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Money and Murder on the Mekong
Summary:Three weeks have passed since the murder of 13 Chinese sailors, but doubts remain about the circumstances of their deaths and Chinese boats are still in port.

By Yang Xingyun (杨兴云)

Nation, page 11, Issue No. 541, Oct 24, 2011

Translated By Emily Zhu

Original article: [Chinese]



Whereas reports on the murders published outside China, such as those by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have stressed the role that drugs played, the EO's report focused on relations between Chinese crews and those from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. 



Chinese Reactions

Minbo (民波), who works as a ship chef says she felt humiliated on learning the fate of Li Yan, her murdered counterpart, who was found with her tongue cut in half. Minbo says armed robbers are known to target Chinese ships, and that the situation has been deteriorating.

The captain of her ship, Sun Zhongfu (孙忠富), says the Chinese authorities didn’t heed his warnings of armed robberies and kidnaps, and instead just circulated leaflets with safety guidance and told captains to take care.

“What we really need is the protection that we’re entitled to as Chinese citizens,” said Sun.

 “Last year, a government ship was attacked by armed robbers, and one person was badly injured and two had minor injuries,” he said.

The Aftermath

Zheng Guangyu (郑光宇), one of the owners of Sun’s boat, expects conditions  on the Mekong to change after this month’s murders. His ship, the Minsheng (民盛号) has a capacity of 250 tones and cost 800,000 yuan in 2007.

 “This year our revenue is particularly good, but nobody expected this violent murder,” said Zheng, who wants the government to provide financial support for Chinese ship owners while the vessels are idle.

The Causes

According to Zheng, most of the boats working on the Mekong River are Chinese cargo vessels, although some are registered in Myanmar to avoid Chinese fees and supervision.

China and Thailand have been the main beneficiaries of the Mekong navigation agreement with Myanmar and Laos, says Zheng, explaining that docks in Myanmar and Laos are very basic and the two countries only export timber and a few minerals.

Chinese monopolize shipping along the river, and Zhang suspects that anger at these operators’ growing profits might have been among the murderers’ motivations.

In support of this argument, Sun says that small boats from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos have profited since Chinese ships suspended service along the river.

According to Zheng, the small boats, which carry less that 20 tons, usually travel short distances within Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, but over the last few weeks have been carrying goods from these countries to points by Myanmar’s northern border, where they are then smuggled into China by land.

Zheng’s account was backed up by Xishuangbanna Maritime Safety Administration in Yunnan province.

Many Chinese ship owners worry that, if the suspension of their operations allows smaller Thai, Myanmarese and Lao rivals to strengthen their position on the market, then attacks on Chinese vessels might become more common.

The Chinese ship owners are coy about discussing their profits, but the normal charge for the 300-kilometer trip from China’s Guanlei (关累港) to Thailand’s Qingsheng (清盛港) is 280 yuan per ton, according to sailor Hu Dailong (胡代龙).

Ship owner Zheng said that there’s high demand to take cargo down the Mekong because it’s cheaper than other modes of transport. The closure of the Mekong on the Chinese side means that all cargo now has to travel over land transportation, and the higher fees have doubled the price of some Chinese products in Thailand and Laos.

Foreign Relations

Thailand informed the Yunnan authorities about the incident on the afternoon of Oct 5, but there was no immediate response.

Li Hui (李晖) from Yunnan’s foreign affairs office said that his department didn’t make an immediate announcement because there was no confirmation of the deaths, and affairs in the Golden Triangle are often complicated.

He Jinsong (和劲松), a Yunnan-based specialist in Southeast Asia said joint measures are needed from the four countries in order to guarantee the security of shipping, and that the investigation should be taken more seriously.

Another regional specialist from Yunnan University, who asked not to be named, suggested that the story behind the murders may be more complicated, “since the victims were all Chinese, and they took place just before Thai Prime Minister Yingluck was scheduled to visit China.”

Thai media had reported that Yingluck Shinawatra planned to make China the first destination of her premiership outside the Association of South East Asian Nations, breaking with her predecessors’ preference for Japan. China was also the first country to provide aid in response to the Thailand’s floods.

However, Yingluck changed her plans when China demanded that her country conduct a serious investigation into the Mekong murders.

Not long before the murders, Myanmar president Thein Sein suspended cooperation with China on the construction of the Myitsone hydropower plant.

“Further promoting the development of the GMS [Greater Mekong Subregion development project] is the top priority for Yunnan,” said the Yunnan academic. He added that the closure of the Mekong River is a setback for the project and China’s relationship with Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.


This translation was edited by Will Bland.


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