Fighters from a Myanmar ethnic minority reported Tuesday that they had surrounded the town of Laukkai near the Chinese border controlled by the Junta, where hundreds of foreigners, including Thais, are believed to be imprisoned working in online scam operations.
Fighting has raged for more than two weeks in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, after an alliance of ethnic minority groups launched a surprise onslaught against the military.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) claimed to have surrounded the town of Laukkai in Shan state, around three kilometers (two miles) from the Chinese border.
“We have surrounded Laukkai and will soon retake it,” the MNDAA stated in a statement, without saying when. Separately, MNDAA spokesperson Li Jiawen told AFP that no date had been chosen because they wanted to assure the protection of inhabitants in the area.
In 2009, Myanmar’s current junta boss General Min Aung Hlaing established himself as a regional commander by seizing the MNDAA from Laukkai. Analysts claim it is home to online fraud centers where trafficked nationals of China and other countries are forced to work deceiving their compatriots online.
Scammers generally target their countrymen and cultivate them for weeks before luring them into investing in bogus investment platforms and other schemes.
The scams enrage China, the junta’s primary ally and arms supplier, and Beijing has frequently pushed the military to crack down on scam centers.
Last week, Vietnam’s foreign ministry announced that 166 Vietnamese citizens had been rescued from Myanmar’s northern border areas, but did not identify where. It said that continued conflict was impeding their repatriation.
Thailand announced earlier this month that more than 160 of its people had been rescued from fraud centers but were now stranded in Laukkai due to fighting in the isolated territory.
According to the UN’s human rights office, at least 120,000 individuals may be kept in sham compounds in Shan state and elsewhere in Myanmar.
Myanmar junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun confirmed fighting in northern Shan state on Tuesday, but provided no other details.
The MNDAA, the Arakan Army (AA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) launched an offensive on October 27 that captured a crucial border hub with China and cut trade lines to Myanmar’s largest trading partner.
Northern Myanmar, which includes Shan and Kachin states on the Chinese border, is known as a center of telecom fraud.
Since 2015, Chinese and Southeast Asian law enforcement authorities have been cracking down on telecom fraud and online gambling in this area, resulting in the extradition of some core gang members back to China for prosecution.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of telecom scammers have dispersed, converging on northern Myanmar and increasing their reach along the Thailand-Myanmar border, spanning districts such as Myawaddy, Tachilek, Wa State, Kokang, and Muse.
Fraudulent enterprises and internet scam centers have grown uncontrolled in these seeming zones of lawlessness.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese telecom scammers have crossed the border illegally over the years to establish in Chinese villages in northern Myanmar, where Mandarin is spoken and the yuan is used. Today, it is no longer feasible to enter northern Myanmar with a basic passport unless one is willing to pay 70,000 yuan for a border pass — a significant rise from the previous price of 200 yuan, which arose owing to high demand for this difficult-to-obtain permit.
Many people come to this territory with the hope of becoming wealthy. While most of them are aware of the type of job they would be doing before arriving here, they have no idea that their welcome will frequently include beatings, lashings, electric shocks, sexual assaults, water jails, imprisonment in dark cells, and compelled prostitution.
The masterminds behind these telecom fraud schemes are mostly Chinese immigrants from southeastern China who arrive with large sums of money.
They acquire property and build facilities, or lease pre-existing buildings and invest in equipment and labor, to establish their business. Local armed insurgency organizations provide protection in exchange for a cut of the earnings, which are frequently in non-monetary forms.
Faced with rising enforcement efforts from Chinese regulators, telecom fraud rings in northern Myanmar are relocating to Cambodia, while others are redirecting their fraud activities to find victims in Japan, South Korea, the United States, and Europe.