Murder on the Mekong

A reporter travels to the scene of a crime that transfixed East Asia and finds a tale of adventure, deception, and political intrigue.

By Jeff Howe

The Atavist Magazine, No. 30

Jeff Howe is a contributing editor at Wired, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab. He coined the term “crowdsourcing,” and wrote the book Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. He is currently working on another book, The Principles: Stories in the Age of the Great Disruption.

Reporting supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Web Design: Alex Fringes
Photography: Gary Knight/VII
Audio Production: Michael May
Research and Production: Megan Detrie, Kelsey Kudak
Additional Reporting: Chongpu Zhang
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Published in October 2013. Design updated in 2021.

“No one has ever seen Naw Kham. He travels around, and if something bad happens, people say, ‘Oh, it’s Naw Kham. This is his fault.’

Marine Police Colonel Phoppakorn Khumcharoensuk


In the Golden Triangle, knowing things is usually more dangerous than not knowing them; it’s better to be ignorant than complicit, and it’s better to be complicit than dead. So Bon Tae stayed put after the gunfire awakened him from his nap on the cot in the break room at Thai Kitchen, a restaurant on the outskirts of the northern Thailand river port of Chiang Saen. He counted the shots: one, two, three, four. There were screams and the sound of boat motors. Then more shots—eight in all. Then silence.

Thai Kitchen’s bamboo and teak patio looked out over the west bank of the Mekong River. On the other side of the muddy water was Laos; Burma—officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar—lay two miles upriver, where the Ruak River tumbled down out of the thick-jungled hill country to meet the Mekong. The confluence of the three countries and the two rivers is at the center of some of the most isolated and forbidding terrain in Southeast Asia. Known as the Golden Triangle, its topographical and cultural fragmentation has served the world’s black markets well. Until the U.S.–led invasion of Afghanistan scrambled the geography of the opiate trade, the Golden Triangle was the world’s leading source of heroin, and it is still the primary source of amphetamines consumed in East and Southeast Asia. Still, it is a place where violence usually hides in the shadows, more often threatened or rumored than witnessed. It was unusual to actually hear the shots.

Only when it was time for his shift busing tables did Bon Tae leave the break room. From the restaurant’s patio, he could see two Chinese barges docked several hundred yards upstream. They would have been indistinguishable from the other 200-ton vessels that worked the route between China and Thailand, except that these barges were surrounded by uniformed men carrying machine guns. They were members of an elite Royal Thai Army drug-interdiction task force; they were the first to arrive on the scene and had cordoned off the two vessels, keeping even local police away. What exactly had happened on the barges wasn’t clear. The scuttlebutt around the restaurant was that the Chinese sailors had done something illegal and had been arrested for an unspecified crime. The restaurant staff went back to work, and the diners returned to their meals.

At 9:30 a.m. the next day, October 6, 2011, a spokesman for the army task force—known as the Pha Muang, after a fierce Thai warrior king—held a press conference. Wearing a black uniform and a beret, he presented for the cameras a cache of nearly one million tablets of an illegal drug known as yaba, a blend of methamphetamine and caffeine popular in Asia.

The spokesman said that at 6 a.m. the previous day, the Pha Muang had received a tip that a major drug shipment would be transported across the Burmese-Thai border. The Pha Muang stationed themselves downriver from the border and waited in two speedboats. At 11:30 a.m., the task force intercepted two barges, the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8. As the Pha Muang approached, they came under heavy fire and returned it with their high-powered assault weapons. The gunmen abandoned the barges, boarded speedboats, and fled upriver—or, rather, all but one of the gunmen did. When the task force boarded the Hua Ping, they discovered a man’s body in the wheelhouse. A photo taken later that day shows him slumped headfirst over a Kalashnikov, blood pooling under his body.

The Golden Triangle

When they searched the Yu Xing 8, the Pha Muang spokesperson said, the commandos discovered 400,000 pink pills wrapped in brown waxed paper and packed tightly into 65 bricks, in a cardboard box lying out in the open near the rest of the cargo. The pills had the letters “WY” printed on them, denoting a popular brand of yaba. An inspection of the Hua Ping yielded an additional 520,000 similar pills.

The Pha Muang, one of the force’s officers would later tell reporters, believed that the drugs had been sent downriver by the United Wa State Army—one of the numerous groups in the Golden Triangle that occupy the blurry middle ground between paramilitary force and drug-trafficking syndicate. The WY imprint was commonly associated with the Wa State Army; the group, according to the officer, was believed to be shipping the pills to a casino on the other side of the river.

The task force’s take had a street value of $6 million, and it made for an impressive photo op. But the Thais intercept dozens of drug shipments crossing their borders every year, and aside from the oddity of a shootout in broad daylight, the skirmish with the barges didn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Then, around noon the following day—October 7, two days after the firefight—the crew of a ship docked at the wharf in Chiang Saen saw something in the water. It was a body, bobbing amid the dirty chunks of Styrofoam and other trash collected at the edge of the wharf. The man was dressed in a T-shirt and black pants. He was missing part of his head.


Three hours later, another body washed ashore just upriver from where the first had been spotted. The next morning, when Bon Tae arrived at his job at Thai Kitchen, he found his coworkers crowded along the reeds at the water’s edge. Hopping from one dry patch to another, he made his way down to the river to see what they were looking at. It was a third body, lodged amid the matted vegetation, facedown. Over the course of the day, another eight corpses were spotted along the Mekong. A few of them had managed to drift several miles from where the Pha Muang had boarded the barges. Others bobbed right into Chiang Saen’s harbor, where deckhands gathered to smoke cigarettes and play mah-jongg.

By Sunday morning, a row of corpses lined the wharf in Chiang Saen. All of them would soon be identified as members of the crews of the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8; all of them were Chinese nationals. The oldest was 52 years old. The youngest was 18. With the exception of two women, they were all men. All had been shot, but there were other injuries as well. One crewman had cuts on his body. Another had a broken wrist. One of the two women had a broken neck, capable, an autopsy reported, “of full rotation.” Some had been shot in the head at very close range. Others had been sprayed with machine-gun fire. Most of them were bound and gagged, with heavy tape over their eyes. None of them looked like casualties of a firefight. They had been executed.

News of the killings spread quickly through the tight-knit network of Chinese sailors who worked on the Mekong. Since Deng Xiaoping began encouraging foreign trade in the late 1980s, a bustling traffic in agricultural and manufactured goods had sprung up between China and its downstream neighbors. Some 400,000 tons of legitimate goods now make their way down the river as far as Chiang Saen every year, nearly all of it aboard one of the 116 barges operated out of Guanlei, a little port town in Yunnan Province. The thousand or so sailors who crew the barges come from little mountain villages across southwestern China, and many of them are the second generation in their family to work the Mekong. A crewman will make about $300 a month, roughly double a rural family’s average income.

