Authorities in Laos have deported 462 Chinese nationals suspected of committing crimes including human trafficking, the latest sign of a sweeping regional crackdown on cyber-scam operations.
Yesterday, Radio Free Asia (RFA)’s Lao-language service reported that the Chinese citizens were arrested on November 28 during a raid in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) in the country’s northeast. Citing a statement posted on the website of the Lao Public Security Bureau, the report stated that the group was then deported to China the following day via the Boten-Mohan border crossing.
According to RFA, the individuals “appeared to be involved with call centers where scammers try to trick people into fake investments.”
These cyberscam operations have grown to a monstrous scale over the past three years. Established during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been sustained by armies of indentured workers: innocent jobseekers who were attracted by promises of clean and legitimate employment, only to be kept imprisoned and forced to operate various types of digital scams, often on pain of beatings, mistreatment, and torture.
The scale of these operations is hard to overemphasize. The United Nations has cited “credible sources” to the effect that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar and at least 100,000 in Cambodia “may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.” It estimated that Southeast Asia’s scam centers “generate revenue amounting to billions of U.S. dollars” per year.
While most of the known operations are based in Cambodia and Myanmar, there is also credible evidence that they have been established within the GTSEZ, which sits along the Mekong River at the “triangle” where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand converge. The Zone is and by all accounts exists beyond the effective writ of the Lao state.
Early last year, RFA reported that “hundreds” of Lao women were trapped within the GTSEZ, which is controlled by the Chinese-born gangster-tycoon Zhao Wei, a longtime denizen of Myanmar’s shady borderland casino scene who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for his involvement in “drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery and wildlife trafficking.”
In October of last year, around the time that Southeast Asian diplomats were beginning to express public concerns about the scale and malevolence of the region’s cyber-scam scourge, RFA’s Lao service also reported that around 700 Malaysian migrant workers were being held within the GTSEZ. The same month, the South China Morning Post reported that the GTSEZ contained “a number of prison-like call centers for online scams.”
So far attempts to crack down on criminality within the zone have been reactive and limited. Given the scale of the criminal activity within the GTSEZ, and the impunity granted by its SEZ arrangement with the Lao government, two observers wrote in November of last year, “Laotian labor officials have seemed powerless to address human rights abuses, unable to meaningfully change the system as a whole, and only manage to occasionally rescue a few trafficked persons.” It added, “Laotian police also seem paralyzed, debating whether or not to get involved at all.”
The Lao deportations could suggest that the current cycle of impunity is beginning to wane. In recent months, the Chinese government, finally awakening to the impact of these scam operations on its own citizens, has applied considerable pressure to its Southeast Asian partners to launch crackdowns. In August, China, Thailand, and Laos agreed to jointly combat Myanmar-based criminal operations that are targeting Chinese nationals. Since then, huge numbers of suspected criminals have been captured and returned to China.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), which occupies a large territory in eastern Myanmar, has handed over thousands of suspected scammers to the Chinese police since September, when Chinese authorities issued arrest warrants for known scam operators.
Meanwhile, after Myanmar’s resistance groups declared their intention to shut fraud factories as part of their ongoing Operation 1027 offensive, the military junta belatedly began its own deportation of scammers to China. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, this has totaled more than 31,000 alleged criminals as of November 21. A considerable number of these have been sent back from Kokang, a known hub of scam operations on the Chinese border that is ruled by a military-aligned Border Guard Force and is a primary target of Operation 1027.
There are reports that Beijing is pressuring Cambodia’s government finally to shutter scam operations and the local tycoons known to be collaborating them. RFA also reports that in September, Lao authorities repatriated 164 suspected Chinese criminals, including 46 who were arrested within the GTSEZ.
The complicity of local officials and the proven adaptability and flexibility of the region’s criminal syndicates makes it hard to declare that these crackdowns mark the beginning of the end of Southeast Asia’s “scamdemic.” But given the suffering that these operations have caused to both the victims of the scams and those forced on pain of torture to perpetrate them, the closure of every factory of fraud is cause for celebration.