Drug kingpin Naw Kham was accustomed to a comfortable life on the lam in the “Golden Triangle”—the remote mountains and river valleys where Burma, Thailand, and Laos meet. He had a small army to protect his meth and heroin business and a network of locals and politicians who would tip him off if the authorities were hot on his tail. But then he ordered the killing of eight Chinese nationals who apparently had not paid protection money when they sailed into Thai waters from China. It was the worst slaughter of Chinese citizens abroad in recent times, and it infuriated the Chinese public. It was enough to put the powerful Ministry of Public Security, China’s FBI, on his case.
The end of the story has already been told. Naw Kham was caught by Laotian police on the banks of the Mekong in April 2012 and extradited to China a few days later. In March 2013 he was executed by lethal injection.
But the details of the chase have so far remained murky. What role did the Chinese police play in hunting a fugitive in not one but several foreign countries? To what extent was Naw Kham protected by Thai and Burmese authorities? Indeed, were members of an elite Thai military unit also involved in the killings of the eight Chinese nationals?
In a rare interview, the head of the Chinese police unit that tracked down Naw Kham told the story to reporters from the New York Times. It’s a fascinating yarn that has important geopolitical implications.
Working with local authorities, Chinese investigators chased Naw Kham for months across Thailand, Burma, and Laos. A number of times, as they closed in, Naw Kham’s network of informants and sympathizers tipped him off. But the Chinese were ruthlessly determined and in the end Naw Kham’s security net evaporated. By the time he was caught, “we didn’t have to persuade the Lao to act,” Liu Yuejin, the leader of the antinarcotics bureau of the Ministry of Public Security in China, told the Times. Chinese agents were “almost certain[ly]…on hand,” according to an “Asian official who works in the Golden Triangle” interviewed by the Times.
The hunt for Naw Kham shows how China’s rising power and profile in Southeast Asia can be deployed to achieve important goals. “The capture of Naw Kham sends a message that no group or state is going to be allowed to mess around with China on the Mekong River,” Paul Chambers, the author of the book Cashing In Across the Golden Triangle, told the Times. “Everyone now knows the top dog on the Mekong is China.”
[Chinese paramilitary soldiers parade in Tiananmen Square, courtesy Getty Images]