Myanmar

Anti-regime forces promise freedom for trafficking victims as they move closer to taking Laukkai

The MNDAA says it has already liberated dozens forced to work in scam centres in territory recently retaken from junta control

An ethnic armed group fighting Myanmar’s military in northern Shan State says it has rescued about 60 human-trafficking victims from industrial-scale scam centres based along the Chinese border.

A source close to the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a member of the tripartite Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups that launched an offensive against the junta late last month, told Myanmar Now that the group is aiming for “100% extermination” of the cyber scam operations.

Thousands of unsuspecting jobseekers have been trafficked into slavery in these compounds in recent years and forced to scam their victims out of vast sums of money. Many of those coerced into doing this work are subjected to harassment, abuse, and torture. 

The scamming operations are predominantly run by Chinese criminal gangs—and while the industry has flourished throughout Southeast Asia in recent years, most of its current victims are believed to be in conflict-riven Myanmar.

“They are criminals; it is a serious crime,” said the MNDAA source, who asked to be identified only as Z. “Their scale is too big, like mass production; just like factories. [There are] too many of them.”

The Brotherhood Alliance has already purged a number of scam centres across Shan State as part of a sweeping operation that it says aims to “eradicate the internet fraud rings and their protective networks.” 

The MNDAA has so far liberated dozens of primarily Chinese victims from captivity and forced labour, according to Z, with about 60 rescued victims currently under the group’s care and awaiting deportation back to their countries of origin.

Criminals responsible for running the scam centres, including those caught while guarding them, will be handed over to the authorities of their home nations, said Z. Most, however, have fled without a fight, he added.

“[It’s] just like going back to your home,” he said of the ease with which the MNDAA has liberated the compounds. “Even the junta’s troops are surrendering to us—just imagine those left [to] guard.”

But Z also acknowledged that tough battles lie ahead. Many of the scam gangs, as well as hundreds of their victims, are believed to be in the junta-held town of Laukkai, a former MNDAA stronghold near the Chinese border.

Laukkai, the administrative centre of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone, is among the most notorious hotbeds of Myanmar’s booming cyber scam industry. Currently under the control of pro-junta forces, it is a major objective for the MNDAA.

“Of course we will [retake it],” said Z. “But ‘when’ is the question.”

The answer, according to the MNDAA, is “soon.” A statement from the group on Tuesday declared that it had surrounded Laukkai and was planning to retake the town, without specifying when exactly the incursion would take place. 

Another statement released by the group a day earlier claimed that all 127 members of the military’s Infantry Battalion 129 stationed in Laukkai had surrendered last Sunday, handing over their weapons, ammunition, and camp supplies to the MNDAA in exchange for a guarantee that they would not be detained nor tortured.

MNDAA spokesperson Li Kyar Win said the group and its allies would provide medical assistance to those who needed it and that travel expenses would be given to help the soldiers and their families reunite with relatives.

“We are guaranteeing the life and safety of those who have come into the light. We will also maintain and protect their human dignity and their dignity as soldiers,” he said in a video posted online.

Laukkai has been embroiled in active conflict since the start of Operation 1027, as the Brotherhood Alliance’s campaign of retaliation and reclamation launched against the military regime on October 27 has been dubbed. Some 2,000 residents fled the town last week amid fears of an intensification of the clashes.

Meanwhile, about 500 people who were recently rescued from online scam businesses operating in the area—including 189 Thai nationals as well as citizens of Nepal, Ethiopia, and Laos—are reportedly being held by regime forces in the town.

Laukkai was controlled by the MNDAA until 2009, when Myanmar’s military captured the town in the worst conflict since the two sides signed a ceasefire 20 years earlier. Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta that seized power in February 2021, came to prominence at that time as the regional commander responsible for ousting the MNDAA from the town.

Now the group is on the verge of reclaiming it.

“It’s our home,” said Z. “Laukkai is our top priority.”

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