BANGKOK, Thailand -- A Burmese drug lord and five gang members pleaded guilty in China to murdering 13 innocent Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, and loading nearly one million illegal amphetamine pills onto their two cargo ships during a murky smuggling scam.

The Chinese sailors had been blindfolded, tied up and shot onboard their vessels on Oct. 5, 2011, sparking demands by China for a full investigation and better security.

In response, Thailand, Burma and Laos are now for the first time allowing Chinese "border police" gunboats to lead their four-nation patrols on that narrow stretch of the Mekong River -- beyond China's territory -- in the heart of Southeast Asia.

Smiling and placing his hands together as if respectfully praying, notorious drug lord Nor Kham (also known as Naw Kham) begged the court and the 13 victims' families for leniency on Friday (Sept. 21) while facing a possible death sentence.

He then pled guilty to murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and hijacking two ships.

Hours earlier, all five of his gang members also pled guilty to the same charges.

Nor Kham is a minority ethnic Shan citizen of Burma, a country also known as Myanmar.

He and his five gang members were arrested in April across the Mekong River in Laos and extradited in May to stand trial in southern China's Yunnan province, northeast from where the killings took place.

When the trial opened on Thursday (Sept. 20) in the Intermediate People's Court of Kunming city, "principal suspect" Nor Kham had claimed he was innocent.

Wearing headphones for translations during the Mandarin Chinese-language trial, he suddenly changed his plea to guilty after all five co-defendants testified that he was their leader and had orchestrated the deadly attack.

The five other men were "foreigners" and also asked for leniency, China's government-controlled Xinhua news agency said.

It was unclear from Xinhua's report if they were all also ethnic Shan from Burma, or included men from Laos.

Thailand's media has not reported any of its nationals on trial in China.

"Thirteen witnesses from Laos and Thailand testified in the trial, on the basis of bilateral judicial assistance treaties between China and the two counties respectively," Xinhua said.

"They were protected by the court, according to China's law and international practice."

Prosecutors also provided DNA test results and autopsy reports.

The court will sentence all six men "following a review of the case by a collegiate bench," Xinhua said.

For several years, Nor Kham allegedly extorted protection money from Chinese ships on the Mekong, killing crews who refused to pay, and then hijacking their vessels to smuggle drugs.

Shortly after the slayings last October, nine Thai army officers said they heard about an assault, boarded two ships, and announced they discovered 920,000 hidden amphetamine pills and one dead Chinese man.

Twelve more corpses were found floating on the Mekong nearby, about 12 miles north from the Thai riverside border town of Chiang Saen.

"The murders happened overseas. All the investigations, arrests and evidence collection were carried out outside China, and all the suspects were foreigners. That is unprecedented in the history of the Chinese police," Liu Yuejin, director the Narcotics Control Department in China's Public Security Ministry said, according to China Daily.

"The prosecution's case is that Nor Kham's criminal gang colluded with renegade Thai soldiers in premeditated attacks on Chinese ships," said Xian Yanming, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau.

"Naw Kham's group would hijack Chinese cargo ships, conceal drugs on board to frame the crew and then send them into Thai waters to make it appear that the authorities had uncovered a major drug-related case and killed the 'drug traffickers'.

"Meanwhile, Naw Kham's drug-trafficking ships would have unimpeded passage through Thai waters," Mr. Xian told China Daily on Sept. 18.

Those allegations against the Thais are currently being investigated.

The nine soldiers are from the Pa Muang Task Force based in Thailand's northwest near the scene.

The nine were arrested in Thailand three weeks after the assault and are in detention, but they denied murdering the 13 Chinese and tampering with evidence.

Bangkok's government and military expressed dismay over allegations that Thai troops helped Nor Kham.

"He [Nor Kham] cannot just accuse Thai soldiers, he has to come up with evidence," said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister, Gen. Yutthasak Sasiprap on Friday (Sept. 21).

"We have worked closely with Chinese authorities in this case, and provided all evidence to the Chinese side," said another Thai deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, who has demanded executions for drug smugglers and offered a $64,000 reward for Nor Kham's capture.

"I believe he [Nor Kham] will definitely be found guilty, and be given the death sentence," Mr. Chalerm said just before Nor Kham pled guilty.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are

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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)