Thai workers trapped in Kokang hell
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Thai workers trapped in Kokang hell

A mother whose son had been trapped in the conflict-ridden area in Kokang on the Myanmar-Chinese border trembled as she recalled the brutality the young man faced.

Her son, a worker in online scam businesses operated by gangs of Chinese mafia, was beaten and tortured by his bosses.

Torture is not unusual in these illicit businesses. It's reported the gangsters threw one worker into a dark, isolated room after they found out he had attempted to contact the Thai embassy in Yangon for help.

The mother was one of the parents I have been speaking to over the past two weeks via Line group chats and calls with the help of a volunteer.

Over 100 Thais have been lured into working for Chinese gangsters on the Myanmar-Chinese border. Scam businesses range from false romances to fraudulent digital investments.

Apart from the Myanmar-Chinese area, such businesses are rampant on the Thai-Cambodian border. They operate in similar patterns, and workers who fail to hit their targets can face inhumane punishment.

Life became unbearable for those in Kokang's Laukkaing, about five kilometres from China, as the town has become a hotspot given the clashes between Myanmar troops and ethnic rebel groups.

Another mother said her son quit his job in Thailand after a friend encouraged him to apply for a position in the United Arab Emirates. As his visa to the UAE was rejected, the friend persuaded him to work in China, citing a better income. The woman claimed her son had no inkling it was a scam.

"As I was told he was going to work in China, I was caught with surprise when he said he took a flight to Myanmar instead. Then he told me he was in Kokang, which I had no knowledge about," the woman said.

"I asked around and was told it's a very dangerous area. But by that time, it was too late," she said, adding she has been feeling unwell ever since.

Her son phoned her occasionally and told her about the suffering he had endured at his workplace. Other nationalities are facing a similar plight.

The mother contacted several state agencies seeking help. But all were quiet. Then, the situation in Laukkaing got worse.

Given that the area is secluded, as Kokang is a self-administered zone governed by ethnic Chinese in the north of Shan state, any rescue operation would be challenging.

It's reported that at least 200 Thais remain trapped in the troubled area. Some have been transferred to a camp in Myanmar, but the escalating armed conflicts between the Myanmar army and ethnic fighters have stalled any rescue operations.

Kokang leaders are divided into two groups: the pro-Tatmadaw faction, called the Border Guard Force (BGF), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which has fought against the Myanmar army.

It's the former that opened the area to Chinese investors, who set up a wide network in the northern and western parts of Thailand.

The largest group, located in Laos opposite Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen, falls under the influence of Zhao Wei, a US-blacklisted tycoon who owns the notorious Kings Romans casino, part of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.

Zhao Wei has strong connections with influential local figures in Tachilek town opposite Chiang Rai. He has expanded his infamous business, establishing KK Park, a casino and a haven for online scams, in Karen state's Myawaddy, which is opposite Tak province. Another haven for fraudsters is Shwekoko, which is nearby.

Chinese tycoons like Zhao Wei claim to have contributed to economic development. But there have been accusations -- even by former massage-parlor-turn-whistleblower Chuvit Kamolvisit -- that they are behind a swath of grey businesses in Thailand, including entertainment places in Bangkok.

Zhao Wei has reportedly denied these accusations.

At the same time, those hired to bolster their empire along the borders are subject to torture, and as they could be sold among the operators, they are victims of human trafficking. All the workers routinely have their passports confiscated.

It's beyond doubt that Zhao Wei has many powerful friends, including Thai politicians, investors and even some media personalities. His move to lobby for a Thai-Lao bridge in the Golden Triangle area has been well-received by Thai politicians and investors.

Meanwhile, Chiang Rai is the first province the cabinet of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin chose to visit.

Another controversial figure is Col Maung Chit Tu, the BGF commander, who recently announced the closure of border checkpoints as he was upset with demands for more protection fees that were allegedly made by a group of Thai police.

The strong network the fraudsters have forged with the authorities may explain why any assistance for Thai workers tends to proceed at a slow pace.

"We have petitioned several agencies, the embassy, police, and others, but there seems to be no progress. We have no idea what to do," the parents said.

At least 62 Thai workers have reportedly been taken hostage by the gangsters.

The network between the influential tycoons and the authorities, in addition to an administrative gap along the border areas in countries riddled with corruption, makes it almost impossible to suppress such online scam businesses.

Under such circumstances, it's easy for those seeking a better life to fall victim to vice.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of

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