The first photos hit the Internet over the weekend: the dead, limbs distended, facedown in the muddy river. Worse still were the shots of the bodies splayed on autopsy tables, ragged wounds visible under their clothes. Contrary to belief outside the country, dissent is widespread in China, at least on social media; such channels offer a far more honest gauge of popular sentiment than any public-opinion poll, and government officials monitor it closely. “I really hope President Hu will also see it too and that the Heavenly Kingdom will get justice for its people,” wrote one Internet forum commenter. “They died so tragically,” wrote another. “Government, just when are you going to get justice for our dead compatriots?!” The killings were the lastest in a series of attacks against Chinese in the Golden Triangle, where anti-Chinese resentment had been building as locals watched the country come to dominate the Mekong river trade.

“10/5,” as it came to be known in China—like 9/11, it was a date that needed no further explanation—was one of the largest massacres of Chinese civilians outside the country’s borders since World War II, and it demanded a response. Beijing ordered its Thailand-based consular officials to decamp to Chiang Saen and monitor the situation in person. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao contacted his counterparts in Thailand and Burma to urge “complete cooperation” from their governments. A delegation headed by China’s top cop, Vice Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng, went to Bangkok to lean on the Thai police to move quickly. In the meantime, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Thai chargé d’affaires in Beijing to urge on the investigation. “The Chinese government values the life and safety of every Chinese citizen,” Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao said, “and demands a thorough probe of what happened, and that the murderers be brought to justice.” China, Jiabao’s government made clear, would not be afraid to flex its muscles over the case.

China officially suspended all traffic to and from its ports, and sent a patrol ship to escort the country’s merchant fleet back upriver. The drumbeat for punitive retaliation, meanwhile, was growing in China. “The brutal killing of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River reminds us of the urgency of stepping up security measures in an area plagued by drug trafficking and cross-border crime,” the newspaper China Daily wrote in an editorial.

The Pha Muang’s initial explanation of the incident was now under considerable scrutiny. Who had killed the barge crews, and why had they been blindfolded? Were Chinese merchant marines smuggling drugs, or had someone hidden the bags of pills among the apples and garlic? And why would the smugglers leave behind $6 million worth of drugs when they fled?

By October 10, five days after the incident, the Thais seemed to have a new answer. That morning, an array of officials from the army, the national police force, and the local cops now milling around Chiang Saen all told reporters the same story. The prime suspect, they said, was now a notorious drug runner named Naw Kham, the “freshwater pirate” of the Mekong River. “Investigators suspect,” local police chief Seramsak Seesan told the Chinese state news service Xinhua, “that the Shan drug lord Naw Kham was behind these killings.”


Although Naw Kham’s name was familiar to anyone living along the Mekong, there were only two known photographs of him. The more prominent of them, which Interpol had circulated for years, was a blurry snapshot from the early 1990s, around the time that Naw Kham emerged as one of the leading drug traffickers in the Golden Triangle.

Naw Kham was born in 1969 in Lashio, a sleepy city in Burma’s Shan State, the restive province directly north of the Golden Triangle. The state is named after its dominant ethnic group, of which Naw Kham was a member. The Shan people are believed to have migrated out of the Yunnan region of China sometime in the 10th century; their descendants founded kingdoms in modern-day India, Thailand, Laos, western China, and Burma. The word Thailand is itself derived from Tai, another name for the Shan, and the Shan language can still be heard as far north as the Himalayas and as far south as Vietnam. The Shan people have always been known for their fierce independence—nowhere more so than in Burma, where Shan State, closer to China than it is to Rangoon, has long enjoyed a kind of de facto autonomy.

During Naw Kham’s youth, Shan State was a place deeply scarred by recent history. In 1942, Japanese soldiers swept up the Mekong Valley as they chased the Allies back into India. In 1944, the Allies chased them back across the same territory. By the time Japan finally surrendered, hundreds of thousands of Burmese, many of them Shan, had been killed. For a brief, shining moment after the war, a democratic order beckoned in newly independent Burma. In 1947, representatives of Burma’s major ethnic groups—convened by the head of the country’s interim government, an idealistic revolutionary named Aung San—voted to form a single, unified country. But Aung San and six of his cabinet members were assassinated five months later, and the country plunged into civil war. In 1962, it came under the control of the military junta that ruled the country for the next half century.

In the early years of the junta, Shan State remained mostly beyond the control of the new regime, a wild west in which a dizzying array of ethnic, Communist, and Chinese nationalist militias vied for power. The one thing they had in common was a financial reliance on opium, a crop first introduced on a large scale by the British in the late 19th century. “To fight, you must have an army,” one veteran of the Burmese civil wars told me. “An army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”

Refined into morphine and heroin, then sold to Thai and Laotian traffickers who in turn would sell the drugs to international crime syndicates in Bangkok and Saigon, opium allowed the region’s armed factions to bankroll their various independence campaigns and turf wars indefinitely. It also hopelessly blurred the lines between political struggles and narco-trafficking, to the point where every local guerrilla leader was equal parts Che Guevara and Pablo Escobar.

No one embodied this role more fully than Khun Sa, the charismatic leader of a series of ethnic Shan militias that began fighting to acquire genuine autonomy from Burma for the state in the early 1960s. Thirty-five years later, the goal of self-governance was as elusive as ever, and the Shan people were still mostly mired in subsistence-level poverty. But Khun Sa and his militia had built a multimillion-dollar drug-trafficking empire. According to Alfred W. McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, at the height of its power, Khun Sa’s organization was responsible for a full half of the world’s opium. “He was the world’s most powerful drug lord,” McCoy writes, “with a market share never equaled before or since.”

In 1996, Khun Sa finally brokered a deal with Burma’s ruling junta, in which he agreed to lay down his arms in exchange for amnesty; he retired to a mansion in Rangoon, where he lived until his death in 2007. His army splintered into numerous competing militias—each ostensibly fighting for Shan independence, each deeply engaged in the opium economy. One of them was led by a 26-year-old guerrilla named Naw Kham.


Naw Kham had made a name for himself as a young aide-de-camp to one of Khun Sa’s top colonels. After Khun Sa’s retirement, Naw Kham’s entrepreneurial gifts emerged: He signed a cease-fire with the Burmese government alongside his boss, and he and his gang became a people’s militia force, a euphemism for ethnic rebels who agree not to fight the junta in exchange for free reign to traffic in opium. For years the junta had maintained a measure of peace in Shan State by striking this kind of quid pro quo with as many factions as it could bring into the fold. The arrangement was well-enough known that Naw Kham spoke openly of paying a 30 percent cut of his drug revenues to the government.

Naw Kham’s base of operations was Tachilek, a bustling town near the Thai border. Khun Sa had been known to relish his public persona, courting the international press, but Naw Kham kept his head down. He established a headquarters in a drab concrete compound a couple of miles out of town, shielded from the world by barbed-wire-topped walls. (Even years after his departure, local taxi drivers refuse to take fares near the place.) There, he began methodically building his empire.

