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Laos Authorities Powerless in the Lawless Golden Triangle Economic Zone

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Golden Triangle Economic Zone

Authorities in Laos say they’re powerless to stop criminal activities in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo province of northern Laos.

Criminal activities such as prostitution, scamming, and drug trafficking are rampant, but Lao authorities are largely powerless to stop them, according to zone workers and police.

In Bokeo province in the Golden Triangle where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, the Special Economic Zone is a gambling and tourism zone catering directly to Chinese citizens. It’s been called a de facto Chinese colony.

Lao authorities have limited access to the zone due to its unique nature, and they must obtain permission first from officials at the Kings Romans Casino, the zone’s crown jewel, owned by the Hong Kong-based Dok Ngiew Kham Group. The group owns 80% of the 3,000-hectare (11.6 square mile) zone, with the Lao government owning the remaining 20%.

“Assume workers have a problem in the zone,” one worker explained to RFA. “They must contact authorities only from the zone, and Bokeo police cannot assist them because they are not in control.”

According to a Bokeo police official, Lao and foreign workers employed in the zone who require assistance must contact authorities within the Special Economic Zone, as it is completely under their control only.

“Usually, special economic zone units deal with problems themselves. “If cases are serious, they report to higher level authorities within the zone,” said the police official.

Lawless Golden Triangle Economic Zone

Criminal Syndicates in the Golden Triangle

The Dok Ngiew Group and its Chairman, Zhao Wei, established the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2007. SEZs are business zones exempt from most national-level economic regulations, receive tax breaks, and are subject to different labour laws.

In 2018, the United States Treasury Department designated Zhao Wei’s business network as a “transnational criminal organization,” sanctioning Zhao and three other individuals and companies in Laos, Thailand, and Hong Kong.

According to the Treasury, Zhao’s company “exploits this region in northern Laos by engaging with drug traffickers, human traffickers, money launders, bribery, and wildlife traffickers, most of which is run through the Kings Romans Casino located in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.”

The Golden Triangle was named after its central role in heroin production and trafficking in Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos five decades ago.

According to Chanphonephet Khamsy, the deputy police chief of Bokeo province, the SEZ and surrounding area are still rife with drug-related crimes.

Last year, police in Bokeo province arrested 393 drug smugglers and seized 23 million methamphetamine pills, 866 kilograms of crystal meth, and 60 kilograms of heroin, according to Chanphonephet Khamsy.

During the previous year, police seized 33 million methamphetamine pills.

Lawless Golden Triangle Economic Zone

“Huge amounts of drugs are trafficked through the region; it’s very difficult for us,” said a Bokeo police officer who requested anonymity to speak freely with RFA.

He claims that smugglers transport their drugs into and out of the Special Economic Zone in large trucks and increasing quantities.

“They smuggle the drugs from Myanmar into Laos and then to northeastern Thailand the officer explained, adding that there are numerous routes, including through dense jungles that authorities cannot access.

A member of the Laos anti-narcotics unit confirmed that the drugs mostly come from Myanmar, from armed ethnic groups fighting the country’s military junta. According to him, Laos is a more appealing route than Thailand because Thai authorities have cracked down on drug trafficking.

Because Lao authorities have no access to the Golden Triangle SEZ, a Bokeo resident claims it is one of the main drug destinations.

Lawless Golden Triangle Economic Zone

Scams Run from Golden Triangle SEZ

Last week, law enforcement officials from Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar met in the northern Laos to discuss anti-drug cooperation.

Recently, companies within the zone have used a bait-and-switch scam to recruit workers from Laos, China, and other countries by promising high-paying call centre jobs.

However, once the workers arrive in the zone, they incur debt to their employers for travel and training expenses, and their bosses set unrealistically high sales quotas designed to cause the workers to fail.

Some workers caught up in the scam escaped, but at great personal risk and frequently without any assistance from authorities in Laos.

A Lao worker inside the zone says that the problem persists even though foreign governments are aware of the scam. They are doing everything possible to assist their citizens in the zone, but the problem still persists.

“There are still call centres, and they will never eliminate them.” Many companies hire Lao, Thai, and other foreign workers,” the Lao workers said. “They hire everyone. There are Indians, Malaysians, and other nationalities.”

Lawless Golden Triangle Economic Zone

Outside authorities not permitted

According to a third Lao worker in the zone, the call centre scam involves defrauding investors, but the Lao police are powerless to stop them. “Police cannot fine or arrest them because they are outside authorities are not permitted to enter the zone,” the worker explained. “As a result, they are unable to conduct any investigations.”

Laos residents living near the zone said they wanted authorities to deal with the rampant crime inside the zone more effectively, but doubt it is a high priority.

“Many people want the government to crack down on all the crime… but they’ve been ignoring it for years,” said a resident who lives near the zone.

The Lao government awarded Zhao, the Chinese chairman, a medal of courage on Oct. 1, citing his contributions to national defence and public security within the zone.

Another resident stated that the surrounding governments “talk and talk.” “If they truly wanted to crack down on crime, why would the Lao government award Zhao Wei a medal of courage… and publicly praise him?”

“The entire world knows [Laos] will not prosecute him.”

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