This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Reluctant to leave his home in Laos, the young man only agreed to travel abroad after being promised good pay for a simple three-month job.
Six months and countless beatings later, the 14-year-old and three other trafficking victims from Laos’s Luang Namtha province were freed from the Kosai Casino in Myanmar’s Myawaddy town this week and sent across the border to Thailand, where they were eventually deported home and reunited with their loved ones.
“I went to Myanmar in August last year because my employer told me that I would be there for only three months,” said the young man who, like others in this report, spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.
Instead, he and others were held against their will and forced to work as scammers, luring unwitting foreigners into giving them access to their bank accounts, and regularly subjected to harsh punishments if they failed to bring in money.
“In the casino in Myanmar, if we [workers] were unable to meet our targets, we’d be beaten up,” the young man said.
Back home with his parents in Luang Namtha province, he said that the people who held him captive in Myanmar regularly beat workers with “tasers, iron rods, and heavy ropes.”
“Four of us have returned home from Thailand, but more than 10 others are still [in Thailand], waiting their turn,” he said.
Special economic zone
Myawaddy, in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, is home to the Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone, which was promoted as a way to spur economic growth and deliver material benefits to the local community.
Instead, the Chinese-backed U.S.$15 billion real estate mega-project along the Thaungyin River has gained notoriety as a bastion of illegal activity, according to a report by the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, C4ADS, an independent research outfit that studies transnational organized crime networks.
Shwe Kokko New City, as the area is called, was funded by Hong Kong-registered developer Yatai International Holding Group in partnership with the Chit Lin Myaing Company owned by the Kayin State Border Guard Force, an ethnic Karen force aligned with the Myanmar military. It includes the Myanmar Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone.
The area became a hub for illicit activity because of weak national laws, a diffusion of responsibility, and a lack of development plans, according to C4ADS’s report.
Scammers and human traffickers operate with near-total immunity from the law in the zone, where they treat their victims like chattel, beating them when they don’t comply and demanding payment in exchange for setting them free.
RFA obtained a video that depicts one trafficking victim at the casino in Myawaddy standing handcuffed to a pole while desperately trying to avoid being shocked by captors wielding cattle prods on either side of him.
Another video shows his back covered by burns and welts from being tortured, while a third appears to show victims being forced to hold stress positions and tased if they cannot do so.
It was not immediately clear whether the videos had been used by the traffickers as a kind of ransom note to solicit payment from family members.
A close friend of the video subject’s family in Luang Namtha told RFA that he “was freed several days ago … after his mother transferred 300,000 Thai baht (U.S.$8,750) online to a human trafficking gang in Myanmar.”
“[He] is now detained for illegal entry at the immigration center in the town of Mae Sot, Thailand … waiting to be deported to Laos,” the friend said.
A woman in Luang Namtha told RFA that she had paid 100,000 Thai baht to traffickers at the casino for her grandson’s freedom.
“If I didn’t pay, my grandson wouldn’t have been released,” she said. “How did I pay? My grandson told me to transfer the money to a certain person, so I did.”
Other families told RFA their loved ones remain trapped at the casino in Myawaddy and said they have little recourse to secure their release.
The parent of an 18-year-old man from Luang Namtha said his son is still working as “an online chatter” at the casino, scamming people out of money.
“What happened to him was like what happened to many other Lao workers: he first worked as an online chatter at the Kings Romans Casino in [Laos’] Bokeo province, but when he couldn’t do the work, he was traded to the casino in Myanmar,” he said.
The Kings Romans Casino resort is located in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos – a gambling and tourism hub catering to Chinese citizens situated along the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. Much like the Myanmar Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone has also become a haven for criminal activities including prostitution, scamming and drug trafficking.
Many impoverished young Laotians from other provinces and foreigners who were promised lucrative jobs end up held against their will at the casino by trafficking rings that exploit them under threat of violence. In 2018, the U.S. government sanctioned the Chinese tycoon who is said to run the economic zone as head of a trafficking network.
Other parents in Luang Namtha whose children remain trapped at the Kosai Casino in Myawaddy after being trafficked there told RFA they are growing increasingly desperate.
One mother called on the Lao government to help rescue her daughter from the facility “as soon as possible, because they are beaten up every day.”
“I don’t know whether they’ll survive or not,” she said. “We [parents] have been requesting help for more than three months now, but nothing has happened!”
The father of a young man held at the casino said he and other parents had been petitioning the Lao National Police, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Lao Embassy in Myanmar since September last year, with little to show for it. He said only around 10 of the victims have been released after their family members paid ransoms ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 Thai baht (U.S.$300 to $5,850).
An official with the Lao Embassy in Myanmar told RFA that the government is doing its best to help those trapped in Myawaddy and had contacted the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance.
“We can’t access the area because of the fighting between ethnic groups and the military in Kayah state,” said the official, who also declined to be named.
“Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indicated to us that there are [more than 100] Lao workers there who don’t have passports and there is no record of their entry to Myanmar because they entered illegally … as well as many other workers from other countries too.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs for the Philippines repatriated eight Filipino trafficking victims from Myanmar earlier this week, according to a report by the Manila Times.
Of the eight, the report said, four were recruited online from Dubai to supposedly work as customer support representatives in Thailand but were brought to Myanmar and forced to trick individuals into investing in cryptocurrency.