Soon, Naw Kham had expanded into the production of methamphetamine—a drug that was cheaper to make, easier to transport, and more profitable than opium. He built his own power plant so Tachilek’s unreliable electrical supply wouldn’t interrupt the operation of his drug labs. Other local traffickers followed his lead, and the Golden Triangle became as well known for methamphetamine as it once was for opium.

By 2006, Naw Kham had grown powerful enough to draw international scrutiny. After he was alleged to have attacked a Chinese patrol boat on the Mekong, Interpol put him on its most-wanted list. The Burmese government, meanwhile, was under increasing international pressure to respond to the rampant drug trade in the Golden Triangle. That May, the Burmese army staged a raid on Naw Kham’s Tachilek compound. The operation yielded some 150 weapons and so many methamphetamine pills that the soldiers didn’t bother to count them; there were “enough to buy the entire town,” a local newspaper reported at the time. The army, however, had failed to capture Naw Kham himself. The kingpin had been tipped off, and by the time the soldiers burst into his compound, he and his mistress had already slipped away.

Far from diminishing his power, the raid seemed only to make Naw Kham more elusive. He decamped to Sam Puu Island, in the middle of the Mekong River near the Golden Triangle—a place where his onetime boss, Khun Sa, had fought some of his most famous battles. There Naw Kham reinvented himself as a Mekong Robin Hood, imposing a tax on drug traffickers —about $160 for every kilogram of heroin and 10 cents for every methamphetamine pill—and redistributing a cut of the proceeds to various local paramilitaries and villagers to establish goodwill. Armed with grenade launchers, assault rifles, and other sophisticated military-grade hardware, Naw Kham and his men—now numbering about 100—would emerge from the shadowy corners of the winding Mekong to prey on unsuspecting ships.

Naw Kham and his followers set up a series of base camps throughout the Golden Triangle, passing ghostlike across national boundaries, where their pursuers couldn’t follow. If the Burmese were chasing him, he slipped into Laos. When the Laotians gave him trouble, he disappeared into the nooks and crannies of Thailand’s northern hills. It was a routine made possible in large part by his roots. “Since modern borders were first established, opportunists like Naw Kham have used them to pursue their own economic and political agendas,” Andrew Walker, a professor at Australian National University and an expert on cross-border trade in the region, has written. “Far from limiting their ambitions, modern borders have given local strongmen a new resource that they could draw upon in their attempts to exert local and regional power.”

Naw Kham had become a sort of folk hero to the people of the Golden Triangle, perhaps in part because he more than anyone else embodied the values of its inhabitants. The region is a place of many languages and several religions, but only one culture, really: Its people are merchants and dealers, operators who have persisted by playing one side against the other, keeping an eye on the main chance. It is a land of middlemen—and Naw Kham was the middleman par excellence.

Still, even Robin Hood can push his luck too far. In time, Naw Kham began demanding payment from ships carrying not just methamphetamines but also lumber, concrete, and fruit. Folk hero or not, no one likes a tax collector. By the time of the massacre, Naw Kham had earned the enmity of nearly everyone who did business on the river, criminal or otherwise—including the Chinese interests who had become more deeply entwined in the cowboy commerce of the Mekong.


Naming Naw Kham as the principal suspect in the 10/5 massacre was one thing; catching him was another. The Hawngluek militia, as Naw Kham’s forces were known, had been evading their enemies for decades. They could strike without notice and then melt away into the mountains of southwestern Burma. For weeks investigators made little headway in their search. Naw Kham had extensive networks throughout the Golden Triangle, but after the shootings they had all gone dark. If anyone knew where he’d gone into hiding, they weren’t saying.

Not long after the killings, China’s vice foreign minister Song Tao summoned high-ranking officials from each country to Beijing. By the time the meeting had concluded, Song had persuaded the other countries to enter into a wide-ranging joint-security agreement to share intelligence and “carry out special campaigns to eradicate criminal organizations which have long threatened the region’s security.” The compact gave China full latitude to pursue Naw Kham wherever he might be, regardless of jurisdiction or sovereignty, according to an intelligence analyst based in Thailand who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the agreement.

On an unseasonably warm day in late October, a little more than two weeks after the shootings, Liu Yuejin, the head of the Narcotics Control Bureau in China’s Ministry of Public Security, arrived in Guanlei, the home port of the two ill-fated barges. A 52-year-old with a flat-topped buzz cut that spoke of a lifetime in law enforcement, Liu cut his teeth in China’s populous northeast. Guanlei, a frontier town on China’s southern periphery, was a long way from Beijing. What Liu needed, he knew, was local knowledge.

Soon Liu began setting up a special team consisting of some 200 Chinese operatives in addition to military and police officials from across the Mekong region. The first order of business, Liu explained in subsequent interviews with several Chinese and American media outlets, was to identify the “men in black.” Witnesses had described seeing men wearing face masks and dressed in black clothing aboard the two vessels. No one had identified Naw Kham as being among them. But then this went to the root of Liu’s problem: Few people knew what Naw Kham looked like. All Liu had was a photo taken 20 years ago.

Liu’s men spread out across the region. The team identified a trafficker with ties to Naw Kham, lured him into Chinese waters, and took him into custody. On interrogation, the man offered to lead them to a drug mule whom he said worked directly for Naw Kham, or at least might know where to find him. Every 10 to 15 days, he said, the mule went up the Mekong into Shan’s drug-addled heartland.

The mule—likely traveling up the Mekong in a small boat, under cover of darkness—would be difficult to catch. But Liu had his own network. Southeast Asian countries often sent their law enforcement officers to China for training, and Liu had kept in touch with many of them. With the assistance of local police in Burma, Liu’s men captured the mule and brought him to China for interrogation. The man provided information about the structure of Naw Kham’s organization. Naw Kham, he said, had three lieutenants. Hsang Kham, 60, acted as Naw Kham’s chief lieutenant. Two other seasoned veterans of the Golden Triangle drug trade, Yi Lai and Weng Mie, reported to Hsang Kham. Naw Kham himself was elusive and spent most days hidden in the house of one mistress or another, or in one of his jungle camps.

On December 13, Yi Lai—a squat, broad-shouldered man with tightly cropped gray hair—was spotted on a bus in northwest Laos. He, too, was arrested and brought to China for interrogation. The noose around Naw Kham was beginning to tighten. Using information provided by Naw Kham’s lieutenant, the team conducted a sweep of villages up and down the Mekong. But Liu was fighting on Naw Kham’s home turf now—and even with four countries’ law enforcement resources at his disposal, capturing him wouldn’t be easy.


In late December, Liu learned that Naw Kham was holed up with his mistress in a Laotian village near where the crew of the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 had washed up. But just as they were surrounding the town, local officials and villagers came out to stop them. Even the presence of Laotian troops couldn’t deter them. “We were held there in a standoff,” Liu later told a Chinese news site. “We had the local sheriff, but they brought in local officials.” In Laos, the villagers explained, law enforcement is not conducted at night.

