Guest Column

Chinese Gangs Exploiting Vulnerable People Across Southeast Asia

By Yan Naing 2 May 2022

The significant presence of Chinese criminal syndicates in Southeast Asian countries is turning out to be a major problem for law enforcement and other public agencies in the region.

Several Chinese gangs are active in areas on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. The scale of such illegal activities has increased since the emergence of COVID-19, as many organized groups started taking advantage of vulnerable youth rendered unemployed due to the pandemic.

The rise of Chinese-run scam operations is closely linked to the increasing economic integration between China and Southeast Asia over the past decade, which has seen a surge in Chinese investment in the region. As they grow in scale, these operations increasingly resemble an industry. Such operations have been aided by weak legal frameworks and corrupt local elites in parts of the region, providing favorable conditions for illicit activities. The activities are also taking place in territories and special economic zones that exist beyond the effective reach of the host country’s legal apparatus.

This was again confirmed in a recent case in Cambodia. In a cross-border operation on April 10-11, the Thai and Cambodian police rescued 68 Thai workers from Chinese scam gangs that were running call centers in Sihanoukville in western Cambodia, the capital Phnom Penh and Krong Bavet on the border with Vietnam.

Held captive against their will, the workers were forced or tricked into running telephone scams. They were ordered to stay inside a guarded 12-story compound where Chinese “bosses” laid out their instructions via an interpreter.

The workers were lured through social media with promises of high-paying online sales jobs in Poipet, a Cambodian town on the border with Thailand. As soon as they arrived in Cambodia, their travel documents were seized and they were held and forced by racketeers to make scam calls in their own languages. Instead of online sales, workers were told to make unsolicited phone calls posing as customs officers, policemen or potential investors looking to secure a bank transfer.

Chinese gangsters direct their victims, mostly poor workers, to scam at least 500,000 Thai baht (nearly US$15,000) every month; if they fail to do so, they face the threat of being sold to another gang. Those who refuse are subjected to various forms of violence and mistreatment including being whipped, electrocuted, beaten up or locked in dark rooms without food.

Due to more than two years of pandemic-induced poverty, the workers have been forced to take virtually any work they can find away from their remote, rural villages. In Thailand, it is normal for brokers to travel to poor border villages offering locals jobs, especially once the harvest is over and underemployment is rife.

Media reports from Southeast Asia reveal that hundreds of Malaysians, Filipinos and Indonesians have also been lured to Cambodia by organized crime groups based in and around Sihanoukville, a city notorious for lawlessness, casinos and Chinese criminal gangs. Most of the kingpins are in China but they employ people down the line in neighboring countries to run their wider Chinese transnational criminal activities.

Similar operations have been exposed in the past as well. In November 2021, Cambodian police rescued 99 Thai workers from a building in Phnom Penh where they were held and forced into illegal work by a Chinese gang.

Highlighting the activities of Chinese criminal gangs, 35 civil society groups urged the Cambodian government in mid-March to address “a crisis of forced labor, slavery and torture” in facilities that it described as “slave compounds.”

Thai police estimate that over 1,500 Thais are still working in scam call centers in cities like Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Poipet, held against their will by the scam gangs. They have already rescued 800 Thai nationals from criminal gangs in Cambodia since October 2021.

The exact workings of these rackets remain unclear, but there is mounting evidence that they are regionally coordinated and linked to other nodes of illicit activities, such as the massive drug-trafficking syndicates that operate in eastern Myanmar. Many see it as a by-product of China’s economic boom and increasing connectivity to once-remote parts of mainland Southeast Asia. But the biggest cause of such activities is poor law enforcement in border areas, both by Chinese authorities and the host countries.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym of an observer on Myanmar affairs.

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