Saturday, March 09, 2013

Did China execute the wrong pirate?

[This piece originally appeared on Asia Times Online on March 8, 2013.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

The Western media outrage on the execution in China of Naw Kham focused on the circus surrounding the televising - or non-televising - of the event, which followed the conviction of the Burmese pirate and several of his associates for the massacre of 13 Chinese crew members of two ships on the Mekong River in October 2011. But maybe they are focusing on the wrong problems.

By its own - and Western - standards, China's capture, trial, and execution of Naw Kham appears a model of legality. According to China's Global Times, the PRC was tempted to assassinate him via a drone strike in his foreign hideout, but declined.

Neither was he shot in the head by special forces and his corpse secretly dumped in the ocean, as was done with Osama bin Laden. Nor was he torched in his hideout with incendiary grenades, as the San Bernadino Sheriff's Department did to alleged murderer and cop killer Christopher Dorner just a few weeks ago.

Instead, Naw Kham was captured, tried in a Chinese court, and executed by lethal injection, together with three accomplices. The PRC's propaganda lords understandably decided to celebrate this demonstration of Chinese political and legal efficacy with a 21st century wall-to-wall coverage live media festival on the occasion of the execution.

Western media outlets, whose prime directive appears to be to deny the People's Republic of China any hint of a soft-power victory, were determined to shoehorn the execution of Naw Kham and his fellows into the Butchers of Beijing template.

The heavy lifting was done by the South China Morning Post's John Kennedy, who somewhat forgivably misconstrued CCTV's promise of live, execution-related coverage from the scene to coverage of the lethal injection itself.

The relevant screen cap from CCTV read "Death sentence to be carried out" and "Live broadcast and more details to be revealed tomorrow". Perhaps not the finest moment in chyron-writing. However, it's not just CCTV. If one Googles "Timothy McVeigh TV execution", (Timothy McVeigh was the Oklahoma City bomber who murdered 168 people and was executed in 2001) the first hit is: McVeigh Execution: C-Span Video Library. Spoiler: the video does not show the actual execution of Timothy McVeigh.

Another hit from the first page of results: TV coverage of McVeigh execution keeps focus on victims. Written by the AP TV writer, David Bauder, the article relates:
During the moments that lethal drugs were coursing through McVeigh's veins - unseen to television viewers - ABC showed footage of survivors and relatives
And one more: Networks Plan McVeigh Execution Coverage. John Kennedy,obviously unaware of such ancient, tedious, and non-Chinese media history, then doubled down with the tweet:
CCTV said, unambiguously and in plain Chinese, it's going to live broadcast the execution. I'm not going to put words in its mouth. If it turns out CCTV is deliberately misleading the public to boost viewership (and in a way or two I hope it is), that's a story in itself.
With that, Western reporters were off to the races.

In a story titled "China TV Kills Live Execution Plans at Last Minute", ABC News Beijing Bureau declared (I suspect on the strength of John Kennedy's post that live coverage of the actual execution had been promised):
... but as the program neared its close, the station abruptly changed plans and did not show the execution.
The piece rather shamefacedly hedged its bets in the last paragraph:
For whatever reason, CCTV did not broadcast the actual execution.
Maybe the reason was that the Chinese government had never announced its intention to broadcast the actual execution anyway.

Not good enough for UPI's Kristen Butler, who linked to the ABC News story in order to buttress her piece, "China's CCTV Cuts Live Execution Broadcast at Last Minute", staffers adding the apparently ludicrous sub-head: "State-run CCTV cut short the live execution after a poll on Chinese Twitter, Weibo, showed firm opposition".

Butler provided no documentation for the assertion that the Weibo poll prompted CCTV to drop its plans to broadcast the actual execution; in keeping with the fug of ambiguity that pervades this story, perhaps she or her editors felt that alternate interpretations of "after" - for instance, referring merely to temporal sequence and not causality - shielded UPI from the need to come up with any sourcing for the claim.

Now, at least in the Western press, the TV event was a public relations rout:

  • New York Times: Chinese TV Special on Executions Stirs Debate/ Divided Chinese See a Live TV Program About Executions as Crass, or Cathartic
  • NPR: China's Broadcast Of Drug Lord's Final Hours Sparks Controversy
  • Reuters: "Execution parade" of four behind Mekong murders angers Chinese
  • The Guardian: China divided on TV 'execution parade': judicial resolve or crude voyeurism
  • Wall Street Journal: Debate Swirls Around China Execution Broadcast

    Virtually alone on the opposite side of the ledger, Sinostand's Eric Fish had questioned the "actual execution to be televised" meme before the fact and was excoriated by commenters for correctly predicting actual events and thereby "underestimating the potential stupidity of the Chinese Communist Party".