Finally, a high-ranking Laotian military officer broke the blockade. But by that time Naw Kham had escaped, paddling a small boat across the Mekong. It was Liu’s introduction to a dispiriting fact: He had his law enforcement network, but Naw Kham had been playing Robin Hood for years, doling out money to local villagers and making regular payments to the cops and grunts who served in the low-paying armies of Burma and Laos.

Shortly after the New Year, someone crept out of the jungle near Naw Kham’s haunt on Sam Puu Island and shot two grenades toward a group of Chinese barges and the gunboat that was protecting them. Ten days later, another attack was launched on a Chinese barge from the Laos side of the river. No one was hurt in either attack, but the message was clear: Naw Kham would not go quietly.

Naw Kham and about 40 of his associates by now had moved up into the mountainous jungle outside Tachilek, the city they had once ruled like kings. The Chinese task force was not far behind, but this time Liu had learned his lesson. He ordered his men to avoid using local mobile networks, favoring instead China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. Finally, in February, a local informant led them to the pirate’s camp. “A dozen tents were set up, and more than 40 armed men guarded the campsite,” Ma Jun, a member of the task force, later told China Daily. “In the daytime, only one small path led to the camp, but at night it was closed off with fallen trees, and the surrounding grassland was covered with land mines.”

Any approach was sure to lead to fatalities. Liu thought of calling Beijing to request a drone strike, but this would have been a momentous step on China’s part—a declaration that they, like the United States, were entitled to perform such cross-border extrajudicial killings. At the last minute, his superiors pulled back. “Catch him alive,” Liu was told.

After five days of observation, a member of the task force inadvertently alerted a sentry in Naw Kham’s camp, who sounded an alarm, and Naw Kham managed to give Liu the slip yet again. The Chinese media were starting to compare him to Osama bin Laden, and Liu himself was wondering if he hadn’t unwittingly volunteered for a similarly difficult manhunt. And yet, as Liu told The New York Times earlier this year, at every step they were chipping away at Naw Kham’s militia, capturing a few men here, a few more there. He knew he was getting closer.

The breakthrough came months later, on April 20, when the task force managed to catch Naw Kham’s right-hand man, Hsang Kham. Liu now had the pirate’s first and second lieutenants. Both, he later claimed, confessed to participating in the killings at the behest of their boss. And both knew his movements.

On April 25, Liu learned that Naw Kham was about to cross the Mekong back into Laos, not far from where Liu had almost caught him back in December. This time, Liu kept his operation a secret. Late that night, when Naw Kham and two associates slid onto shore near the village of Ban Mom, the law was there to greet him. Naw Kham reportedly tried to escape again, taking the boat back into the river. But Laotian police chased him down and took him into custody. The hunt was over. Within the week, Naw Kham would be transferred to the Laotian capital, Vientiane, then extradited to China, where the full force of the judicial system awaited him.

Liu was careful to spread the credit evenly. “Four countries—China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand—succeeded in arresting Naw Kham and the gang’s core members,” he told Xinhua shortly after Naw Kham was brought back to China. “China will adhere to relevant international conventions in carrying out interrogation of the suspect, and we promise a fair and just judicial process.”

Back in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, however, a journalist named Khuensai Jaiyen had his doubts. Six months earlier, Jaiyen had received a phone call. It was Naw Kham.

Jaiyen asked Naw Kham if he was guilty of the crime that the Chinese authorities had pinned on him. “He had two answers: He was not involved in the killings, and he didn’t know who killed them,” Jaiyen later told me. “Just two sentences, then he hung up.”


On an overcast morning in July 2012, I met Jaiyen at a shopping center in Chiang Mai, where he lives. Polite and owlish behind thick glasses, he waved me into his old Corolla. The monsoon season was under way, and as we drove back to his house, a light mist gave way to a pounding downpour.

Jaiyen lives in a neighborhood of modest bungalows. After driving past a tall fence that shielded the courtyard from the dusty street, we dashed through the rain into the house where he lives with his wife and son. In the well-kept living room, photographs of a younger Jaiyen with various dignitaries and generals lined the walls.

A pleasant city of canals and low-rise buildings, Chiang Mai is a hub for exiles from various repressive regimes elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Jaiyen is representative: His journalism, which he publishes in a Shan- and English-language newspaper called the Shan Herald, makes many people in his native Burma very uncomfortable. For years, he has documented the Burmese drug trade in Shan Drug Watch, an annual report that regional analysts consider far more reliable than the yearly monograph released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. No journalist has better sources in the Golden Triangle, a fact that Jaiyen owes to the role he once played in the region’s conflicts.

Like Naw Kham, Jaiyen was born in Lashio, in Shan State, 20 years before the outlaw. He studied music at the local university until 1968, when he was swept up in the fight for Shan autonomy. At the time, Khun Sa had just begun to assemble his army, and Jaiyen was determined to join. With his education and contacts with the local elite, he became Khun Sa’s press officer. “I wanted to fight for the resistance, but when I got to the camp they gave me a desk job,” Jaiyen told me, sighing and sipping gingerly from his tea. “It was a big letdown.”

For years, as the guerrillas’ fortunes waxed and waned, Jaiyen disseminated Khun Sa’s communiqués. In 1984, Jaiyen obtained an old offset printing press and started publishing a monthly magazine in the Shan language to further the struggle for independence. In 1996, when Khun Sa laid down his weapons, he encouraged Jaiyen to cross the border to Thailand and continue the fight with the pen, if not the sword. “Go out and do your job,” Khun Sa told him.

Jaiyen’s experience with Khun Sa’s forces gave him an unsurpassed network of sources within Shan State—and within the inner circle of the region’s most notorious criminal. When Jaiyen left Burma for Thailand, Naw Kham was little more than a foot soldier, but he steadily rose through the ranks to become a regional commander. Jaiyen says that something changed in Naw Kham after the 2006 raid forced him into the shadows.

According to Jaiyen, Naw Kham was rarely seen conducting the actual raids on passing barges. He gained a reputation as a ruthless leader who operated behind the scenes, a Keyser Söze of the Mekong. He carefully reconstructed the network of official patronage that had dissolved after the 2006 raid—to the point, Jaiyen claims, that Naw Kham even had a relationship with Ko Ko, the lieutenant general in the Burmese army who currently serves as the country’s antidrug czar. (Such brazen corruption is somewhat easier to understand in light of the fact that opium constitutes a whopping 40 percent of Burma’s exports.) But it wasn’t the Burmese government Naw Kham had to worry about.

In the decades since China initiated its open-door policy, the volume of legitimate trade passing through Chiang Saen’s port has increased to $450 million a year. Most of it moves aboard Chinese-owned barges like the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 that ply the 150-mile stretch of the river between Guanlei and Chiang Saen, jostling for space with the colorful wooden longtail boats that have dominated the Mekong’s traffic for hundreds of years.

The shifts in the illegal commerce along the Mekong are more difficult to assess but are palpable nonetheless. In addition to its drug exports, the Golden Triangle is now a leading source for exotic hardwoods, rhinoceros horns, tiger penises, jade, rubies, and young village girls destined for Bangkok brothels or bride-starved rural China. The line between legal and illegal commerce on the Mekong has always been hazy; the river has always been full of vessels like the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 carrying contraband in their holds alongside their legitimate cargo. So it followed that as the balance of power shifted in one, so too would it shift in the other: Having nearly cornered the market on legitimate trade, the Chinese began to dominate the illicit trade as well.

