Asia shares
world-wide shame

Human traffickers find a home in Southeast Myanmar
Protected by a civil war crime syndicate, trafficking victims come from at least 60 countries
This photo taken on July 6, 2017 shows migrant workers waiting for buses at the Myanmar imigration office in Myawaddy.

This photo taken on July 6, 2017 shows migrant workers waiting for buses at the Myanmar imigration office in Myawaddy. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 05, 2024 03:25 AM GMT
Updated: June 05, 2024 04:43 AM GMT

As the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed towards the latter part of 2022 and borders opened, Cambodian authorities began cracking down on human traffickers who had established a hub in Sihanoukville on the south coast, the genesis for a multi-billion-dollar industry.

But pressure was mounting from China and Southeast Asian countries where governments were increasingly angered by criminal syndicates based in Malaysia, trading and duping their citizens into slave compounds and Cambodia’s reluctance to act.

Traffickers set their sights on greener and less complicated pastures. Initially, they moved to Cambodia’s western borders and Laos before opting for northern Myanmar, where they could act with impunity amid the lawlessness of a devastating civil war.

They also trafficked their victims from Central Asia while building relationships with the junta in Naypyidaw and Border Force Guards (BFG), a subdivision of the military, which is dotted around the country under Regional Military Commands.

Business boomed as a result, and Beijing was incensed; this was partly due to widespread beliefs that China was not in control of its criminal elements abroad or erroneous arguments that it was behind the syndicates.

This photo taken on Sept. 25, 2022 shows pedestrians walking past a casino building previously shut down by the police, in Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia. (Photo: AFP)

The Communist Party in Beijing snapped. Beijing gave the junta, led by Gen Min Aung Hlaing, a list of about 41,000 criminal suspects and an ultimatum: deliver or else.

Hlaing would demure, and in response, China would deliver weapons to ethnic Chinese who were battling the military.

That had a two-pronged effect. First, it swung the weapons advantage in favor of anti-regime forces, who went on a six-month offensive, capturing nearly all the major states. They are now in control of nearly all of Myanmar’s borders.

Secondly, it forced criminal syndicates to move southeast into Kayin state and around the Thai border town of Myawaddy, which was highlighted by a recent report from the United States Institute for Peace (USIP).

It found criminal networks running the human trafficking networks were recruiting from more than 60 countries around the world and were “rapidly evolving into the most powerful criminal network of the modern era” — and it named Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos as the epicenter.

Six Malaysian men rescued from a human trafficking syndicate in Myanmar arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on Dec. 21, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

“The scamming operations are powered by hundreds of thousands of people, many duped by fraudulent online ads for lucrative high-tech jobs and trafficked illegally into scam compounds, where they are held by armed gangs in prison-like conditions and forced to run online scams,” says Judah Tana, International Director at Global Advance Projects, which has rescued hundreds of trafficked victims out of Myanmar.

The “scam compounds” have evolved into “scam cities” and are now capable of holding tens of thousands of people in each, Tana told UCA News.

There are about 40 scam cities in Myanmar alone, mainly along the eastern frontier that were potentially holding more than 250,000 people against their will, he said adding that “even people inside the compound don’t realize how big they are.”

“To see as far as the eye can see east to west these megacities that have been built just in the shortest amount of time, just three years, and they’ve taken up hundreds of acres of land, and there are just skyscrapers, buildings, and units housing tens of thousands of people.

“It just blows your mind,” Tana said. “And they’re moving into The Philippines and Sri Lanka.”

In early June, the Indian embassy in Myanmar issued an advisory warning Indians against fake and illegal job offers in the region. The advisory spoke about an international crime syndicate active in the Myawaddy region on the Myanmar-Thailand border, noting “an increase in the incidents of Indian nationals falling victim to the international crime syndicates active” in the region.

Besides, the USIP report also found that criminal syndicates were agile and quick when reacting to government and law enforcement crackdowns, moving between Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos almost at will.

This photo taken on September 25, 2022 shows men standing on balconies of a building inside Chinatown district in Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province. (Photo: AFP)

This has resulted in human traffickers re-basing back in Cambodia. “The scam compounds in Myanmar have an additional perimeter of armed protection provided by Border Guard Forces under the authority of the Myanmar military or its proxies,” the report said.

Paul Greening, from Burma Consultant, said traffickers based out of Myanmar’s scam cities had extended their networks to Africa and Ugandans and Moroccans had been trapped inside Myanmar while there was also a focus on recruiting ethnic Rohingya from western Rakhine state.

Rakhine is among those states which has been subjected to heavy fighting and conscription enforced by the ruling junta, prompting many to flee and Greening added that because they were citizens of Myanmar, those trapped were outside the remit of international rescue.

“Beijing can play a big role in pressuring others to arrest the perpetrators. It is something China, the United States, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other countries could work together on,” he said.

This Sept. 20, 2019 photo shows a giant Buddha on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai province, with Myanmar in the background and Laos on the right. Ninety-seven kilometres of rocks in Thai waters stand between Beijing and dominance over the Mekong, a mighty river that feeds millions as it threads south from the Tibetan plateau through five countries before emptying into the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP)

Tana echoed those sentiments, adding that governments, the UN, and law enforcement were at least two years behind criminal syndicates in terms of logistics and technology and were overwhelmed by the scourge, which they are struggling to cope with.

“It’s been linked to almost every country on this Earth that is being attacked by these crime syndicates,” he said.

“They’re at a loss of what to do … but it’s now up to those countries’ leaders to take that further and look at how they can make a dent in that system.”

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Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
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William J. Grimm
UCA News