IT WAS a gruesome crime. In October last year 13 bodies—blindfolded, hands tied, showing bullet wounds—were found floating in the Mekong river in northern Thailand. They were identified as the Chinese crew members of two cargo boats hijacked as they made their way downriver from Yunnan province in south-western China. This week, in a court in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, Naw Kham, a Burmese drug lord, and five of his associates were sentenced for the murders.
The crimes drew attention to the lawlessness of the Golden Triangle—the intersection of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where opium is grown and refined into heroin, and methamphetamine is produced on an industrial scale. Drug lords rule the roost, sometimes in league with the security forces.
These murders made China determined to act. It set up armed patrols to protect shipping, even downstream on the Mekong, south of its border. These carry token representatives from other countries, but they are a Chinese exercise. It has had some effect, but river-borne traffic is sharply down, with more cargo travelling more arduously by land.