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A Kuala Lumpur-based rights group has warned Malaysians are among the hundreds still trapped inside the Mekong region’s massive online fraud industry. Photo: Shutterstock

China needs to pressure Myanmar over scam gang crisis, Malaysian group says

  • Group calls on Beijing to help ‘save the Malaysians’ still trapped in Myanmar, as junta would give ‘serious attention’ to advice from Chinese government
  • Scam scandal has raised questions on Beijing’s willingness to bring to heel super-rich Chinese businessmen operating ‘special economic zones’ in the Mekong
China must use its diplomatic leverage over isolated Myanmar to tackle the scam networks menacing Asia, a Kuala Lumpur-based rights group said on Monday, as it warned Malaysians were among the hundreds still trapped inside the Mekong region’s massive online fraud industry.

The scams are run mainly by Chinese gangs, paying or duping young people to target their compatriots with fake investments, fictional romances or cash transfers to bogus police officers.

Hong Kong police last week said tens of millions of dollars had been scammed from city residents alone, mainly from the industrial-scale call centres based in Cambodia and “special economic zones” on the Laos and Myanmar borders.
Malaysians rescued from human traffickers in Cambodia arrive at the Kuala Lumpur Airport Terminal earlier in October 2022. Photo: AP

Chinese, Malaysians, Thais and Indians are among the nationalities to have been rescued after being duped into working as scam agents.

The scourge has so far proved resilient to crackdowns and warnings from Asian governments to their citizens against accepting too-good-to-be-true job offers.

On Monday, the Malaysian International Humanitarian Organisation tried a new angle, urging China to press Myanmar’s junta to handle the scam centres on its patch.

In a letter to China’s ambassador to Malaysia, the group urged Beijing to help “save the Malaysian individuals who are currently stranded and tortured in Myanmar”.

“Advice” by the Chinese government to its junior Southeast Asian ally “will be given serious attention” by Myanmar, said the letter, signed by the group’s secretary general Hishamuddin Hashim.

“Unfortunately the situation in Myanmar still seems to be deadlocked. The government of Myanmar seems to ignore this heinous crime of human trafficking against Malaysians.”

China is Myanmar’s top foreign investor and one of its few remaining allies since a 2021 coup sank the economy and wrought bloody chaos across the nation.


‘They will punish you’: Malaysian’s death connected to internet scam in Thailand

‘They will punish you’: Malaysian’s death connected to internet scam in Thailand
Myanmar’s central role in the scam crisis returned to the spotlight after the death of 23-year-old Malaysian trainee teacher Goi Zhen Feng, who was tricked into working in a Myanmar “special economic zone” housing a notorious casino called KK Park. He left Malaysia in January for Bangkok to meet an online “girlfriend” but never returned after being held in KK Park, which is in a zone controlled by an ethic rebel group working with a Chinese investment company.

It is unclear how much control the Myanmar military has over the shadowy border areas where rebel groups hold sway.

But scam gangs are offering jobs across border towns fuelled by Chinese money, from Mong Pauk in the Wa-administered territory to Mong La and Muse in Shan State.

The Thai embassy in Yangon last week warned its nationals to shun high-paying job offers in Myanmar, saying in a Facebook post “you might be forced into prostitution, drugs and debt bondage … they’ll take your passports and you won’t be able to return to Thailand … then they will sell you to another syndicate”.

Goi Chee Kong shows a picture of his son Goi Zhen Feng, who died after falling prey to human trafficking syndicates, during a press conference in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, in September 2022. Photo: AP

Chinese influence

The scam scandal has raised questions over Beijing’s willingness to bring to heel super-rich Chinese businessmen operating “special economic zones” in the Mekong, which are nodal points in the Belt and Road strategy but also alleged vortexes of crime, beyond the reach of law enforcement.

In Laos, a Chinese national named Zhao Wei, runs the Golden Triangle SEZ – a multibillion-dollar frontier town whose centrepiece is the cavernous Kings Romans casino complex.

Zhao is under US Treasury sanctions for human rights abuses linked to trafficking, while regional security officials believe much of the Mekong’s methamphetamine trade passes through the zone.

Warehouses surrounding the casino have been converted into massive dorms and work spaces for a “United Nations” of scam agents – including scores of Malaysians, two Laos scammers told This Week in Asia.

Malaysia PM vows action to tackle overseas job scams as more victims emerge

“Every nationality has their own compound and their own boss,” said Sai, giving a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, admitting he willingly took part for the US$400 a month salary plus commission.

The aim is to use online gaming sites to reel in mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong customers and then scam them with promises of high-return betting promotions that vanish when serious money is laid down – or to pose over WeChat as Southeast Asian women looking for love.

“Our managers then take over and speak to them in Chinese to convince them to send the money,” the second scammer added, giving his name as Somphone. “The bosses are Chinese, the victims are Chinese … I know it’s a bad thing to do, but it pays more than any other work we can get.”

Under diplomatic pressure, Cambodia has launched crackdowns on scam compounds, finding hundreds of foreign nationals. But security experts say the money being made is too great for the syndicates to give up and they are instead likely to find new bases for new scams, including across Myanmar.