The Chinese have begun literally remaking the river to suit their interests; the country’s engineers have built five dams along the river since the early 1990s, and three more are planned. This has made the governments of Burma, Thailand, and Laos even more dependent on the regional hegemon, which not only supplies them with soft loans and arms sales but also controls the water their citizens depend on for fishing, trade, and irrigation.

All of these shifts posed a threat not just to the above- and belowground economies of the Golden Triangle, but to its whole identity. Everything about the region—from its black market intermediaries to its byzantine web of independence movements and guerrilla armies—was now an obstacle to the regional expansion of the flourishing Chinese economy; the in-between people of the Golden Triangle were now simply in the way. And nobody was more in the way than Naw Kham.

One day in December 2011, Jaiyen had just returned to his Chiang Mai bungalow when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number. When he picked up, it turned out to be one of his guerrilla contacts in the wilds of eastern Burma. “I have news on Naw Kham,” the contact told him. Jaiyen scrambled for a notebook. “He is not fighting the Chinese,” the man went on. “But his men have been idle for months, so he has ordered them to undergo a little field training.” The contact laughed. “He has them fighting the Burmese.” The contact said Naw Kham had spoken as if it were all a lark.

I asked Jaiyen if he thought Naw Kham was a freedom fighter or a criminal. He thought for a moment, then replied, “I don’t know. They call him the godfather of the Golden Triangle. If you are going to be a godfather then you must be ruthless.” Still, Jaiyen was far from convinced that Naw Kham committed 13 murders. For one thing, it would have been a shocking departure from his militia’s standard operating procedure, which was to acquire the maximum amount of tax with the minimum amount of hassle. The only deaths previously attributed to Naw Kham were soldiers and police officers, and those were generally in combat. Anyone versed in the politics of the region would have known the wrath such a massacre would incur. “Whoever did it, it means they wanted to go to jail,” Jaiyen said. “They’ve become tired of living in this world.”

What perplexed Jaiyen wasn’t Naw Kham’s claim of innocence but his claim of ignorance. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the first response—why would he do it?” Jaiyen told me. “But on the second? Impossible. He had to have known.”

I asked who else, if not Naw Kham, might have been behind the killings. “I’m still trying to reconstruct the event, but many [pieces] are missing from it,” he said. By way of illustration, he opened an old edition of one of his Shan Drug Watch reports and pointed to a picture of an elegantly dressed older man. “That’s Zhao Wei,” he said.


The taxi drove north through the night along the winding, potholed river road out of Chiang Rai. After about an hour, the road turned north and began following the river. Light glinted occasionally off the water from the far shore, but for the most part the Mekong was a great blank expanse. It was nearly midnight, late enough that the storefronts were all shuttered. Eventually, they gave way to empty expanses of rice paddies and the occasional cluster of palm trees. Then, as we rounded a bend, a bright light came into view. It was a 7-Eleven sign, with “Golden Triangle Convenience Store” written in a gilt script beneath the familiar logo. We’d arrived.

I hadn’t expected much in the way of hospitality in the Golden Triangle; it seemed reasonable to assume that such a legendarily lawless part of the world wouldn’t take kindly to strangers. In fact, in the past decade the Thais have pulled off an audacious marketing coup, leveraging the very infamy of the Golden Triangle into a tourist attraction. The jungle hills, better known for endless, grinding guerrilla wars, are now home to expensive spas frequented by prosperous Thais and European newlyweds. There are elephant rides, giant golden Buddhas, and three opium museums. The development is almost enough to conceal the fact that the drugs and violence never really went away. It’s as if the gunfighters of Deadwood or Tombstone were still using live ammunition.

I checked into a hotel just downriver from Sam Puu Island, Naw Kham’s erstwhile island headquarters. I had imagined something like a guerrilla camp with showers, with mortars exploding in the distance. I had not imagined a heated infinity pool or the tasteful teak deck that I walked past on my way to the reception desk. Later that night, from the hotel balcony, I took in the view along the Mekong. Upstream, the lights burned bright on the Thai side of the river, then disappeared abruptly at the Burmese border, beyond which there was nothing but jungle receding into the night. Across the river, in Laos, a giant golden crown, 10 stories high and lit with neon lights, rose above the canopy.

The crown sat atop the Kings Romans casino—the alleged destination, according to the Pha Muang’s initial story, of the drug shipments aboard the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8. The business was the centerpiece of a 39-square-mile special economic zone that Laotian officials had established in 2005. They had been persuaded to do so by a Chinese investor named Zhao Wei, who was promptly given a 99-year lease on the property for an undisclosed sum. Zhao laid out plans for an ambitious development, including an airport, factories, and other projects that he assured the government would usher in a flood of foreign investment and raise the standard of living for the local villagers. But by 2011, ground had been broken on none of these projects save one: the casino.

A businessman from northern China then in his mid-fifties, Zhao had cut his entrepreneurial teeth as a traveling salesman before moving in 1990 to Macau, the special economic zone and onetime Portuguese colony then transitioning back to Chinese rule. Macau had been a regional gambling destination since the 1960s, and after the Chinese government opened up the market to foreign enterprises in 2002, industry heavyweights—the Sands, Wynn, and Venetian chains, among others—turned it into a global casino mecca.

Zhao found his way into the local gambling establishment, investing in some VIP rooms, but soon turned his attention elsewhere: Rather than jostling for space in an already crowded market, he set about building his own Macaus in China’s backyard. In 2000, he brokered an agreement with Shan rebels who allowed him to open a casino just across the China-Burma border in the town of Mong La, a tough frontier town that was also the base of operations for the Shan drug lord Sai Leun. The casino catered to an almost entirely Chinese clientele. “It really is extremely convenient,” Zhao told Good magazine in 2012. “They can just walk over the border with their money.”

Comparably stable Laos seemed like an even more promising opportunity, and Zhao sold Laotian officials on the idea that it would be good for the otherwise anemic local economy as well. An early promotional video for the Kings Romans casino paints a grand picture of Zhao’s vision: Against footage of the Mekong tumbling out of the Chinese Himalayas, bringing life to the downriver countries of Southeast Asia, a narrator describes Chinese investment lifting the local villagers out of dependence on the opium economy, just as the Chinese upriver lifted themselves out of poverty two decades earlier.

It soon became clear, however, that Zhao had no intention of keeping his promises. Chinese labor was imported to build the casino, and Zhao brought in Chinese investors who teamed up with the Laotian military to forcibly relocate hundreds of the area’s villagers. The lingua franca of the economic zone was Mandarin Chinese, the currency was the Chinese yuan, and even the street signs were written in Chinese.