    With this generous evidentiary and analytic standard, it is surprising that the China's Western critics confined themselves to the transitory pleasures of China bashing, media criticism, and fisking of CCTV chyrons, and did not take aim at the most interesting possibility, namely: Did China Execute the Wrong Pirate?

    And it would have been the right question to ask!

    Naw Kham's hometown paper, so to speak, in northeast Myanmar (also known as Burma) is the Shan Herald, and it had access to his friends and associates during his detention in China. According to the Herald, there would be little difficulty in convicting Naw Kham's underlings for the murders; apparently a security camera on one of the ships recorded the horror and placed them at the scene.

    According to an informed source, his subordinates, especially Hsang Kham and Yilai, appear to be impossible to elude the court decision. "They were caught by the close circuit TV camera," he said. "But with Naw Kham, it [his guilt] was only by conjecture: authorities believed the killing wouldn't have been carried out without his orders." [1]

    However, it hasn't been proven, or as far as can be determined, even alleged that Naw Kham was present during the murders. The Herald interviewed a lawyer, who opined that the chances of conviction for Naw Kham in a Thailand court would have been slim:
    "[T]he Mekong, where the 13 Chinese sailors were killed, does not belong to Naw Kham. Those who had been witnesses to his masterminding the killings were also the co-accused (who could be deemed as doing what they could to seek official pardon). And I have not heard [that] weapons used in the killings had been produced as evidence during the trial. Had he been tried in a Thai court, these are not sufficient to convict him." [2]
    About those weapons.

    Rumor has it that that forensics revealed that the cartridge cases found on the ships belonged to Royal Thai Army-issued munitions. And that brings up the issue of the Royal Thai Army's Pha Muang Task Force, or PMTF, which engages in drug-war derring do in the area of the Golden Triangle.

    As a Reuters investigation reported, the PMTF's official account of the incident has several holes in it:
    Pha Muang said the ships had already docked near Chiang Saen [downstream in Thai waters] when its soldiers boarded them. But if one ship had only a dead captain aboard, and the other no crew at all, how did they drift down the fast-flowing Mekong without running aground, then safely moor near Chiang Saen?

    "It's a 200-tonne ship," said Sunai [Jullapongsathorn, a Thai parliamentarian]. "With nobody steering, it would have lost control long before it reached the riverbank."

    The same point is made by a senior Thai official in Chiang Rai province who is close to the investigation and spoke on condition his name and exact profession were not identified. The boats could not have docked without both a captain and engineer on board, and they would probably need to read Chinese to understand the controls, he insisted. [3]
    The most charitable case that can be made for the PMTF's performance per this version of events is that, having been alerted to a drug run, it stood idly buy as the hijackers forced the captains to sail into Chiang Saen at gunpoint, executed them, and motored off in speedboats.

    As it transpired, the most charitable interpretation is regrettably not the most likely one. Shortly after the incident, nine members of the PMTF "approached their superiors" concerning their involvement. Their commander stated that they had come forward to "demonstrate their innocence" - but it strengthened the appearance of malfeasance surrounding the PMTF's behavior. [4]

    As the Thai government investigation proceeded, the cloud of suspicion enveloping the PMTF soldiers thickened, as Reuters reported in January:
    "Circumstantial evidence suggests that Thai officials were involved in the sailors' deaths," the House Foreign Affairs Standing Committee said on January 12 in an apparent reference to the military task force. "However, their motive, and whether it is connected to the drugs found on the ships, remains inconclusive," it said in preliminary findings seen by Reuters.
    [5] Shortly after the incident, Michael Winchester wrote for Asia Times Online:
    Almost certainly closer to the truth is a scenario in which the troops targeted vessels which they knew on the basis of good intelligence to be carrying a shipment of narcotics from Sop Lui [a port in Myanmar's Shan State] into Thailand. By definition such accurate intelligence would have come from a source working with the rogue RTA team with inside knowledge of the shipment and an interest in betraying the cartel moving it. Asia Times Online sources have heard several separate but unconfirmed reports all of which have implicated a wife of senior UWSA commander and indicted drugs-trafficker Wei Xuegang.

    Given the complexity of the operation and the systematic brutality involved, one Chiang Mai-based analyst familiar with drug trafficking operations on both sides of the border was inclined to draw two conclusions. The first was that the original shipment was actually far greater than the 920,000 tablets finally retrieved at Chiang Saen and that the bulk of it was likely taken ashore either on the Lao or Myanmar bank well north of the tri-border area.

