Forging A Secure Waterway

Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation marks five years of operational success

A marine team of the Yunnan Border Police General Corps launching at Guanlei Port, Yunnan Province, on Dec. 9, 2011.

By Pan Yingqiu, Shi Guang

When the patrol boats whistled and passed the first Mekong checkpoint, a waterfront guard post in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, on Dec. 23, 2016, Chinese border patrol officers at the checkpoint lined up and saluted to welcome them back home. The salute marked the end of the 53rd joint patrol of the Mekong River conducted by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The Mekong River remained stable and secure during the joint patrol.

The Mekong River snakes through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into the South China Sea. The estimated length of the Mekong is 4,908 kilometers, which is regarded as a “Golden Waterway” by the Mekong countries for their friendly business and trade exchanges. However, when two Chinese cargo ships were hijacked and all 13 crew members were killed by drug traffickers in the Golden Triangle region on Oct. 5, 2011, the massacre made people from Mekong countries panic and resulted in a suspension of shipping on the river.

China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand reached a consensus right after the massacre to conduct law enforcement and security cooperation on the Mekong. The joint patrol police command office was unveiled by the four countries at Guanlei Port in Yunnan Province on Dec. 9, 2011, marking a new platform for joint law enforcement and security cooperation officially launched by the four countries.

Over the past five years, cooperation between China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand on the Mekong River has featured free trade and prosperity, and the river has been free of criminal activity. The Mekong River, a long standing “Oriental Danube”, has brought a long-awaited sense of security and happiness to the people of Mekong countries.

Crossing a River in the Same Boat

Chinese police started the first joint patrol with their counterparts from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand on Dec. 10, 2011. The patrol police officers conducted joint investigations, visits and antidrug publicity activities in the Golden Triangle region, as well as Muang Mo and Xiengkok of Laos. The patrols also featured cultural exchanges and a ship parade in Xishuangbanna in China’s Yunnan Province. There was also exchange activity at the liaison office in Muang Mo of Laos.

As January to February is the Mekong River’s dry season, ships often run aground due to a lower than average water level. Patrol police officers jointly carried out drills so as to improve their ability to rescue civilian ships in danger.

China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have established law enforcement and security cooperation mechanisms in terms of joint patrols, rectification of public security problems, combating of transnational crime and intelligence exchanges over the past five years.

In that time, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have held 50 joint conferences, 172 bilateral meetings and four annual meetings. The four countries have conducted 48 intelligence exchange activities and 53 joint patrols on the Mekong River, made arrests in more than 200 cases of human trafficking, successfully rescued 116 merchant ships from danger and have escorted 420 merchant ships to safety.

According to the statistics from the Border Control Department of China’s Ministry of Public Security, the 53 joint patrols conducted so far by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand covered a total distance of 26,000 kilometers and took a total of 1,767 hours. The four countries dispatched 8,256 law enforcement officers and 393 boats. They inspected 686 ships with a total of 3,506 passengers The and 50,400 tons of goods on board.

Guo Shengkun, Chinese state councilor and minister of public security, lauded the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation partnership as a successful paradigm of regional law enforcement and security cooperation at the ministerial meeting marking the fifth anniversary of the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation mechanism in Beijing on Dec. 27, 2016. Guo said that China is ready to deepen pragmatic cooperation with all sides, carry forward the “Mekong Spirit”, and upgrade the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation with an objective of building a safe Mekong. This will make greater contributions to security and prosperity in the region and the world at large.

General Thawip Netniyom, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Thailand, said that patrols have provided important support for promoting social progress and people’s wellbeing of the Mekong countries. Thailand is well prepared and will be actively involved in related activities so as to safeguard the social development and progress of every country along the Mekong River.

Deputy Minister of Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs Aung Soe said that “‘Pawkphaw’ (meaning “born of the same parents” in Myanmar language) friendship between China and Myanmar has a long and special history. In recent years, the two countries have conducted many exchanges and consultations on river basin security and anti-drug operations, which have achieved notable success. Aung Soe said that he hopes the future cooperation will be better promoted and that the Myanmar government will give its full support in an aim to further enhance the “Mekong Spirit”.

The Mekong River, a long standing “Oriental Danube”, has brought a longawaited sense of security and happiness to the people of Mekong countries.

Over the past five years, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have persisted in putting each other’s concerns in an important position and have learned from each other so as to jointly enhance law enforcement capacity, said Lao Minister of Public Security Somkeo Silavong. He added that the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation mechanism has effectively maintained stability and shipping safety along the Mekong River, which has created a secure environment for its people and made great contributions to local security and economic development. Meanwhile, the Lao government appreciates assistance from the Chinese government in personnel training.

As Cambodia and Vietnam have joined the joint antidrug campaign as new forces to safeguard the security and stability in the region, a senior official of Cambodian National Police said that great progress and a great deal of success have been achieved in terms of improving capacity and effectively eliminating some of the insecurity along the Mekong River. The Cambodian government hopes to further consolidate and expand security cooperation and take maintaining security as the core for national and regional development.

“The Vietnamese government, acting as an observer state in the mechanism, speaks highly of the partnership and achievements it has made”, said a senior official at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. The official added that the mechanism has played an important role in maintaining social order and stability, and has helped officials in fighting crime such as human trafficking, drugs, terrorism and cyber crime.

Representatives of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand held a Meeting on Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Mekong River in Beijing on Oct. 31, 2011.

Revitalized ‘Golden Waterway’

China temporarily suspended all Chinese shipping on the Mekong River after the Oct. 5 massacre in 2011.

Accompanied by the firing of three flares at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 10, 2011, the first joint patrol conducted by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand was officially launched at Guanlei Port in Yunnan Province, which marked the resumption of shipping after more than two months. The joint patrol police officers have guarded the security of the Mekong River from then on.

