Cyber scams flourish in Myanmar under watch of local authorities, report says

Myanmar nationals without access to education or employment in the wake of the 2021 coup are reportedly being forced into online scamming, gambling and pornography in northeastern Shan State

From a six-storey building in the heart of Mong Pawk, a city in Shan State just 10 kilometres from Myanmar’s Chinese border, 19-year-old Zaw Zaw spent 16 hours a day cyber scamming people around the world.

The job, carried out alongside at least 40 other scammers across multiple floors of the mid-rise, involved a bait and switch. Using attractive images of Asian women, Zaw Zaw would target individuals in Western countries, strike up a conversation, and persuade them to invest sums of cryptocurrency via a fake website which, as soon as the money cleared, would be taken down. 

His superiors gave him a target of three scam victims a day. But Zaw Zaw, like the dozens of other young Burmese nationals who were trapped in the building around him, was himself a victim of an elaborate hoax—one that saw him trafficked, enslaved, and tortured by Chinese criminal gangs at industrial-scale scam centres in Myanmar’s restive borderlands.

A new report by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) titled “Trapped In Hell” sheds disturbing light on this industry of deceit, corruption, and violence, which appears to be happening with the tacit approval and complicity of local authorities. 

Based on interviews with three young women and two young men, including Zaw Zaw, the civil society organisation’s research reveals how Myanmar citizens—particularly those left without access to education or employment in the wake of the 2021 military coup—are being forced into online scamming, gambling, and pornography businesses in the ethnic Kokang and Wa regions of northeastern Shan State.

The past few years have seen a surge in this type of illegal activity, particularly in and around Southeast Asia’s Mekong region, as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions drove illegal gambling operations online, fuelled economic insecurity, and created a vast pool of unemployed workers and stranded migrants for organised crime groups to exploit. Under the guise of lucrative job offers, desperate people were lured into enslavement in countries like Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines and forced to conduct cyber scams while being subjected to harassment, abuse, violence, and torture.

A recent report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) highlighted the scale of the issue, noting that “hundreds of thousands of people from across the [Southeast Asian] region and beyond have been forcibly engaged in online criminality.” In Myanmar, the report added, the trafficking of victims into scam operations appears to have worsened since the coup—an effect that SHRF observed as a direct result of young people’s education or employment being cut off.

In the cases of the victims SHRF spoke to, however, the slave labour wasn’t limited to just cyberscams. One individual was forced to give sexual services to Chinese gang members who worked at a company providing technical support services for online scamming operations in Panghsang. Another was raped and forced to take part in pornographic photos and videos that were published online. In both cases, as for those more directly involved in the scamming operations, failure to cooperate was met with more physical abuse and torture. Multiple overlapping anecdotes tell of how the guards beat the trafficking victims with wires, belts, and batons, and in several cases gave them electric shocks.

Nor are incidents of abuse limited to trafficking victims. One woman, referred to in the report as Sein Sein, told SHRF how she started working as a card dealer at a casino shortly after turning 18, and soon recruited her younger sister, referred to as Nu Nu, to work with her. After about a year working in the casino’s accounting department, Nu Nu’s boss accused her of stealing 60,000 yuan (US$8,200) from the business account, detained her in a hotel, and demanded that she pay the money back within a week. 

After five days, Nu Nu was summoned to a room in the hotel, where she was gang raped by her boss and three other Chinese men. She committed suicide three days later by jumping from her room on the fourth floor.

In this case, the hotel where Sein Sein and Nu Nu were being detained—which was also being used as an online scamming centre—was heavily guarded by uniformed members of the Kokang Militia Force (KMF), a local militia set up and armed by the junta to help maintain control of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in Shan State. The SHRF report noted that members of this armed group witnessed Nu Nu’s suicide, and were present when staff came to collect and dispose of her body, after which the staff threatened her sister, Sein Sein, at gunpoint not to mention the incident to anyone.

Similar incidents of alleged collusion were reported in two other cases in Mong Pawk and Panghsang, both of which are autonomously governed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ethnic armed organisation that has had a ceasefire agreement with the junta since 1989. When victims’ families contacted UWSA authorities for help rescuing their relatives, the criminals involved were tipped off beforehand, and either escaped or moved the victims to another location prior to being “raided.”

Such collusion, which saw local officials and authorities in Shan State allowing criminal activities to take place, was cited as one of the report’s main concerns. As the authors noted, both the scam centre in Mong Pawk and the technical support centre in Panghsang were located in urban centres, run by Chinese nationals who could not have set up businesses in the UWSA territory without official authorisation. 

“It is therefore highly unlikely that they would have dared carry out their criminal operations, involving systematic torture and abuse of workers (that any neighbours would have been well aware of), on their rented premises in town centres if there was not tacit official approval for them to do so,” the report said. “We urge the authorities in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone and the UWSA-controlled area of northeast Shan State to stop colluding with and protecting the Chinese criminal gangs operating in their territories.”

SHRF also called on the Chinese government to hold their citizens accountable for involvement in criminal activities in Shan State.

Myanmar Now reported last week that Chinese authorities had announced rewards for the capture of two key suspects allegedly leading an online fraud syndicate, and cited the men’s ties to the administration of the UWSA. On October 16, the UWSA’s political wing released a statement adding that it had expelled them from the party and removed them from their positions in the military and governance.  

The trafficking victims who SHRF spoke to have since been rescued or ransomed, or escaped—but countless others remain enslaved in scam centres and related criminal enterprises throughout Myanmar and Southeast Asia. As the UN OHCHR report pointed out, most of these victims were actively recruited through job advertisements and professional recruiters, either in their country of origin or from a third country. Others were already in the country of destination, having lost their jobs during the pandemic and being unable to return home. 

While this illegal, exploitative, and abusive industry continues to thrive throughout the region, it is in conflict-riven Myanmar where most of the victims are believed to be held. Credible sources indicate that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be trapped in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams, according to the OHCHR report, compared to at least 100,000 people in Cambodia, previously considered the hotbed of online scam operations. 

As Myanmar’s nationwide conflict continues to rage amid a culture of impunity protecting those responsible for the violations, locals monitoring the situation say it is becoming increasingly difficult to get them out.

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