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
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.
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.
“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.
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”.
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.
“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.