    What was left was a credible minimum for which the Thai troops could claim credit and a cash reward in addition to a share of the loot. The second conclusion was that the systematically conducted slaughter allegedly carried out by the Thai troops was intended as a calculated and unmistakable message from one criminal group to another as much as a means of disposing of witnesses. [6]
    The motive for Naw Kham's participation remains a mystery. Naw Kham operated a waterborne protection racket and the occasional "catch and release" kidnapping for ransom, not a wholesale murder operation. Efforts to link Naw Kham's interests to the horrific body count of the October 5 massacre - explanations include a vendetta against Chinese ships for transporting Burmese and Laotian troops, or a war with the operators of the gigantic Kings Roman Casino/Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone just downstream - founder on the presence of the PMTF.

    There are plenty of doubters:
    A relative of two of the victims also refuted the official account. "We have worked on ships on the Mekong for 14 years and never once heard that Chinese ships pay protection money to Naw Kham," Mekong shipper He Xilun, who lost both his older brother He Xixing and sister-in-law Chen Guoying in the attack, recently told The Irrawaddy.

    "I am saying, that in this trial the truth has not been revealed. I don't know why [the attack] happened," he said. "We only know the tip of the iceberg in this case, I hope the country will continue to look into this and find out the truth. [7]
    If this was a matter of rogue army personnel hijacking a drug shipment, then one can speculate that Naw Kham's involvement was secondary, in order to 1) provide the necessary veneer of pirate-related illegality, 2) assistance in hauling away and disposing of a sizable pile of amphetamines and/or heroin and/or gold and/or cash on behalf of the renegades, and 3) provide a useful fall guy if the bloody outrage brought down too much heat.

    In the event, there was definitely too much heat.

    The Chinese crew members, including two female cooks, had not died in some Wild West shootout; they had been handcuffed, gagged, slaughtered with knives and guns, and pitched overboard, outraging Chinese popular opinion. The Chinese government temporarily halted commercial traffic along the Mekong and demanded beefed-up "joint patrols".

    The PRC, in the persons of Wen Jiabao and Politburo security heavy Zhou Yongkang, insisted on full and effective cooperation from the region's governments in apprehending Naw Kham, who had an irritating history of targeting Chinese interests, individuals, and security forces, and was universally recognized by his many friends and few genuine local adversaries as the premier pirate in that stretch of the river.

    Naw Kham's ties to the Burmese government were apparently a given:
    Wanted in Burma, Laos, Thailand and China, Naw Kham, 50, has surprised many observers with his staying quality. The business circle in Shan State East believes the reason is that Burma's junta authorities are on his payroll.

    The Shan State Army (SSA) South agrees. "When we were there," said Lt-Col Gawnzeun, Commander of Kengtung Force, "the Burma Army and its militias never allowed us an easy time. We were chased out from every hideout we had setup. But Naw Kham never has to worry about it." He denies the SSA South is also on Naw Kham's payroll. Naw Kham has reportedly said for every 3 baht he made, 1 baht was for the Burma Army, another baht for the SSA and the last baht for himself. [8]
    However, the main outlet for drugs produced in the Shan State is via the Mekong to Thailand, and it appears that Naw Kham would have to have had a modus vivendi with some Thai financiers as well:
    "What about the Lao-bans [financiers] from Thailand who are helping us set up refineries and maintain them? Will there be prices on their heads?" a businessman known to be engaged in shady businesses asked. "What about the government officials, both here [in Burma] and Thailand, who see to it that both the raw materials and the drugs reach their destinations safe and sound? Aren't they [the Thai government] going to do anything about them?"

    According to sources in Shan State East, most of the financiers are ethnic Chinese from Thailand, Laos, China, Taiwan and Burma, "especially from Thailand". Caffeine, used for manufacturing yaba [tablets containing methamphetamine], and implements also come from Thailand. [9]
    One might speculate that one reason that the PRC decided to forego the intangible psychic benefits of graduating to full implacable superpower status by assassinating Naw Kham via drone - or agree to let him face the Burmese or Thai version of drugland justice - and instead, according to rumors passed on by the Telegraph, [10] spend 200,000 English pounds (US$300,000) to extract him from his Laotian captors, was so they could get him to China and encourage him to reveal the details of his operation and his protectors and allies and strengthen the PRC's hand along the Mekong. (The Thai government rebuffed Chinese demands after the massacre to escort vessels along the Thai stretch of the Mekong; joint patrols involving Chinese armed police vessels only took place in the northern reaches shared by Laos and Burma).

