China considered drone strike on foreign soil in hunt for drug lord

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 11:44pm

The hunt for a Myanmese drug lord convicted of massacring 13 Chinese sailors more than a year ago could have ended with a “drone strike” launched on foreign soil, China’s top drug tsar told the Global Times newspaper in a story published on Monday.

Liu Yuejin, director of the public security ministry’s anti-drug bureau, said one of the plans to end the months-long manhunt for drug lord Naw Kham was to strafe a mountain hideout in north-eastern Myanmar using unmanned aircraft.

Naw Kham was the ring leader of a large drug trafficking outfit based in the Golden Triangle – a mountainous drug-producing region in Southeast Asia covering areas of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

“One plan was to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to carry 20kg of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected because we were ordered to catch him alive,” Liu told the Global Times.

It is a noteworthy revelation as senior Chinese officials rarely make public acknowledgents about the country's ability to project power overseas.

The disclosure also highlights the level of technological sophistication in terms of China’s ability to surveil targets in Southeast Asia. This will likely draw concern from the Asean neighbours wary of China’s military capabilities.

According to the report, if the plan had been carried out, China’s Beidou navigation satellite system (BDS) would have been able to guide the drones into Myanmar – a move that could have sparked international controversy as with American covert drone strikes in Pakistan.

China recently announced plans to step up what is believed to be nascent drone technology, which it claims would be used for peaceful surveillance purposes. The country unveiled eight new unmanned aircraft models last November at a Zhuhai air show.

Chinese police engaged in one of their first overseas police operations in late 2011 after the hijacking of two cargo ships on the Mekong River in Thailand left 13 sailors dead in October that year.

Joint investigations by police from China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar eventually linked the attack to Naw Kham and triggered a region-wide manhunt. China dispatched its own taskforce to the Mekong River and called for joint river patrols with neighbouring countries.

According to Liu, who headed the taskforce, Naw Kham had escaped capture at least three times because his team was “limited in what they could do overseas”.

Naw Kham was eventually arrested in April 2012 during a night ambush in Laos and extradited to China. Naw Kham and four other accomplices are awaiting the death penalty after being sentenced by a Yunnan court in November.