River Pirates

How China Used Drones to Capture a Notorious Burmese Drug Lord

How China used drones to track and capture the notorious kingpin of the Mekong delta.

04.17.14 9:45 AM ET

The Chinese called him Godfather. He was a Burmese national—resistance fighter, drug smuggler, kidnapper, warlord. At his height of power, Naw Kham accumulated $63 million and commanded over 400 militia members in the Golden Triangle, a hotbed for opium production in Southeast Asia. He was pursued by law-enforcement officials from Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and China. After a lengthy manhunt that flirted with becoming a shadow war, the Chinese employed a technology that they have been quietly perfecting: unmanned aerial vehicles.

Naw Kham had raided Chinese ships and killed Chinese sailors, and some of his pursuers hoped to find a quick resolution by ending his life with a bomb dropped from the sky, even though he was on foreign soil. However, Beijing observed and processed the torrents of criticism that America has endured over its drone strokes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Chinese decided to reject that option, and avoid the risk of casting villain as victim.  Instead of dealing death from above, they opted to capture him and put him on televised trial.

In 2012, Naw Kham was seized in Laos and extradited to China, where he was charged and convicted for the murder of 13 Chinese sailors.  In his cell, Naw Kham chatted with several officers from China’s national police, the Ministry of Public Security. They were there to make sure he was calm. They brought him fresh fruit. He barely ate. They brought him a few magazines. He flipped through the pages briefly and set them aside. Earlier, he had told a reporter, “Even when it’s 2:00 a.m., I can’t sleep. I think a lot, so I can’t sleep. I think about my mother and my wife. I hope that my children don’t end up like me. I want them to study well, so they don’t end up like me.” A day later, Naw Kham was executed in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province in China.

The Rise

Naw Kham was a rebel. He joined the Muang Tai Army, a former resistance group in Myanmar, and fought against the military junta. However, like other Burmese resistance groups, the MTA had to fund their activities through illicit dealings, in particular the drug trade. In 1996, the Muang Tai Army surrendered to the Burmese army, but not every member laid down their arms. Some were knee-deep in the trafficking of heroin, and wanted to continue building their business, so they filled the power vacuum left by the leadership of the MTA. Naw Kham was one of these, and rose in the ranks of this new drug ring.

By 2006, Naw Kham managed to establish his own drug-trafficking operation. He absorbed ethnic rebels into his criminal empire, and set up encampments along the Mekong river. His militia was armed with Kalashnikov and M16 rifles, grenades, bazooka rockets, and a hodgepodge of other weapons acquired from various sources. The Chinese authorities noticed that his meteoric rise was paired with frequent raids on vessels traveling on the Mekong River, so they, along with Thai law enforcement, put pressure on the Burmese government to rid the trade route of piracy. Naw Kham held his ground, and became the undisputed local strongman.

Naw Kham ordered his forces to target Chinese vessels for robbery, kidnapping, and general attacks. They sank Chinese ships, and attacked patrol boats sent by China’s Ministry of Public Security. In 2011, Naw Kham kidnapped the nephew of a Burmese official, and released him for a ransom of $1.9 million. Soon after, he kidnapped 13 Chinese nationals in the Golden Triangle, trading them for $8.3 million.

Naw Kham’s savagery peaked in October 2011, when seven of his gunmen intercepted two cargo ships. One of the captains was able to send out a distress signal, which elicited a response from Thai water police. However, the Thais were too late. Even though one of Naw Kham’s pirates was killed in the shootout, 13 Chinese crew members from the cargo ships were already executed with blindfolds on and hands bound behind their backs. Later that day, when the two cargo ships were seized by the authorities, over 950,000 amphetamine pills, altogether worth $3 million, were discovered onboard. The 13 mutilated bodies took a few additional days to recover. The Chinese sailors were drug mules who worked for another smuggler, but the deceased were Chinese nationals, and there was a strong public outcry in China.

After the Mekong River Massacre in October 2011, the security apparatus along the Mekong River disintegrated, traffic on the river dropped by 90 percent, and the local economies tanked. Clearing the river of legal commercial traffic, Naw Kham now had total control over what and who moved on the water. He could transport heroin and methamphetamine with impunity.

The Hunt

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security formed a task force to hunt down Naw Kham, and stationed over 200 officers in Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Their main task was to conduct reconnaissance and investigations, gathering evidence on Naw Kham’s crimes to be used in court at a later date. The task force made multiple attempts to capture Naw Kham, but like Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can, Naw Kham was always one step ahead. There were too many people looking out for him.

Naw Kham understood the importance of maintaining harmonious relations with the locals. He paid off Laotian, Thai, and Burmese soldiers, policemen, local officials, and village elders. He paid for the upkeep of village infrastructure, repaired bridges and roads, and gained the loyalty and support of those living within his sphere of influence. Because of his charm offensive, residents kept him informed of the presence of any outsiders, and he was able to avoid capture over and over again.

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Even though Naw Kham used to operate in the open along the Laos-Myanmar border, he went into hiding in October 2011, rarely leaving his jungle command post in Myanmar. Under the strong urging of the Chinese government, Burmese police raided camp after camp, cleaning out small patches of territory each time, making way in the direction of Naw Kham’s headquarters. The goal was not for the Burmese to capture him, but simply to flush him out. There was the added bonus of arresting the militiamen who operated under Naw Kham’s banner and eliminating his potential hideouts. Naw Kham had to move. Once he stepped out of the thick jungle, a drone could drop 20 kilograms of TNT on or near his transport vehicle, killing him in the process.

Up until this point, Chinese unmanned drones had only been used in surveillance and reconnaissance operations. This was the first time that the Chinese leadership openly admitted that drones were being considered as a delivery vehiclel for deadly force. But they did not want to be accused of waging a shadow war in Myanmar, and ultimately decided to abandon the plan of a drone strike in favor of capturing him alive, even if it meant employing massive manpower to do so. A bomb dropped on Burmese land—foreign soil—could leave them open to criticism from the international community, and severely tarnish the image of a soft-power giant meticulously cultivated over the course of decades.

The Capture, and Eventual Fall

On 25 April 2012, Naw Kham entered Laos to meet with loyalists who could keep him concealed from the police forces and investigators from Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China. As he made landfall, Laotian police spotted him. Naw Kham and two of his men escaped on foot, attempting to reach the home of his mistress, where they hoped to hide. They failed and were arrested. This brought an end to Naw Kham’s seven-year reign of terror over the Mekong River. Naw Kham was extradited to China, where his trial was televised. He, along with five of his lieutenants, were found guilty of the murder of 13 Chinese nationals—the 13 drug mules who were executed during the Mekong River Massacre. Naw Kham was sentenced to death.

On March 1 2013, Naw Kham was escorted from his cell. His demeanor was tranquil. He smiled to the police officers who were walking with him, and stepped into a van. At the execution grounds, Naw Kham said, “I have children. I smuggled drugs to make money for them, to pay for their schooling, to secure their futures with good careers. I want to grow old and be with my children. I am in agony.”

At approximately 3:00 p.m., Naw Kham received a lethal injection.