BANGKOK, Thailand -- Nine Thai army officers have been arrested and charged with murdering 13 Chinese crew members who were on a ship allegedly smuggling nearly one million amphetamine pills along the Mekong river linking Thailand and China, in a case investigated by top officials in both countries.

Thai officials discovered the 13 Chinese corpses floating in the Mekong River about 12 miles north of the Thai border town of Chiang Saen.

All of the Chinese victims had been blindfolded, tied up and shot, according to Thai and Chinese media.

The Chinese crew were attacked on Oct. 5 when armed men boarded two Chinese cargo ships, the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8, on the Mekong river.

The nine Thai army officers said they heard about the assault and later also boarded the two ships, but announced they discovered 920,000 hidden amphetamine pills and one dead Chinese crew member.

A few days later, 12 other Chinese corpses appeared floating in the Mekong, prompting urgent demands by Beijing for Bangkok to investigate the case and punish the killers.

Beijing also suspended all shipping on Oct. 10 between Thailand and China on the Mekong, which has become an increasingly lucrative route for both countries after China dynamited sections of the river to widen it, streamlined import and export procedures, and improved shipping support facilities.

Each year, about 100 Chinese ships, carrying a total of 400,000 tons of cargo each way, travel on that stretch of the Mekong river which is flanked by Burma and Laos.

The nine Thai army officers who were arrested on Friday (Oct. 28) were from the Pa Muang Task Force which operates in Thailand's northwest near the scene, the Bangkok Post reported on Saturday (Oct. 29).

They were charged with murder and tampering with evidence, but denied all allegations. Their ranks in the Royal Thai Army were not publicly announced.

Thailand's National Police Chief Gen. Priewpan Damapong said the army and the government were not involved in the killings, according to China's government-controlled Xinhua news agency.

"He [Gen. Priewpan] said the police suspect the servicemen acted on the order of some local tycoons, and further investigation is underway," Xinhua reported on Friday (Oct. 29).

Shortly after the arrests, Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng met Gen. Priewpan to discuss the case.

Beijing's spotlight on the murders resulted in Thailand assigning an unusually large team of investigators, including officials from the Central Investigation Bureau, Crime Suppression Division, Marine Police, Scientific Crime Detection Division, Police General Hospital and the foreign affairs division of the Royal Thai Police Office.

China sent a team to study the case, and Chinese government officials also met diplomats from Laos and Burma to discuss the Mekong river's security problems.

"The Chinese government values the life and safety of every Chinese citizen, and demands a thorough probe of what happened," China's Vice-Foreign Minister Song Tao said on Oct. 13.

"The murderers must be brought to justice," Mr. Song said, and demanded the authorities "severely punish the culprits," according to China Daily.

A memorial service was performed on Oct. 14 by 29 relatives of the 13 dead Chinese sailors on the banks of the Mekong river in Chiang Saen, where the mourners from China's southwest Yunnan province burnt incense and prayed for the victims' souls.

"Find Out the Truth, Punish the Killers," read a banner which the relatives unfurled at the site.

Two days later, a Chinese police patrol ship began escorting 26 cargo boats, with 164 sailors on board, from Chiang Saen north to China's river port at Guanlei in Yunnan, Xinhua said.

The murders occurred in a notoriously dangerous area dubbed The Golden Triangle because of the vast wealth drug warlords have made over several decades in mountainous jungles where the borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet.

Much of Golden Triangle's massive illegal opium and heroin production and smuggling began in the 1950s, but recently expanded to include the manufacturing of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) because pills are easier to make and do not depend on seasonal farming conditions or high mountains where opium poppies thrive.

It was unclear where the nearly one million pills involved in the Mekong river case were made, or destined to be sold.

"These drugs are affordable, easy to manufacture and highly profitable for criminal groups," Gary Lewis, a Bangkok-based regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in September summary of a report titled, "Amphetamines & Ecstasy: 2011 Global ATS Assessment."

"In our region, ATS are often associated with a modern and dynamic lifestyle. Users don't face the sort of stigma associated with 'old-fashioned' modes of drug administration such as injecting or smoking. This demand offers criminals entry into fresh and lucrative markets," Mr. Lewis said.

Nearly 50 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Thailand during 2010, compared to 27 million in the previous year, according to UNODC.

Thai army Maj. Gen. Prakarn Chonlayuth -- who commands the Pa Muang Task Force which included the nine arrested officers -- speculated that a minority ethnic Shan warlord, Nor Kham, based in Burma had arranged the execution of the 13 Chinese.

Maj. Gen. Prakarn reportedly suggested that the Shan warlord was extorting protection money from ships on the Mekong and, if owners refused to pay, the Shan gang would kill the crews, hijack the vessels, and use the ships for smuggling drugs.

No evidence has emerged, however, of anyone else's involvement in the case aside from the nine Thai army officers, but investigations were continuing.

During the 1990s, Burma-based rebels known as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) dominated parts of the Mekong river's western shore and allegedly trafficked drugs throughout the region and overseas.

Several years ago, Washington issued an arrest warrant for the UWSA's rebel leader, Wei Hsueh-kang, for alleged involvement in illegal drugs.

In mid-October, the UWSA issued a statement denying any links to the murder of the 13 Chinese.

The ethnic Wa and Shan are among several minority groups in northeast Burma involved in drugs while simultaneously fighting for autonomy or independence against the regime in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)