A few days after checking into my hotel, I found an office in an otherwise abandoned development nearby that offered to take me across the river to the Kings Romans casino. When I mentioned that I didn’t have a visa for travel into Laos, the clerk said, “No problem. You pay.” Along with a translator and two other traveling companions, I boarded a small ferry crammed with Chinese tourists for the 10-minute ride across the broad river. Once ashore, we were pointed to a golden-domed pagoda that served as an immigration checkpoint, where I was issued a one-day visa that restricted me to the grounds of the special economic zone and Kings Romans. The last ferry would return at 5 p.m., after which point I would be an illegal immigrant.

Vans were lined up near the checkpoint. I asked the first driver if he would be willing to take me north past the Golden Triangle to Ban Mom, the village where Naw Kham was apprehended, and he agreed. After a few miles, the special economic zone gave way to the real Laos. We passed reed huts propped on thin stilts above rice paddies. When we reached Ban Mom, however, the quality of the housing stock improved considerably. Interspersed with the huts were veritable mansions—massive, gated homes painted in bright pastel and adorned with Greek columns. I asked the driver—a thin man in early middle age who asked that I not use his name—how villagers in one of the poorest countries in the world could afford these homes. He looked at my camera and the microphone sticking out of my backpack, then at me. After a long pause, he said, “All of this is from Naw Kham’s money.

“Naw Kham was like in the movie,” he went on. “Like Robin Hood. He only robbed bad people, those who make illegal money, and helped the poor.” He only emerged as a notorious outlaw, the driver said, once the Chinese broke ground on the casino—at which point he began to lose control of his gang. They started taking chances, like kidnapping the casino tourists and holding them for ransom.

As we left the village I asked if we could go to the shore near Sam Puu Island; while Naw Kham and his lieutenants had been captured, his rank and file were reputed to still be hiding out in the jungle there. After 15 minutes picking our way down a deeply rutted dirt track, we pulled into a grass clearing near the river. As I started to get out of the van, the driver motioned for me to hide my camera and microphone under some blankets on the backseat. He pointed upriver, where Sam Puu Island lay around the bend; this was as close as we could get, he said. As if on cue, a silver Mercedes SUV zoomed past. “It is dangerous for me,” he said, looking nervously around as we pulled back onto the dirt path.

On the day of the killings, the driver told me, he had been at the same pier near the immigration checkpoint where he’d picked me up. He saw three speedboats accompanying the two Chinese barges downriver—Naw Kham’s boats, he said. I asked how he knew. “Everyone knew Naw Kham’s boats,” he said. “They were new and had the biggest engines.” Naw Kham, he said, had been paid to provide protection to the barges. “He was making sure the shipment”—drugs and cash—“arrived at the port.” Then, the driver said, he saw Naw Kham’s speedboats turn around and take off at high speed. Then the shooting began. From his vantage he couldn’t tell who was shooting, but he didn’t think it was Naw Kham. “If he wanted to kill these people, he would do it up north, not here.”

Looking around, it did seem that this particular stretch of river would’ve been an unlikely choice for a premeditated mass murder. The casino was a mile downstream; across the river, I could make out both the well-trafficked Thai Kitchen restaurant and my hotel. It wouldn’t make sense unless, perhaps, you wanted people to see the crime—if you wanted to send a message.

The entrance to the Kings Romans casino is a giant portico, topped with a mock-classical fresco of frolicking mythical water beasts and guarded by a doorman and a handful of armed security personnel. Inside, a few employees milled around listlessly. A grand staircase dominated the lobby, but when we made our way toward it, a guard approached and directed us to the gaming room instead. In the ballroom-sized chamber, about a hundred gamblers sat around a few dozen card tables.

Compared to Las Vegas, it was almost quaint—and while hardly empty, it had none of the bustle and energy of an American casino. At a nearby table, four Chinese businessmen were pushing chips forward to the croupier. I didn’t recognize the game they were playing, and when I tried to ask a nearby guard I was waved along brusquely once again. Then a member of my group tried to take a picture with his iPhone, at which point a guard informed us that our visit had come to an end and escorted us out the door.

Zhao’s move into the heart of the Golden Triangle presented a threat to Naw Kham. The new predator disrupted the ecosystem, and the predictable result was bloodshed. In the turf war that ensued, Naw Kham had something that Zhao did not: local sympathy. He began regularly raiding Chinese vessels bound for the casino and distributing the proceeds to the Laotian villagers who had been displaced by Zhao, and employing them to work in his own empire. One villager told the Shan Herald that she hoped Naw Kham would never be caught. “He’s been very good to us,” she said.

The war between Naw Kham and Zhao began to heat up in April 2011, when Naw Kham’s forces abducted three boats bound for the Kings Romans casino. After three days, Zhao—facing a raft of terrible publicity and a certain decline in business—agreed to pay a ransom of $830,000 for the safe return of the boats and their passengers. But the incident had been a miscalculation on Naw Kham’s part: Now he was on the Chinese government’s radar.

Naw Kham had always enjoyed a freedom of operation that was the envy of the other militias in the region. (Jaiyen believes the local authorities could have caught him easily on plenty of occasions, if they had actually wanted to.) Now those days were over. On September 22, Burmese army forces raided Naw Kham’s base on Sam Puu Island, reportedly killing over a dozen of his men and uncovering a cache of weapons. Four days later, in a move that Jaiyen believes was a reprisal for the attack on Naw Kham’s forces, Laotian police—who were known to have protected Naw Kham in the past—raided the Kings Romans casino, where they discovered 20 sacks of yaba worth some $1.6 million.

Ten days after the raid, the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 set sail from Guanlei, China, bound for Chiang Saen on what would be their crews’ final voyage.


On September 18, 2012, China Central Television, the country’s principal state-run network, broadcast an interview with Naw Kham. Wearing athletic shorts and a bright yellow prison-issue vest, Naw Kham looked tired but acquiescent; by then he and the other men Liu’s team had captured had been interrogated for four months. The CCTV reporter asked him why he had been arrested. A network translator related the pirate’s words in Chinese: “Because I planned and killed 13 Chinese on the Mekong River on October 5, 2011.” The network cut to footage of the bullet-riddled hulls of the Chinese barges. Why did he do it? the reporter wanted to know. “Because those two ships had attacked my base,” Naw Kham replied through the translator. “I wanted revenge.”

The trial opened two days later in the intermediate people’s court—similar to a district court in the United States—in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. Much of the trial was broadcast live, something of a rarity in China, and Liu Yuejin, Naw Kham’s captor, was brought onto CCTV to narrate the coverage. As the defendants, heads covered in baggy black hoods, were frog-marched out of police vans into the court building, CCTV anchor Cui Zhigang turned to Liu. “You’ve seen [Naw Kham] many times,” Cui said. “What did he look like when he was first transferred from Laos to China?”

“He did not look good,” Liu replied. “He had long hair and a beard. He’s recovered a lot from these several months in detention.” Naw Kham’s jailers, Liu noted, had even prepared him traditional Shan food.

