A heinous act of wanton slaughter, committed on 5 October 2011, dominated Chinese news for months. Two Chinese cargo ships were found adrift on the Mekong River, a major trade route for China, near the Thai-Burmese border, with 13 Chinese crew members brutally killed, summarily stabbed or shot with their hands bound behind their backs and their mutilated bodies dumped in the water. The Chinese government suspended passenger and cargo traffic on the river, while the Chinese public was furious at the government’s failure to protect against violence on the Mekong and “increasingly critical of government agencies not perceived as taking a strong enough stand to defend the country”.
The suspected mastermind of the massacre was quickly named by the Chinese: Naw Kham, the Burmese leader of the largest drug trafficking gang in the so-called Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge. A major manhunt for Naw Kham ensued under the direction of Liu Yuejin, head of China’s antinarcotics bureau in its Ministry of Public Security. But it proved exceedingly difficult to find him because he was hiding in the vast mountainous jungles of Laos, which he knew well and which had a network of loyalists to protect him that included, according the experts in the region, operatives within the Burmese and Thai armies and the Laotian security forces.
Moreover, the Chinese were limited by both political constraints and technological capabilities in what they could do in that region. The Global Times noted that “some analysts had even said the hunt for Naw Kham could be as difficult as the hunt for Bin Laden,” while Chinese newspapers quoted others as saying that “the overseas manhunt was more difficult than that of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in that the only preliminary clue [about Naw Kham] was a suspect portrait taken 20 years ago.” On at least three occasions when the Chinese were convinced they had located him, they were unable to secure the cooperation of government and local police officials quickly enough or overcome the protection of local villagers, who engaged in firefights with police forces trying to apprehend him. That enabled Naw Kham to disappear across the border into the jungle of Myanmar.
As a result of these obstacles, the Global Times reported back in February, China seriously considered using a drone strike in Myanmar to kill him: “an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilograms of TNT to bomb the area”. That option was rejected because, the report said, the Chinese were intent on capturing him alive and trying him in court.