After the Massacre of 2011: Challenges to Peace and Security along the Mekong River

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Memo #312

By Kai Chen – chenkai [at] zju.edu.cn

Kai CHENIn the so-called “Mekong River massacre” of October 2011, 13 Chinese merchant sailors working on the Mekong were seized and murdered by members of the Hawngleuk Militia led by its Burmese leader Naw Kham. Later captured in Laos and extradited to China, Naw Kham was found guilty of the massacre and executed by lethal injection in Kunming on March 1, 2013. In December 2011, and in response to the massacre, China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand launched joint patrols along the river. But this begs the question, what is the actual nature of the security threats of this region, and how best to deal with them?

For starters, though Naw Kham is dead, his network has accumulated $US63 million in funds, and his Hawngleuk Militia still has over 400 members active in the Golden Triangle area of the Laos-China-Myanmar frontier. As to the current status of the remaining members of the Hawngleuk Militia, there is no evidence they have surrendered their weapons to the Myanmar government. The possibility that these militia members will reorganize and ratchet up their activities in the near future cannot be dismissed. What’s more, many of the villages and towns along the banks of the Mekong are partially controlled by these ethnic-based militias, some of which have ideological, religious or political goals and many of which are involved in transnational crime (e.g. drug trafficking).

In any framework for security governance in the region, the focus needs to be on the marginalized frontier areas and ethnic-based militias. For instance, special patrol teams could be sent to monitor those areas controlled by the ethnic militias, while incorporating the militias’ pro-government groups or cells. If necessary, military operations must target the die-hard separatists or insurgents. At the same time, any investment projects in the frontier areas should take the local ethnic populations into consideration, and pay more attention to the voices of local stakeholders. Otherwise, there is reason to fear that militia raids on vessels traveling along the Mekong River will resume.

Kai Chen is a post-doctoral research fellow at Zhejiang University (China), and a visiting scholar at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He is the author of Comparative Study of Child Soldiering on Myanmar-China Border: Evolutions, Challenges and Countermeasures (Springer 2014).

The Mekong River at the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos frontier (credit: Michael Scalet).

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