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Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle Struggles to Prevent Renewed Drug Violence

The Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet on the Mekong River, has long been known for its shady history of opium smuggling and lawlessness. The region is now a magnet for tourists, lured by its notoriety, scenic resorts and new casinos. But a bloody attack last year on two Chinese boats loaded with millions of dollars of methamphetamines has raised concerns of a resurgence of drug violence.

The gunmen killed all 13 sailors and dumped the bodies overboard.

Thai police have questioned nine Thai soldiers from an anti-narcotics unit in connection with the crime.

China is now working with Laos, Burma and Thailand to coordinate patrols on the Mekong.

“The result of cooperation among the four countries since December is that security is heightened, illegal migration reduced, transnational crime is lower, and there is more navigation and more exchange of goods,” said Police General Wichean Potephosree, the secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council.

Large cargo vessels along the busy Mekong now are allowed armed escorts to ensure safe delivery of goods.

But smaller boats are often left on their own.

Pilots use knots to appease the mythical Mekong dragon to protect them from accidents. But Lao boatman Porn says the charms are no help against pirates.

Last month he was taking frozen chickens to China when his boat was stopped and robbed by men on speedboats armed with M16 rifles.

Despite the danger, Porn says he must risk several trips a month.

"Because if we don’t keep going, doing this work, there will be no income. Because our families still need money. We have to look after them," he said.

Many locals say security on the Mekong is getting worse, despite official reassurances.

Boatmen will take passengers to casinos in Laos and Burma but refuse to go any further upriver than this island.

Tanat Chongpatdee has fished the river for six years. He says since the October attack, fishermen fear going upstream. “Some still dare to go there. But, if they are discovered by the Burmese military they will be followed. If they still continue the soldiers will call to them. If they do not respond, they will be shot (at),” he said.

For now, tourists are still flocking to the Golden Triangle to take in its unique location, beautiful views and shady reputation. Many are likely unaware that the region is still struggling to put its notorious history behind it.