The program cut to a reporter on the scene. “Seven prosecutors will come today, and they are the best nationally,” she said. “The six defendants all have lawyers, and they are all very experienced. The trial will be very competitive and exciting.” This was not strictly true; rather than a veteran criminal attorney, the Chinese government appointed Lin Li, a young lawyer from the area specializing in real estate law, who evidently did not meet her client until partway through the trial. Still, there was some excitement surrounding the question of how Naw Kham, his televised confession notwithstanding, would plead. “Naw Kham was cunning during the investigation,” the reporter continued. “He denied his guilt again and again. When met with key questions, he said he could not understand the translator.”

Eventually, Naw Kham and five codefendants were led into a courtroom the size of a concert hall. The prosecutors and defense attorneys occupied their own area off to one side of the room. The judge, a thin man with pinched features, sat on a dais high above the proceedings. Each prisoner sat inside his own stall, alone, facing the judge.

The trial, anticipated to last three days, had an ambitious agenda. In addition to the marquee charges—intentional homicide, drug trafficking, kidnapping—the suspects were to be tried for the kidnapping of the Kings Romans employees in April 2011. In addition, the judge would settle the civil suit brought against Naw Kham and his conspirators by the victims’ families.

As the trial progressed, the testimonies of the defendants and the witnesses gradually cohered into a picture of what happened on the Mekong on October 5, 2011. The Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 left the port in Guanlei shortly after dawn that morning. On an uneventful day, the journey to Chiang Saen takes eight hours. As the sun broke over the mountains of Laos, the barges entered the last and most dangerous stretch of the passage, a 30-mile chute that the Chinese media have dubbed the “devil waters” for its profusion of militias and pirates.

The barges docked in Sop Lui, a bustling little port on the Burmese side of the river, where the Hua Ping picked up fuel to deliver to Thailand. Early in the trial, the judge declared that the Chinese sailors could not possibly have been trafficking the drugs themselves. But if the two barges were to take on a shipment of yaba pills like those found at the scene of the crime, Sop Lui would have been the place to do it—the port is a well-known entrepôt for heroin and methamphetamine shipments originating from the United Wa State Army.

As the barges passed Naw Kham’s Sam Puu Island base camp, one of Naw Kham’s accomplices testified, they were approached by two longtail boats carrying three men each. The crews on the Hua Ping and the Yu Xing 8 would have known that the conflicts on this stretch of the river had increased. They would have heard rumors that Naw Kham was at war with Zhao Wei of the Kings Romans casino. And they would have known that they were potential targets in this war.


Only three of the defendants admitted to having been present during the hijacking; all three occupied the lowest rungs of Naw Kham’s organization. Zha Bo, 35, received a free cell phone and about $95 a month to spy on Burmese military movements. “Sometimes,” he added, “I help them build straw huts.” Zha Xiha, 28, was in charge of driving the gang’s speedboats. Zha Tuobo, 30, played a similarly minor role in the gang.

Both Zha Xiha and Zha Bo said they were at their homes that morning when they were called to help the gang. They took a boat from their village and headed downstream until they came upon two large Chinese barges stopped by the shore. “We boarded the ship, and my boss”—a higher-ranking henchman in Naw Kham’s group–“gave me a gun,” Zha Xiha told the court. With the exception of the two captains, the crews of both barges were bound and tied and gathered aboard the Hua Ping. “My boss told me to go to the cabin on the first floor. There were two Chinese sailors there. I was to detain them.”

At some point, the two barges started moving. By the time they stopped again, they had passed the Golden Triangle and crossed into Thailand. Zha Xiha was told to moor the barges to a tree. When he got back on board, his boss took him aside. “He said if I heard the sound of a gun,” Zha Xiha said, “I needed to kill this sailor,” referring to a man in front of him. Zha Xiha heard the sound of gunfire from the deck above him. The sailor Zha Xiha was guarding sat with his back to him. “I was scared. I closed my eyes and fired twice,” Zha Xiha testified. He would later receive about $300 for the killing, he said.

Once the job was done, Zha Xiha and the other members of the gang jumped into their longtail boats and fled upriver, back to Burma and safety. Left behind were 13 dead or dying sailors, nearly a million pills of methamphetamine intended to frame the Chinese—and, according to the prosecution, Thailand’s Pha Muang commandos, who had the bloody task of finishing what Naw Kham’s men had started.

“We saw several Thai soldiers board the Chinese barges,” a policeman from Chiang Saen said in his testimony. “We heard them begin shooting. More soldiers boarded the ships, and we saw a burst of smoke. The gunfire came one after another.” He immediately called his supervisor (neither officer was identified during the course of the trial), who quickly made the short drive north from Chiang Saen.

When his supervisor was about 250 feet from the two cargo ships, he was stopped by Thai soldiers, who explained that they had found drugs on board. In Thailand, the policeman explained, the army has jurisdiction over drug cases. “Then I heard shots coming from the [barges],” he said. After the shooting had ended and the smoke had cleared, he managed to get on board one of the vessels. “I heard a soldier talking on the phone about how to deal with the bodies,” he told the court. “A soldier on the bank of the river called out: ‘The less bodies, the better.’” Another witness testified to having seen the Pha Muang throwing the murdered sailors into the river.

When the prosecutor turned to Naw Kham and asked him if he had participated in the events of October 5, he replied, “I did not go with them,” referring to his codefendants. The hijacking and executions, he went on, were “their decision.” Instead, Naw Kham placed the blame squarely on the Thai military.

The prosecutor complained that Naw Kham was being evasive. “Did you participate in the organizing, planning, and the operation [of the crime]?” he asked. “Please answer my question directly.”

“No,” Naw Kham said.

Shortly after 5:30 p.m. the next day, Xinhua released a statement: “Naw Kham, principal suspect for the murders of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River last year, pleaded guilty Friday evening when he and five other people were standing trial in southwest China.” Naw Kham, the statement said, “expressed his penitence to the victims and their families in court, hoping for leniency.” He had even offered to pay civil restitution of nearly $1 million to the victim’s families, the agency reported.

But that part of the trial was neither televised nor made public. Nor, for that matter, was any incontrovertible proof that Naw Kham had committed the crimes at all. In his CCTV interview before the proceedings began, had boasted of Naw Kham and his men, “However they perform in the trial, it will not change the truth of the crime, because we already have enough evidence.” The prosecution, too, had promised overwhelming evidence: DNA, ballistics, documents, and damning testimony. Yet the ballistics evidence was provided by the Thai coroner who had conducted autopsies on the 13 corpses and professed he could not tell “how many types of guns were used in this case.” He recommended the court consult “a gun specialist if needed.”

In the parts of the trial made public, the prosecution didn’t even try to place Naw Kham definitively at the scene of the crime or at the planning session where Naw Kham’s henchmen allegedly conspired with the Pha Muang to frame the sailors, murder them in cold blood, and dispose of their bodies The only evidence linking Naw Kham to the crime was the Nuremberg defense offered by his lieutenants, who insisted they weren’t at the scene of the crime either and that whatever limited role they might have played was conducted at the behest of their boss.

