Tackling the scammers on the border
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Tackling the scammers on the border

The Moei River in Myanmar, south of Myawaddy and Mae Sot in 2022. The area along the river is believed to host scamming operations.
The Moei River in Myanmar, south of Myawaddy and Mae Sot in 2022. The area along the river is believed to host scamming operations.

Abbas (assumed name) and Beni were excited when their friend and compatriot, Chihab, offered them a lucrative e-commerce job in Thailand. Abbas and Beni accepted the offer at once. The monthly salary started at US$1,000 (36,000 baht) and they were told the boss would double the salary after they gained more experience.

Both left Morocco on Feb 25, along with seven other Moroccans.

Entering Thailand was easy. They landed in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and spent four days there applying for visa. They landed at Don Mueang Airport and took a flight to Mae Sot Airport in Tak province. There men with weapons picked them up and took them to a long tail boat that took them across the Moei River to Myanmar. There, a Chinese man took them to their office.

When they entered the premises, they realised they had been duped. The lucrative e-commerce job did not exist. The so-called "office" indeed is part of a new criminal enclave located in Hpa Lu village in Myanmar's Myawaddy district and it is only 10 kilometres south of Shwe Kokkoh, a special economic zone in Myawaddy.

The village is close to Thailand -- less than 500 metres from Phob Phra district in Tak province.

Other victims told them the underground world is controlled by Chinese businessman and the Kokang ethnic group, who had moved there recently, had opened scammer centres.

Previously, this group ran underground businesses such as casinos and scam operations in Shan state, in the northern part of Myanmar next to China. They fled last year when armed ethnic groups attacked the Myanmar army in October. The move was backed by the Chinese government which wants to wipe out crime and arrest members of Chinese criminal groups in Kokang, a self-administered zone bordering China in Shan state.

So, some criminals moved down to Myawaddy and opened a business in Hpa Lu village. The area along the Thai-Myanmar border indeed has become a criminal hub.

Underground activities benefit from the civil war in Myanmar. The Myanmar military government and township enforcers have been too preoccupied with their own problems to bother with on-line fraudsters. Their close proximity to Thailand provides a logistics gateway for them to reach out to the world. Strong telecom signals from Thailand also help.

With their close proximity to Thailand, these investors have bought property, including pricey condos in Bangkok, not to mention sports cars and designer bags. Needless to say, the money comes from the blood and tears of victims like Abbas and Beni as well as scores or perhaps hundreds of others trafficked to work for these criminals.

No matter where they come from, they are all made to suffer. Each worker is given a quota of people to con into investing in non-existent businesses. Abbas and Beni were responsible for conning Moroccans while other nationalities are forced to dupe their own people. Failing to meet the quota means a severe penalty: being chained, solitary confinement in a dark room, or an electric shock.

Abbas and Beni were lucky enough to get away. After working there for 15 days, Abbas contacted his father and Beni's dad in Morroco. To help their sons, they needed to borrow $7,000 dollars to pay a ransom and pay an extra $367 to an agent as an "exit fee". Last month, both were helped to flee by members of the ethnic armed rebel group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

The story of Abbas and Beni is not uncommon. There is plenty of evidence of Thais and other nationalities being lured to work in Myanmar. The bait luring them there is the same: the promise of lucrative jobs at casinos in tourist towns, or easy money doing e-business close to Thailand. Many local and international anti-human trafficking groups have asked the Thai government to do more to curb transnational crime at the Thai-Myanmar border.

Politicians like Rangsiman Rome from the Move Forward Party have urged the government to force telecom operators to block telecom signals to disrupt on-line scammers. Last week, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) promised to force telecom operators to block signals from users in Myanmar. It is hoped the NBTC will show its teeth and the government will do more to prevent human trafficking.

The Moroccan Embassy in Bangkok sought assistance from various agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Royal Thai Army, the Department of Special Investigation, and the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, through a letter on May 17. There has has been no progress since then. Exodus Road, an anti-human trafficking organisation, petitioned Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to help 21 Moroccan citizens who have fallen victim to a scam gang operating on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Fair Party MP Kannavee Suebsang, who previously assisted in the evacuation of refugees stuck in Laukkaing in Shan state, when it was besieged by rebel forces, posted on his Facebook that in addition to the Moroccan citizens, the Chinese-run syndicate also holds 41 Sri Lankans as hostages in Myanmar. Abbas and Beni escaped captivity, but others have yet to be so lucky. Their lives and future depends on help from the Thai government.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

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