China: Joint patrol teams keep Mekong River safe

Tan Jianhua, who used to captain vessels plying the Mekong River, has had a gun pointed at his head by a pirate and seen a friend killed in such an incident.

More than a decade ago, piracy on the key waterway in Southeast Asia was a frequent occurrence. Nearly all cargo vessels on the river had been raided since 2007. Worse still, stowaways, the illegal drug and gun trade, human trafficking, kidnapping and internet fraud posed threats to people’s lives in the Mekong River Basin.

Tan said: “In one incident, a group of masked men drove speedboats around our ship, demanding to come aboard, which they did. They pointed AK-47 assault rifles at us and told us to squat and keep our heads down. They then began searching the ship, taking whatever they could lay their hands on.”

Now working as a helmsman for the Yunnan Public Security Department’s Mekong patrol team, he added, “Incidents such as this are why I now cherish the peace and tranquillity on the river so much.”

In the early 2000s, life on the Mekong was far from easy for those making a living from it.

Tan, 46, who grew up along the Yangtze River in Chongqing, dreamed as a child of becoming a captain. He learned to steer a ship at the river transport school in the city, later becoming a sailor on the Yangtze, earning about 400 yuan a month.

After hearing that high salaries could be earned on the Mekong, he left his hometown for Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, where he was promoted from sailor to first mate and then to captain, before becoming a ship owner.

Compared with the Yangtze, the Mekong flows faster and is more hazardous, with countless rocks dotting its waters, but such factors failed to deter Tan. After witnessing numerous accidents on the waterway, he drew up a map for the 348-kilometer route from Jinghong port, Yunnan, to Chiang Saen in Thailand.

However, in 2010, pirates raided his ship, shattering his dream of providing a better life for his crew.

Tensions on the Mekong reached a peak on Oct. 5, 2011, when 13 Chinese sailors were murdered on the river. Tan said the victims included a friend. “I felt shocked and grieved,” he said, adding that after the killings, he and his peers dared not sail on the river.

Trade on the waterway was suspended, numerous shipping companies went bankrupt, and workers lost jobs.

In December 2011, the China-Laos-Myanmar-Thailand joint patrol and law enforcement mechanism, proposed by the Chinese government, was launched. The first joint security cooperation arrangement for the Mekong among the four countries, it is aimed at curbing public security challenges and safeguarding people’s livelihoods.

Tan applied to be part of this team, in the hope of peace returning to the river, and the experienced skipper was subsequently recruited to command a police patrol vessel.

He passed his shipping knowledge on to his police colleagues, helping them adapt to the river. “No matter how good I am, I can only command one ship, but it is important to give others my experience,” he said.

He later shared his work experience with patrol teams from Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

Song Peng, a coxswain, said Tan’s experience was extremely useful in helping him learn to steer a vessel.

In summer 2013, Tan helped make arrests for the first time.

“I remember that day well. The cicadas were chirping loudly, the sun was fierce, and my heart was beating fast, as we faced the possibility of confronting armed drug dealers,” he said.

After a long period, the suspected drug gang’s vessel had still not arrived in the area where it was expected. Tan thought it had either run aground or put in to shore due to falling water levels on the river.

The team set off downstream, with Tan volunteering to check dangerous shallow waters. Five suspects were finally captured and some 580 kilograms of drugs seized.

During the past decade, Tan has joined 106 patrol missions. He has commanded vessels in darkness to rescue trapped sailors, raced to capture 12 stowaways, dealt with emergencies such as a vessel striking a reef, and helped crack down on criminals by using his bravery and intelligence.

He is just one of the thousands of people dedicated to safeguarding the river.

Tan has written essays about marine skills, drawn up maps to “fill in the blanks on the Mekong,” compiled an accident warning record distributed free to sailors, and has received a number of awards from national and provincial authorities for his work.

Security threats

The 4,900-kilometer Mekong, known in China as the Lancang, originates in the Tanggula Mountains in Qinghai province, flowing through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, before entering the South China Sea in Vietnam.

One of the most important river systems for international trade, criminals pose a threat to the Mekong, which flows through diverse terrain.

