Joint armed police patrols along the upper reaches of the Mekong where it passes between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are to start in mid-December. Agreement between the four countries to patrol the waters was reached at the end of October following the execution-like killing of 13 Chinese seamen earlier that month in attacks on their two freighters for which nine Thai soldiers were eventually arrested. (They have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, though earlier reports quoted Thai authorities as saying the soldiers had admitted the killings.)
While the area is part of the Golden Triangle, long notorious as the stronghold of the Shan and Wu drug lords who control the opium trade, it is now a center for amphetamine production, a more marketable drug that is both cheaper and easier to produce than opium and heroin. Thailand is the region’s largest market for amphetamines, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a view reflected in the fast rising volumes of seizures of the drug in China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, 133 million pills last year up from 32 million in 2008.
For some time there have been reports of vessels on the river that refuse to pay protection money being seized by gangs and used to ship amphetamines and other drugs. The two vessels attacked in October were found with large supplies of pills on board. Units of the Thai army are reported to be complicit in these protections of the amphetamine trade, to which, as the UNODC map shows, the Mekong provides a backbone.
Chinese vessels have frequently been the subject of these attacks as they dominate shipping on the river, an important trade conduit between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. According to Xinhua, 116 of the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are operated by Chinese companies. All maritime trade along the river has been suspended since the early October attacks.
However, the illicit drugs trade operates on both sides of the river, with UNODC saying that the greatest number of illicit amphetamine manufacturing labs discovered and shut down in the region, 458 in 2009, were in China. Along with Myanmar, China is the largest producer of illicit amphetamines in the region. In 2010, UNODC says, 378 illicit labs were detected in China, compared to 391 in 2009 and 244 in 2008. Manufacturing of amphetamines appears to have shifted to Yunnan from Guangdong and Fujian, following the crackdown there since 2006. That crackdown is now moving west.