Tackling Myanmar's crime corridor

Tackling Myanmar's crime corridor

Thai telecom towers in Mae Sot, Tak province are seen facing a suspected scam centre in Myanmar's Myawaddy township in 2022. (Photo supplied)
Thai telecom towers in Mae Sot, Tak province are seen facing a suspected scam centre in Myanmar's Myawaddy township in 2022. (Photo supplied)

On Feb 4, a small piece of news indicated that the Myanmar police were planning to send back over 90 Thais and more than 1,000 Chinese nationals and other foreigners who were lured to work in Shwe Kokko, Myawaddy. Under this plan, all would have been sent back from Myawaddy -- a special economic zone -- to Mae Sot district in Thailand's Tak province.

Although last week the Myanmar government decided to delay the scheme, the plan is still worthy of public attention because the plan reflects the connection between Myanmar's civil war and the thriving scams and underground businesses in Myanmar's border zones next to China and Thailand.

The number of people to be sent back from Myawaddy appears minimal when compared to the thousands of Thai nationals who have been lured to work in Kokang's Laukkaing Township in Northern Shan State bordering China.

The latest plan shows the Myanmar junta is stuck in a miserable situation.

The Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, came to power after staging a coup in 2021. It now appears to be on its last legs as its military bases have been attacked by ethnic militants.

What is believed to be a deciding factor is so-called Operation 1027, in which armed ethnic groups began an offensive against the Myanmar army on Oct 27.

Reports say the reason this operation was launched was the junta's failure to respond to Beijing's call to crack down on crime and repatriate members of Chinese criminal groups in Kokang, a self-administered zone bordering China in Shan State.

It is widely reported that Beijing offered support to the northern alliances of Myanmar rebels, also known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a group comprised of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army.

Together, they launched attacks on Myanmar forces and expanded their operation to seize large swathes of land in northern Shan State.

Needless to say, Operation 1027 was a game changer that boosted the morale of ethnic armed groups and resistance forces against the Myanmar army nationwide.

The real winner though is China, because it has successfully purged the criminal groups that had duped many Chinese nationals into working for underground businesses in Myanmar. Beijing also reaps the benefits from flexing its muscles inside Myanmar, with the ethnic armed groups along the border being swept under its wing.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar junta is left in an awkward situation since it still relies on China's weapons and support.

Untamed neighbour

The Tatmadaw's plan to hand over foreign nationals from Myawaddy to Thai police is more than a crackdown on Chinese criminal groups or a rescue of scam victims. It reflects the fact the embattled Tatmadaw is not easily backing down as the junta still uses shrewd regional tactics for its own benefit.

In the wake of China's crackdown on Chinese criminal groups in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar's Kokang, many criminals relocated to various cities in Myawaddy.

In the past week, it was reported that many Chinese nationals were desperately trying to cross the border in Myanmar's Tachileik to come to Thailand amid the purge of criminals. Currently, members of trafficking syndicates and Chinese victims are scrambling for their lives.

An area near Moei River in Myawaddy has become the latest hub for Chinese criminal groups, not just in Shwe Kokko along the northern border. In Kokang, it is believed some 30 casinos are spread around the area.

The area has become a stronghold for Chinese scam businesses due to various factors. In particular, the territory was left without state control and fell under the control of at least seven ethnic armed groups, each of which had built its own kingdom to serve its interest.

In the past three years since the Myanmar coup, the area has become a hot zone for Chinese businesses.

As the civilian-led government was ousted and the junta became busy with the civil war, the area morphed into a de-facto "untamed west", with large criminal corridors of gambling, online scams and human trafficking.

Lots of money has been poured into the ethnic armed groups in exchange for protection, and it is no surprise their fortune has been passed to the Myanmar junta as well.

Most importantly, a large sum of the money has also been used to bribe bureaucrats in Thailand.

Mae Sot is a gate to the kingdom, and every square inch of land there has been used as leverage by corrupt officials.

Since people and commodities have to be transported through such gateways, it is unsurprising to learn that gaining the favour of a chief official in Mae Sot may cost a huge sum of money.

The borderlands of Mae Sot and Myawaddy, divided by the Moei River, have nurtured a global crime corridor.

Because of the Thai government's perpetual leniency and a bureaucratic system that leans towards corruption, the area helps breed criminal groups that thrive in new cities.

Both politicians in parliament and former high-ranking police officials have been accused of serving as conduits for such Chinese criminal groups.

Money laundering hub

Last year, Chinese law enforcement agencies sought cooperation from their Thai counterparts to arrest members of Chinese criminal groups who were operating along the corridor. The joint operation was called "Chinese scamming Chinese".

Under this operation, Chinese authorities tracked down Chinese criminals based in Mae Sot and sent Thai authorities a list of their names. They also sent such a list to authorities in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Because Beijing provided the names of Chinese criminals, Thai law enforcement agencies should have been more successful in their crackdowns. Yet Chinese criminal groups are still using fake passports to enter and exit via the Thai-Myanmar border.

That the Myanmar junta has offered to hand over more than 90 Thai nationals and more than 1,000 foreigners is quite intriguing; who are these people?

The area is a corridor beyond the control of the authorities in Myanmar, and local rebel groups are armed to the teeth, ready to fight each other.

Myanmar's tactic is similar to floating a trial balloon. On one hand, it may gather intelligence on the movements of various armed groups, and on the other, it may play nice with China, which wants to expand its influence to areas along the Thai border, considering its vested interest in Myanmar.

It is even more intriguing since Thailand is preparing to develop a humanitarian corridor to facilitate aid between the Thai and Myanmar Red Cross Societies for more than 20,000 displaced Karen people in three spots inside Myanmar.

The shipments will be arranged through Mae Sot, running 5 kilometres inside Myawaddy.

Various groups are keeping an eye on the development. Aid sent via government-to-government channels has been made almost impossible since this area fell under the control of various rebel groups.

So, what is the purpose of such a humanitarian corridor? Are there any hidden agendas at play? This issue is worth further attention.

Paskorn Jumlongrach is founder of transbordernews.in.th. This opinion piece is a translation of the original Thai version found on the website.

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