Perhaps the most damning implication of Naw Kham’s guilt had come from Naw Kham himself, in his pretrial interview with CCTV—a clip that cycled relentlessly before the network’s viewers. But that, too, wasn’t as it seemed. Reviewing the footage, a viewer conversant in the Shan language would have noticed that the interview was, in fact, rather different from what Chinese viewers would have heard in the translator’s voiceover. Speaking in Shan, Naw Kham’s interviewer asks him why he has been taken into custody. Naw Kham replies, “It concerns the affair on October 5 with two Chinese boats. Others killed those people and others suspected [me] and others arrested [me].” There was no admission of guilt and no mention of revenge.


In November 2012, Naw Kham and three of his higher-ranking codefendants were sentenced to death by lethal injection. The other two defendants received eight years in prison and a “reprieved death sentence.” Naw Kham appealed the judgment against him the following month; his lawyer Lin Li noted to the court that the prosecution hadn’t presented any “direct evidence that Naw Kham was the engineer of the murders.” He had long ago passed power on to his subordinates, she said, and had no control over them. And beyond that, she continued, he had no motivation.

It was a persuasive argument. Few would have doubted Naw Kham’s capacity for villainy, but he was nothing if not a rational criminal—a man who had managed to thrive under difficult circumstances by keenly reading the ever shifting balances of power in one of the most complex and perilous corners of the world. Whoever arranged for the murder of the 13 Chinese sailors would have known that a terrible wrath would quickly follow. It was difficult to imagine—to imagine Naw Kham himself imagining—any outcome in which he would not have been the biggest loser, and in which his rival Zhao Wei would not have been the biggest winner. The casino owner’s development, the avant-garde of Chinese economic expansion in the region, would now enjoy the benefit of regular military patrols—assurance that his interests would never be threatened by another Naw Kham.

“No one will ever know the full truth of what happened on October 5, 2011,” Khuensai Jaiyen told me with a shrug. He had watched this little corner of the world for nearly half a century, more than enough time to know that nothing in the Golden Triangle happened in the straightforward manner recounted in the Chinese court. Even the families of the victims seemed unconvinced that justice had been served in full. “We have worked on ships on the Mekong for 14 years and never once heard that Chinese ships pay protection money to Naw Kham,” He Xilun, who lost his brother and sister-in-law in the attack, told Patrick Boehler, a journalist based in Southeast Asia. “In this trial the truth has not been revealed. I don’t know why [the attack] happened. We only know the tip of the iceberg.”

The court in Kunming had found Naw Kham and his pirate crew guilty of murder “in collusion with a rogue unit of the Thai military,” but there were no plans to extradite the nine Pha Muang soldiers who were involved. A Chinese investigative journalist, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political sensitivity of the case, scoffed at the notion that the investigation would go any further. “Executing Naw Kham will be the end of this story,” he told me. “The social status of these 13 sailors is so low that no one cares to go further.” Dong Rubin—a popular writer, under the nom de plume Bianmin, on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo—wrote that Naw Kham’s prosecution was a political and not a criminal trial. When I tried to contact him in September, I learned that he had been arrested recently for his comments.

The Thai Parliament—which, as a civilian branch of government in a coup-wracked country, was prone to view the Thai military with suspicion—had looked into the matter, too. A report issued by the Parliament’s committee for internal affairs found that witnesses not only saw the Pha Muang executing the Chinese sailors, but were able to provide the committee with photographs that showed the soldiers in the act. Whether the commandos in question were a rogue unit, or just dispensing the sort of rough justice that the Thai military has traditionally meted out to suspected offenders, is a question as yet without an answer.

The day after Christmas, the Higher People’s Court of Kunming denied Naw Kham’s appeal. Two months later, CCTV cameras followed Naw Kham, wearing a beige jacket over a gray prison uniform, as he was led out of prison in Kunming by a phalanx of black-clad police officers. Naw Kham looked ahead passively, even smiling slightly at times, then winced as his arms were tied behind his back with a coarse cord. A scrum of photographers snapped pictures. A man who was only known to have been photographed twice prior to his capture would now be the first person executed on live television in China.

In the end, the cameras cut away from Naw Kham, sitting calmly with his arms strapped to a chair, the moment after he was administered the lethal injection. It seemed a fittingly ambiguous end for a man about whom it was difficult to say anything for certain. Even seasoned observers entertained theories that under other circumstances might have seemed conspiratorial or worse. “Did they really kill him? Who knows?” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. “People in China saw Bo Xilai”—the powerful Chinese politican sentenced in September to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power—“smiling as he was sentenced and wondered whether that was all a big show, too.”

Bertil Lintner, a journalist who has covered the drug wars of Southeast Asia for various European papers for nearly 40 years, was skeptical when he saw the photographs. Lintner had met Naw Kham back in the early ’90s, when he was still a rising star in Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army. “I don’t know who they killed,” he told me, “but that’s not Naw Kham.”

Sunai Chulpongsatorn, the Thai MP whose committee investigated the October 5 incident, went further, telling Andrew Marshall of Reuters, “There are many Naw Khams, not just one. It’s like in a drama. He’s a made-up character. He exists, but it seems he has been given a lot of extra importance.” He became a convenient legend and, in the end, a scapegoat who allowed the real business of the Mekong to continue running smoothly.

“Naw Kham was the ultimate fall guy,” an intelligence analyst with deep roots in the Golden Triangle told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Pha Muang guys were responsible for the killing. The Chinese know that. The Thai police know it. But China has bigger fish to fry in Thailand than investigating the death of 13 peasants.” 

During my visit to Chiang Saen in July 2012, I interviewed Manop Senakun, the chief of the local marine police force, who had been one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the shootings. In a dimly lit concrete room, he turned on a projector and presented a slide show about the case, rehashing its few agreed-upon facts. When he finished, I tried to draw him out, asking if he thought Naw Kham had really killed the Chinese crews, or if perhaps the Pha Muang had acted alone or at the behest of someone else. “I really don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you can tell me. I heard the killers worked for the CIA.”

I was surprised to learn that nine months after the incident, the Hua Ping and the Yuxing 8 were still in Chiang Saen; in fact, they were tied up at a dock just across the street from the marine police station. There was no police tape or warnings to indicate a crime scene, and peering down from the dock it was easy enough to see into the cabins. Bullet holes marred many of the windows and ran up the sides of the vessels like a rash. The families of the victims had not bothered, or perhaps not been allowed, to gather the personal belongings that had been left behind on the ship. Through an open window, I saw a textbook and papers; through another I saw a Hello Kitty cup full of pens, a pair of child-size socks, an Adidas bag. In the corner of an open deck, someone had planted herbs in recycled Sunoco oil barrels.

Out on the river, another Chinese barge passed by on its way to a new port built just south of Chiang Saen. “Nothing will change,” a Chinese crew member I met on the dock told me when I asked about the aftermath of the shootings. “Someone else will just take Naw Kham’s place.” Behind him, the Mekong rolled on, muddy and indifferent.