Lured into lawless corners

EARLIER this month, dozens of Vietnamese dashed out of a casino compound in Cambodia’s Kandal province, pursued by men swinging 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.

The dramatic escape was captured in a video that went viral. Vietnamese police identified four human trafficking rings were 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 cyberscams 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.

Regional governments have taken some pre-emptive measures to combat such human trafficking.

On Aug 12, 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,” said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for South-East Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“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 said, 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 are 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 of bringing the criminal activity to heel anytime soon. — The Straits Times/ANN

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