At 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 10, 2011, three signal flares rose into the sky as five law enforcement patrol boats and 10 cargo vessels set off on the Mekong, marking the first joint operation by the four countries as well as the reopening of the waterway to international shipping after a suspension of more than two months.

Ten years to the day, the joint patrol and law enforcement cooperation mechanism has completed 111 patrols, during which more than 17,000 team members have cracked some 36,000 drug cases and 66 human trafficking offenses. A total of 107 suspects and 2,659 stowaways have been seized, according to the public security authority in Yunnan.

Now, vessels from the four countries patrol the river 25 days a month on average.

On Dec. 13, the 112th joint operation was completed, with China sending newly developed high-speed vessels to better crack down on crimes and respond to emergencies.

Yuan Yaping, who is in charge of the Yunnan Public Security Department’s marine patrol team, said completion of the 112th mission heralded the second decade of the joint cooperation.

“Together with law enforcement departments in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, we will make the Mekong a river of peace, friendship, development and happiness, in line with building a shared future for mankind,” Yuan added.

In recent years, use of advanced equipment such as water rescue robots and automatic reconnaissance vessels has improved the efficiency of patrols.

To cope with the pandemic, a zero-contact policy was adopted between police officers from the four countries.

When the pandemic emerged, Guo Wei, a doctor from a Mekong patrol vessel, had just returned to Kunming, capital of Yunnan, from his hometown of Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital. He visited a number of hospitals and sent the first batch of medical necessities to meet the urgent needs of his colleagues.

Guo helped draw up personal safety protection guidance and also routinely contacted providers to guarantee medical supplies. He called for police officers to be vaccinated as soon as possible and helped take out accident and COVID-19 insurance coverage for more than 1,000 people.

As a middle school student, he learned of the murders on the Mekong in 2011 from television news reports.

In 2017, Guo boarded a patrol boat for the first time. “Everyone looked so confident and brave, but this only added to my nerves,” he said. “I prepared all the drugs and bandages they might need. I also thought about what I should do in the event of a shooting. I was so anxious that I barely slept for days.”

Still relatively young, but more experienced, Guo’s reputation has risen in the past four years, even among foreigners.

Before the pandemic, every time his vessel berthed in another country, local residents, especially the poor, waited in long lines to seek help from Guo, as news spread that he was “a Chinese doctor offering free medical services and free drugs”.

A policeman in Laos with severe back pain sought help from Guo at every opportunity. “His magic acupuncture can ease my agony in minutes,” the officer said.

Noisy business

Yan Yizhang, from Xishuangbanna, has worked in the small, muggy engine room of a patrol vessel for 10 years. Every time the boat departs on a mission, the machinery creates a din, forcing him to concentrate hard to detect any problems.

He said he seldom contacts his family during a patrol, as he needs to watch the engine and respond to emergencies quickly. He even sleeps in the engine room, and also knows the locations of rapids and rocks in the river.

Returning from a patrol in January 2015, one of the engines broke down, and there was a risk of the vessel overturning as it battled a fierce current. Yan immediately told his colleagues to make for the shore. Despite toiling in high temperatures, nine workers fixed the problem in six hours.

Four years earlier, during another mission, a Laotian patrol boat was holed after hitting a reef, with water engulfing the engine room. Yan and his team quickly repaired the damage, and there were no deaths or injuries. He was awarded a second-class merit for his actions.

Despite the difficulties he faces, Yan said he does the job out of a love for his country. “The best thing for me is taking a hot shower at ports of call. It feels really great,” he said.

During a videoconference early last month to mark the 10th anniversary of the joint missions, officials and police from the four countries approved a plan for patrol and law enforcement, vessel maintenance and joint training.

They agreed that security on the Mekong had significantly improved, although crimes involving drugs, gambling and internet fraud still pose challenges.

Strengthened cooperation is needed on exchanging information, marine skills, maintaining equipment, and controlling the pandemic, they said.

Such action would help prevent cross-border crimes, promote environmental protection and anti-terrorism measures, safeguard information security, and contribute to the Belt and Road Initiative, the participants added.