Authorities Arrest Suspected Drug Lord

Police in Laos have detained a suspected narcotics kingpin who terrorized the Mekong River.
Family members of the sailors killed on the Mekong River grieve in Yunnan province, Oct. 13, 2011.
Authorities in Laos have arrested a suspected drug lord who is believed to have information vital to an investigation into the murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong last year, amidst unconfirmed reports that he has been transferred to China for prosecution.

According to Thai authorities, Jai Norkham, a Burmese ethnic Shan who is on Thailand’s most-wanted list, was captured Thursday along with seven other men in the Lao area of the Golden Triangle, a region notorious for drug smuggling that also includes parts of Burma and Thailand.

The raiding party was made up of Lao and Chinese authorities, according to a report by the Shan Herald Agency for News.

An Internal Security officer in Xiengkhong, in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, confirmed with RFA’s Laotian service that the Lao army had arrested Norkham and his henchmen near Tonpheung district in the Lao province of Bokeo. He was taken in Ban Mom, a village that lies across the Mekong from Chiang Rai.

But he said that China was seeking to extradite Norkham to determine what he knows about the murder of two merchant boat crews in October last year.

“China wants Norkham and they have an arrest warrant out for him,” the security officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Thailand will work on this case based on Thai regulations and may assign the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the National Police Department to follow up and bring him for trial because we have also issued an arrest warrant for him.”

Members of the military command in Bokeo province and the Defense Ministry in the Lao capital Vientiane refused to comment on Norkham’s arrest.

Thai media reported that Norkham’s close Lao aide Tao Maitaeng was amongst the seven other men arrested and that at least one other was a Burmese national.

A Thai security source cited Lao authorities as saying that Norkham and the seven others had immediately been taken to China following his arrest, though the report could not be verified.

And the Bangkok Post quoted Chiang Rai police chief Surachet Thopoonyanont as saying that it is understood there was an agreement between Laos and China regarding Norkham’s extradition, but that Thailand could still ask to later take him from China to face charges there for previous drug cases.

Mekong murder

Norkham is alleged to be a former aide of late Burmese drug kingpin Khun Sa and ex-leader of the defunct Mong Tai Army rebel group.

According to the Shan Herald Agency for News, he surrendered to the Burmese army in 1996 and was made a Burma Army-run militia chief in Tachilek afterwards.

But in January 2006, Norkham became a fugitive when his home was raided and Burmese authorities seized “countless numbers” of methamphetamine tablets.

Since then, he allegedly had taken control of cross-border shipping, both legal and illegal, by collecting protection money from merchant ships on the Mekong and had operated with impunity in the Golden Triangle region.

Norkham had risen to the top of China’s most-wanted criminal list for his alleged role in the Oct. 5 murder of 13 Chinese nationals, including two women, on two separate cargo boats plying the Mekong River last year.

The crew members were found with their hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded with adhesive tape and shot or with their throats slit, according to Chinese and Thai media. Their bodies were found near Chiang Rai.

Both boats were seized by Thai authorities after a gun battle with the hijackers and among the cargo found were nearly a million amphetamine tablets—a powerful stimulant—worth 100 million baht (U.S. $3.22 million).

Nine Thai soldiers have also been charged with murdering and concealing the corpses because police believed they were in some way linked with Norkham's gang.

The grisly murders prompted the creation of a joint patrol operation on the Southeast Asian artery involving Burma, China, Laos and Thailand.

Thai army officials had suspected the involvement of Norkham’s gang, which allegedly had been demanding protection money from ships it hijacked on the Mekong and killing crew members who refused to cooperate.

The incident underscored increased business rivalries—from shipping to gambling to the drug trade—as China steps up investments in Southeast Asian nations along the Mekong, experts and ethnic group representative say. The river runs through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Burma and Thailand from its source in China’s Tibetan plateau.

Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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