe him as “Shan” or “Tai” (掸族 or 傣族) over his national identifier, “Myanmese” or “Burmese”–in other words, he has at times been identified by his ethnicity or his nationality (analogous to identifying a foreign person in the US merely as “Black” or “Asian” over their national affiliation). Most Shan live in Burma, but this population cuts across northern Thailand, Lao PDR, and Yunnan province, PRC. Interestingly, one of the other traffickers has been identified as “stateless.” These identificatory ambiguities as well as the international scope of the traffickers’ activities—killings on Thai soil, handover by Laotian police, a PRC manhunt requiring the coordination of police force in multiple countries—reflect the especially porous borders in this part of SE Asia, as well as the reality that geopolitical borders do not neatly contain the complex mobility of people and substances on the ground. The privileging of ethnic categories over national ones, particularly in non-official sources, is significant-the next post will explore some of the ways in which ethnic issues complicate substance regulation in the PRC.

[2] It’s unclear what the legal process might have been between his capture in Laos and arrival in Kunming. There were conflicting reports almost from the moment of arrest, and it’s unclear what happened between his possible seizure on April 25, 2012 and his May 10 arrival shown here.

An arbitrary assortment of English language media coverage of Naw Kham’s execution and the 10.5 Mekong incident:

-Michael Winchester (Asia Times)

-Peter Lee at (Asia Times)

-Jonathan Manthorpe (Vancouver Sun)

-Glen Greenwald (Guardian)