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23 Jun 2022


Myanmar: How Shwe Kokko becomes a hub for online scams and human trafficking as Chinese money funds 'new city' project

"Scam City: How the coup brought Shwe Kokko back to life" 23 June 2022

[...] Shwe Kokko Myaing, to give the place its full name, sits on a bend of the Thaung Yin River that divides Myanmar from Thailand. [...] The new city project – a partnership between an expatriate Chinese investor and an ethnic Karen Border Guard Force under the Myanmar military – has clearly enjoyed a reversal in fortunes since a Myanmar government probe in 2020 brought the seemingly illegal construction work to a halt. Interviews with residents and workers revealed a booming economy fuelled by Chinese money. [...]

‘We have to pretend not to know’

Ma Su*, an accountant at a Chinese firm in Shwe Kokko, said companies there were recruiting people to work as online scammers, often under false pretences. “Workers recruited online are told they will earn a good salary at a casino, but [on arrival] are ordered to work as scammers instead,” she told Frontier. [...] Ma Su said that although there are “many such cases of human trafficking” in the new city, legitimately employed workers such as herself were often too fearful to speak openly about them. “We are working and living in the area, so we have to pretend not to know some things,” she said. [...]

After witnessing some staff being physically assaulted, Aung Myint feared for his life. He phoned family members, who then contacted U Thant Zin Aung, a lawmaker for Myawaddy Township in the Kayin State parliament. The MP, who was from the National League for Democracy, negotiated with the BGF and only two days after Aung Myint’s arrival at Shwe Kokko he was escorted to freedom without having to pay the ransom. [...]

There have been more recent reports of human trafficking in the area. The Bangkok Post reported in April that two Thai women had escaped across the river to Mae Sot from a casino on the Myanmar side of the border. They told Thai police they had been forced into sex work after being told they would receive public relations or non-sexual entertainment jobs, and could only be released if they each paid a 25,000-baht ransom. One of the women said about 300 Thai women were trapped in the same circumstances. The casino wasn’t named, but its proximity to Mae Sot suggests it was one of the at least 18 casinos on BGF-controlled land just north of Myawaddy, rather than at Shwe Kokko. [...]