SINGAPORE/BANGKOK, Aug 28 (The Straits Times/ANN): On Aug 18, dozens of Vietnamese dashed out of a casino compound in Cambodia's Kandal province, pursued by men swinging long metal rods. They flung themselves into the Binh Di River in a desperate bid to swim to Vietnam on the other side.
Forty of them got away. Of the remaining two, one was recaptured by casino guards. The other one, a 16-year-old boy, drowned in the turbid waters.
The dramatic escape was captured in a video that went viral online. Vietnamese police identified four human trafficking rings involved. Cambodian officials initially attributed the incident to a labour dispute, but detained the Chinese casino manager, who eventually admitted to forced labour practices.
Phnom Penh arranged to repatriate 25 Vietnamese who had been duped into entering Cambodia.
But it was merely the latest in a recent string of alarming episodes that underscored the impunity with which scam syndicates operate in South-east Asia. In similar stories played out in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, job seekers promised well-paying work in Myanmar and Cambodia are confined on arrival and forced to conduct cyber scams or extortion rackets.
Some are tortured. Others are sold to other syndicates or compelled to pay huge ransoms to secure their freedom.
Dozens of victims have been rescued but many more remain stranded, say officials.
According to Malaysian police, for example, only 70 out of 238 known Malaysian victims had been rescued as of Aug 19. Taiwanese police's latest figures showed that 72 Taiwanese victims were rescued from Cambodia and returned home in August. Interior Minister Hsu Kuo-yung said on Aug 21 that around 370 Taiwanese remained trapped in Cambodia.
In one case cited by Taiwan's Central News Agency, a 22-year-old woman was invited by a friend to Thailand but taken to Myanmar's Shwe Kokko area and forced to conduct online scams. After 10 days, she pleaded to return home.
The traffickers demanded her family pay NT$1.5 million (S$69,000) upon her arrival in Taiwan. At Thailand's Suvarnabhumi airport, where she was due to depart, the traffickers raised the ransom to NT$2.5 million.
The woman hid in an airport toilet for six hours and called her father for help. Officials from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Thailand eventually rescued her and sent her home on Aug 17.
Regional governments have taken some pre-emptive measures to combat such human trafficking. On Aug 12, for example, Indonesian police intercepted 212 people before they could depart from North Sumatra on a chartered flight for the Cambodian coastal city of Sihanoukville, where many of these syndicates are known to operate.
But experts say they are playing catch-up given the relatively low level of public awareness of these scams outside China, the original focus of these same crime syndicates.
"Regional governments and police are way behind on this," Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for South-east Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tells The Straits Times.
"The pandemic massively accelerated the move of casinos online as they sought to make up for lost revenues, and we know of many around the region that then did a pivot into fraud scams for additional cash flow. And law enforcement did not see it coming."
Part of the problem, he says, is that these operations "are concentrated in autonomous areas and regions of Myanmar where criminals can operate with impunity, and special economic zones dotted around the Mekong where governments have more or less sold territory off, including in some cases to known criminals who we now see involved".
Myanmar's Shwe Kokko is one such district, where the Myanmar military-aligned Karen Border Guard Force has free rein over its controversial business dealings.
The border area near Thailand is being transformed into a "new city" dubbed by experts as a front for online gambling and scams. While Myanmar's civilian government attempted to probe this project in 2020, the military coup last year and ensuing political turmoil has dimmed hopes that criminal activity there can be brought to heel anytime soon.
On Aug 10, She Zhijiang, the China-born Cambodian businessman driving the Shwe Kokko project, was arrested in Thailand pending extradition to China, where he is wanted for running illegal online casinos.
Guarded by their own security outfits, autonomous zones like Shwe Kokko provide safe havens for these syndicates.
"The criminals who do the trafficking may be renting the space in these zones," explains Jason Tower, the Myanmar country director of the United States Institute of Peace.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many of these zones functioned as online casinos, from which large numbers of Chinese workers tried to reel in punters via messaging applications like WeChat, says Tower. But this Chinese labour market dried up after Beijing closed national borders, forcing the syndicates to look further afield.
"In China, there's a lot of public awareness raising on this issue, and the Covid restrictions are also quite draconian, and it's hard for people even to leave China, to get passports. So they are increasingly targeting nationals of other countries," he says.
To warn the Chinese of job scams in South-east Asia, Chinese media reported on Aug 19 a 2019 case of how a man from Guangxi had escaped from his captors in Myanmar after being forced to launder money for three months. On microblogging platform Weibo, posts with a hashtag related to this case drew over 220 million views and 110,000 comments.
Tower notes that some of the recruitment advertisements on Facebook offer all-expenses paid telemarketing jobs in Dubai with salaries of US$5,000 ($6,900) or more, which would be enticing enough for job seekers in relatively higher-income places like Taiwan.
"What we heard from some of the victims is that the people arrive in Dubai, they work there for a month and then they are suddenly told 'you are being transferred to Thailand'," says Mr Tower. "They arrive in Thailand and they are taken across the border (to Myanmar) and they are held hostage.
"They are concocting some pretty sophisticated scams to bring these people into their networks."
Malaysian reports say syndicates are promising teenagers customer service jobs with salaries of as much as RM 7,000 (S$2,200) per month - several times the average starting pay of RM 1,800 for school leavers.
In Indonesia, migrant worker advocacy group Migrant Care says even graduates have been lured by promises of monthly pay of up to US$1,200 excluding bonuses. This is about four times the minimum salary for fresh graduates in Jakarta. - The Straits Times/ANN