Led by a boat marked “China Border Police” with the number 53901, five patrol boats set off, escorting 10 cargo ships heading for the Mekong River.

“I feel relieved when I hear the familiar sounds of boats’ traveling along the Mekong,” said Li Kaiquan, a Chinese captain with 20 years of sailing experience on the Mekong. After the Oct. 5 massacre, Li had packed up his belongings and returned home. He couldn’t wait to resume his old trade after he learned about the joint patrol.

“I feel very excited when I see Chinese national flags fluttering on patrol boats,” Li said.

People along the coast applauded when they saw the patrol boats passing by.

“I am not scared to be on the Mekong anymore, because the joint patrols have been conducted by police officers quite often, and I feel as secure here as I do in China,” said a young woman surnamed Wu, who comes from Fujian Province on China’s southeastern coast. Wu works on a refueling boat in the Golden Triangle region.

A sailor, who declined to give his name, said he has 16 years of sailing experience on the Mekong River. He said that it is now safer to sail on the Mekong because of the law enforcement and security cooperation, which has transformed the Mekong into a safe and lucrative river.

Helmsmen of merchant ships whistled to salute the joint patrol boats on the Mekong.

“We are very happy to see the joint patrol boats. They protect us like members of our own family, and they make us feel secure”, said a Lao sailor.

Nevertheless, working on a joint patrol is not a cushy job. Officers know they could be confronted with extreme danger at any time.

Such an emergency situation occurred during the second joint patrol.

On Jan. 14, 2012, unidentified attackers fired on the Chinese cargo boat Shengtai 11, which was returning to China’s Guanlei Port from Chiang Saen Port, Thailand. After the attack occurred, patrol boats from China and Laos responded quickly. On Jan. 16, joint patrol boats escorted Shengtai 11 back to China, with all crew members unharmed.

Starting from Guanlei Port and ending at Laos’ Gold Kapok wharf, the round trip of patrols totals 256 kilometers and passes through six ports, 21 rapids, 23 dangerous shoals and countless bare rocks and reefs across four countries. Although accompanied with significant danger, joint patrol police officers have enhanced their mutual trust through the patrol missions. Joint patrols have continued to make breakthroughs. After the 10th operation in May 2013, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand decided to begin conducting patrols monthly.

The joint patrols have brought not only a sense of security to local people and merchant vessels, but also a revitalization of the Mekong River. There were 39 merchant ships that resumed shipping after the first joint patrol. The number increased to 48 after the second patrol, and some 574 merchant vessels had returned to the Mekong by the eighth patrol, said Liu Jianhong, the water team political commissar of the Yunnan Border Police General Corps.


Joint Anti-drug Campaign

The Mekong River passes through numerous gorges, which shield the Golden Triangle from ordinary methods of surveillance. Years of opium production has made the area notorious as one of the world’s major drug producing bases.

Joint anti-drug campaigns are one of the priorities of law enforcement under the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism.

On March 19, 2013, the news came in that a large number of drugs were loaded overnight onto a cargo ship that was heading for the lower reaches of the Mekong.
They were likely to pass through Muang Mo wharf in Laos in the afternoon of the same day. China and Laos responded immediately, intercepting and investigating vessels passing through the Muang Mo wharf.

The suspected cargo ship was supposed to pass the Muang Mo wharf at 4 p.m., but as the Mekong water level dropped, the ship became stranded about 60 kilometers upstream. If the patrol officers waited until dark, the drugs were likely to be transferred to other drug traffickers. The operation command office decided to act immediately. China and Laos sent more than 40 officers to form an investigation team, using motorboats to get as close to the stranded ship as possible. The patrol police officers found the target vessel two hours later, and arrested five suspects onboard. After searching for nearly one hour, police officers seized 579.7 kilograms of methamphetamine.

According to reports, this was the first transnational drug case and the largest drug trafficking case since the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation mechanism was initiated. It was also the first case of the joint anti-drug campaign conducted by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, and created a new model of joint law enforcement on the Mekong.

“Although the situation of public security on the Mekong River has improved, the drug situation of the Golden Triangle region has remained severe. Only through the complete eradication of drug production in the Golden Triangle can the Mekong River truly become a secure waterway,” said Yuan Yaping, water team chief of the Yunnan Border Police General Corps.

The first joint anti-drug campaign conducted by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand was launched in Jinghong, China’s Yunnan Province, in April 2013. The campaign lasted two months and was fairly successful.

Nowadays, the four countries have conducted regular joint investigation operations on the key waters of the Mekong to inspect suspicious vessels, personnel and cargo. The operations have focused on cracking down on drug trafficking, gun trafficking and illegal immigration, and carried out safety reminders and antidrug publicity for ship crews and tourists.

China is ready to upgrade the Mekong River law enforcement and security cooperation with an objective of building a safe Mekong.

According to official statistics, the second stage of the joint antidrug campaign, conducted by China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2016, investigated 6,476 drug-related criminal cases, arrested 9,927 suspects, seized 12.7 tons of drugs and 55.2 tons of precursor chemicals, and also seized a large number of firearms and ammunition.

Under the theme of “shared river, shared future”, the six countries convened the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Sanya, south China’s Hainan Province, in March 2016. The meeting marked the birth of the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism, under which countries will work together to build a new paradigm of Mekong subregional cooperation and South-South Cooperation, and to build a community of shared future so as to safeguard regional stability and peace.

China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have jointly formed, carried forward and passed on the “Mekong Spirit” characterized by solidarity, mutual help, inclusiveness, equality and mutual benefit during their past five years of law enforcement cooperation.

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