Cyberscam crackdown intensifies

THE nation is ramping up a crackdown on online scams operated by criminal syndicates in border areas of military-ruled Myanmar in an effort that has included a shootout, confession videos and national TV broadcasts of arrests of high-profile suspects.

But the drive has been confined to a limited area and appears unlikely to root out the kingpins behind human trafficking and other illicit activities aimed at cheating people of their savings via phone calls and online overtures, schemes that are thought to generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue a year.

Over the summer, China announced a series of joint operations with neighbouring countries that led to thousands of people being returned to China, many of whom had been lured by the promise of high-paying jobs.

Experts say many are victims who were forced into conducting the scams. Those campaigns did not include arrests of ring leaders in Myanmar.

“As soon as we discover them, we hand them over,” said Lu Jiantang, the vice-chair of foreign affairs in Wa, whose job it is to ensure that people fleeing fighting in neighbouring areas do not include scammers.

On Nov 18, China’s Public Security Ministry announced that authorities in northern Myanmar had handed over some 31,000 suspects. Among them, police said, 63 were key players in scamming groups.

“China seems to be very focused and intent on cleaning its border,” said Jason Tower, an expert on Myanmar’s cyberscam industry at the US Congress-backed think tank, the United States Institute of Peace.

Among those arrested are a few related to some of the most powerful people in two special administrative zones close to China’s border with military-ruled Myanmar.

The Kokang Self-Administered Zone and the Wa Self-Administered Division both share a border with China and are heavily influenced by their bigger neighbour.

The people living in both places share a language and culture with China. Those living in Kokang are ethnically Chinese.

Wa senior politicians, who have their own Communist Party, have ties to China’s Communist Party dating back decades and run their government along lines similar to Chinese party committees.

In mid-November, the Chinese police announced they had issued warrants for four people, all surnamed Ming, on suspicion of cyberscams, murder and illegal detention.

The family is one of the most powerful in Kokang, with members in the government and local police, and they are said to have Chinese passports.

A few days later, the state broadcaster CCTV showed footage of police taking three of the four suspects across the border in southwestern Yunnan province.

CCTV reported that Ming Xuechang, a family patriarch and one of the alleged leaders of a scam syndicate, died by suicide when local authorities tried to arrest him on Nov 15.

Myanmar’s military government issued a statement saying that Ming had shot himself during the arrest.

The renewed effort to stamp out the scam rings followed a violent shootout Oct 20 in Kokang in a compound belonging to the Ming family, according to local media.

The former editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-backed news outlet Global Times, Hu Xijin, appeared to confirm that undercover police were killed in the incident.

“China is determined to eradicate the poisonous cancer of cyberscams in northern Myanmar, and this ultimately led to the demise of the Ming family, who are said to have killed four of our undercover military police,” Hu wrote in a recent Weibo post.

The Public Security Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Kokang has sent some 26,000 people back to China in recent weeks, said Yin Masan, head of the administrative office in Kokang. Of those, 16,000 went voluntarily.

“Our police and authorities are cracking down.”

The crackdown has become a factor in Myanmar’s conflict.

The offensive has put pressure on Kokang’s government.

“At a minimum, they understood very well which way the wind was blowing in China,” said Richard Horsey, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group who tracks Myanmar.

Others say that China is showing it won’t tolerate the scams anymore, regardless of how powerful the people behind them are.

“It’s gotten riskier,” said Horsey.

However, “there’s a massive financial incentive to keep this going. The rewards are still there.” — AP

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