China issues reward for capture of cybercrime ringleaders with ties to Wa army

A sum of up to US$68,440 is offered for information leading to the capture of two men said to be operating fraudulent call centres and online scams targeting Chinese nationals

As part of an ongoing crackdown on cybercrime, Chinese authorities announced rewards on Tuesday for the capture of two key suspects allegedly leading a telecoms fraud syndicate.

China’s Ministry for Public Security said in a statement that any individual providing credible information or assistance leading to the arrests of two accused ringleaders, identified as Chen Yanban (also known as Bao Yanban) and Xiao Yankuai (also known as He Chuntian), would be granted a sum ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 RMB (approximately US$13,680 to $68,440). 

The statement said that the two individuals had been operating fraudulent call centres and schemes targeting Chinese nationals in recent years, resulting in substantial financial losses and causing harm to scam victims.

“The fraud is huge and it is extremely bad. The criminal actions of Chen Yanban and Xiao Yankaui have been found to be clear and the evidence is conclusive,” said the statement by the ministry.

The Hangzhou Public Security Bureau in Zhejiang Province and the Kunming Municipal Public Security Bureau in Yunnan Province also shared the announcement calling for information leading to the men’s arrests, and identified them as being registered as residents of Pu’er city in southern Yunnan—for Chen Yanban—and Heyuan city in Guangdong Province for Xiao Yankaui. 

The Chinese local authorities claimed that the two individuals also had ties to the administration of the Wa region of Shan State in Myanmar, controlled by one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). 

UWSA spokesperson Nyi Rang told Myanmar Now on Friday that he had no information concerning the matter and needed to report to his superiors in order to comment on the pair’s alleged links to his organisation.

A source in the Wa region confirmed to Myanmar Now that the men currently had leading positions within the UWSA’s local administration. Myanmar Now identified Bao Yanban in a photo of Wa representatives along with then State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at a meeting in Naypyitaw in late July 2016.

On October 16, the UWSA’s political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), said in a statement that the two individuals had violated Chinese laws and regulations as senior cadres of the Wa region, which had caused great harm to the administration’s international relationships.

“It has had a huge negative impact, and also indirectly affected the political trust and friendly exchanges between the Wa State and its neighbouring countries,” the statement said. 

It added that the Standing Committee of the political bureau of the UWSP had decided to expel the two officials from the party and remove them from administrative and military positions in order to restore its reputation.

The UWSP also identified Chen Yanban (also known as Bao Yanban) as the minister of construction of the Wa Special Region and Xiao Yankuai as administrator of a district adjacent to China.

The latest action against the cybercrime networks came days after 11 businessmen based in the city of Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in Shan State and bordering China, were arrested by the Chinese authorities on October 1. They were among hundreds of Myanmar businessmen who were in Lincang city, Yunnan, to attend a trade show at the time of their arrest. No further details about their detention were available at the time of reporting.

Criminal syndicates have been widely accused of abducting people or luring them under false pretenses to sites in northern and eastern Myanmar, where they are then forced to perpetrate scams online. Many of those victimised are from Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with still others hailing from across South Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

The United Nations (UN) said in an August report that organised criminal gangs have forced hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia into participation in such unlawful operations, which range from romance scams to cryptocurrency fraud to illegal gambling. 

Victims have reported being subjected to grave human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and forced labour, acccording to the report. 

Citing “credible sources,” the UN said that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia may be currently held under such conditions. 

The Covid-19 pandemic had a drastic impact on illicit activities across Southeast Asia, with public health measures forcing casinos to close soon after a 2019 statute in Myanmar allowed foreigners to open such establishments in the country. The passage of this “Gambling Law” made it possible for those facing crackdowns in China and elsewhere to move their activities to Myanmar, sheltered and protected by select local armed groups. 

With the public health crisis that followed, owners subsequently moved their operations to more lawless areas, including those in conflict zones along borders and in Special Economic Zones, the report said. 

With millions of people forced to stay home during the pandemic, more time was spent online, creating the potential for greater internet scams. 

Citing statistics from China’s public security ministry, investigative outlet Caixin Magazine said in a report on Friday that the country had uncovered 464,000 cases of telecommunications or internet fraud last year and halted corresponding money transfers totalling 318 billion RMB (more than $43.5b). 

Caixin also pointed to Myanmar’s Gambling Law as having possibly contributed to the proliferation of illegal networks in the country after regional crackdowns. 

According to Caixin, Wa authorities launched a joint operation with Chinese authorities to stop cyberscam activities in early September and detained 1,508 individuals, more than 1,200 of whom were Chinese nationals. In another joint crackdown at a different location in Shan State, 269 suspects, including 186 Chinese nationals, were arrested on September 3, the report said. 

As of September 16, China had extradited or taken into custody more than 1,700 suspects involved in cybercrime scams from countries including Myanmar and Laos, Caixin said. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated on October 18 to include additional information from the UWSP’s October 16 statement.

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