    The Bangkok Post reported:
    A regional security officer acknowledged that the arrest of Naw Kham could open a political can of worms.

    ''The Chinese have said in open source materials that they are pushing for the death penalty for him, but in reality, they will want names of those running with him, they want the bigger players behind him.'' [11]
    It appears that Naw Kham spent his months of incarceration in China bargaining unsuccessfully for his life. At first, invoking the legal approach that might have worked in the Thai courts, he denied culpability and blamed his subordinates for organizing the attack.

    Then, according to Chinese media, he confessed:
    "I was terribly wrong for having done it. I am sorry for the Chinese sailors and hope the Chinese can grant me leniency," Naw Kham told reporters in an arranged interview in police custody ahead of the trial.

    "I apologize to the victims' families," Naw Kham said. "We organized and carried out the murders." [12]
    Perhaps he believed that his life would be spared in return for his confession and US$975,000 in compensation for the victims, and with the help of representations from the Myanmar government.

    The Myanmar government did negotiate immunity from Chinese prosecution for several of Naw Kham's followers who surrendered in the time-honored fashion; however there seems to have been a general desire to close the books on Naw Kham forever.

    Then, perhaps because he came to understand that the Chinese government planned to execute him anyway, Naw Kham withdrew his confession and indicated he was going to implicate the Thai army, presumably hoping that the Thai government would spring to his aid in order to win his silence and save itself the embarrassment.

    On September 21, 2012, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported:
    But in a surprise move for China's carefully orchestrated trial system, Nor [sic] Kham denied any involvement in the case when questioned in court yesterday, despite reportedly confessing his role in the killings earlier.

    The semi-official China News Service said prosecutors asked him if he had ordered the hijacking of Chinese boats, killing the crew and planting drugs on the vessels.

    In court, Nor Kham denied all charges, saying: "The [crime] was carried out by the Thais. I knew about it through television." [13]
    However, if closed-circuit cameras aboard the vessels did record the presence of Royal Thai Army troops during the incident and support Naw Kham's assertion, which this passage from the Chiang Rai Times of December 2, 2011, would seem to confirm...
    Pheu Thai Party list MP Sunai Jullapongsathorn, who heads the foreign affairs committee that is investigating the deaths, yesterday said he had obtained evidence suggesting the soldiers were linked to the deaths.

    Mr Sunai said he had received a photograph of a soldier holding a machine gun that had been taken on one of the two Chinese cargo ships.

    The soldier in the picture was one of the nine soldiers suspected of being involved. [14]
    ...this is apparently a load of dirty linen that neither the Thai military nor the PRC government are interested in airing in public, and it was not enough to save Naw Kham.

    Although the Chinese government and press have repeatedly referenced the involvement of "nine renegade Thai soldiers" in the incident, apparently justice has been adequately served by execution of Naw Kham and his associates.

    As for the Thai side, civilian arrest warrants were issued for the nine PMTF personnel involved in the issue, presumably under Chinese pressure, but to date there is no indication of any detention or public trial.

    Naw Kham could have answered the question of who masterminded the Mekong massacre, and why. But he won't, at least not for public consumption. He's dead. That is more important than obsessing over whether the final moments of Naw Kham's silencing were televised or not.

    1. Fighting chance for ‘Mekong Godfather’, Shan Herald, Feb 13, 2013.
    2. See
    3. Special Report: In Mekong, Chinese murders and bloody diplomacy, Reuters, Jan 29, 2012.
    4. “13 corpses” Thai officers likely to be acquitted, Shan Herald, Nov 7, 2011.
    5. See note 3.
    6. Deadly fog on the Mekong, Asia Times Online, Nov 5, 2011.
    7. Convicted Naw Kham Awaits Fate in China, Irrawaddy, Oct 19, 2012.
    8. Golden Triangle godfather Naw Kham releases Chinese abductees, Democracy for Burma, April 11, 2011.
    9. Druglords with prices on their heads still scot-free, Shan Herald, April 24, 2012. 10. Mekong massacre trial begins in China, Daily Telegraph, Sep 20, 2012.
    11. Mekong River bandit's powerful friends dry up, Bangkok Post, Sep 30, 2012.
    12. Mekong drug lord faces murder trial in China,, Sep 19, 2012.
    13. Alleged drug lord blames Thai Army for Mekong killings, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Sep 21, 2012.
    14. New photo Implicates Thai Soldier in Chinese Sailors Killings, Chiang Rai Times, Dec 2, 2011.
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