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HomeOther CountriesMalaysiaThailand-Myanmar border river flooded by Chinese underworld - Free Malaysia Today

Thailand-Myanmar border river flooded by Chinese underworld – Free Malaysia Today

MAE SOT: “Thailand and Myanmar are friendly and close neighbours separated only by a strip of water,” proclaims Hong Kong-based Yatai International Holding Group in a Facebook video promoting its purported contribution to a China-Thailand-Myanmar economic corridor.
Along that strip, the Moei River, Shwe Kokko Yatai New City has been conceived as a fantastic US$15 billion city of the future.
Development is well underway in Myanmar’s malarial and strife-torn Karen state, where ethnic Karen forces continue a grinding insurgency against the central government that dates from 1948.
With bogus Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) credentials – questioned by Myanmar’s former government under Aung San Suu Kyi and publicly disavowed by China’s embassy to Myanmar in 2020 – the city lies just north of Thailand’s Mae Sot.
It will have “science and technology industrial parks, leisure and tourism areas, ethnic culture areas, business and logistics areas, and ecological agriculture areas”, according to the promotional material.
There will even be a “firearms training” facility.
Shwe Kokko has also been billed as “Myanmar’s Silicon Valley” and a key way station along a “maritime Silk Road”, part of a land bridge between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
The reality is much darker.
Shwe Kokko is a known criminal hub used for online gambling, scamming and human trafficking.
After Suu Kyi’s government cast doubt on its BRI links, Thailand shut off power and telecommunications for the city in 2020.
But those vital utilities were restored within a fortnight of the Feb 1, 2021, military takeover that ousted Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and installed the State Administration Council regime of senior general Min Aung Hlaing.
It is far from the only such development raising red flags.
More crime zones immediately began springing up southward along the shallow, winding Moei, which at the driest times of year can be crossed on foot.
This is Southeast Asia’s new heart of darkness – a lawless area that analysts Priscilla A Clapp and Jason Tower called a “growing threat to global security” in a US Institute of Peace (Usip) commentary published last month.
“Between February 2021 and March 2022, as the (Covid-19) pandemic raged, construction of new enclaves exploded along a 40km stretch of the river,” Clapp and Tower reported.
“Usip has so far identified 15 distinct criminal zones in the area,” they wrote.
Their existence and chronology can be confirmed on Google Earth and by visits to the border.
Not all have brick-and-mortar casinos – the hallmarks of dubious “special economic zones” (SEZ) along Thailand’s porous borders with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The lack of warehouses and factory space mean the new developments would never be credible SEZs.
The “zones” identified by Usip exist almost entirely to contain people, by some accounts squeezed into rooms six at a time.
“The city-like enclaves appear more like penal colonies,” Usip observed. Indeed, 4m concrete walls topped with coiled razor wire can be clearly seen. In some instances, raised sentry posts make them resemble concentration camps.
On the Thai side, new cell towers offering 5G reception have been erected facing directly across the river.
Concrete ramps have been built into the riverbanks at numerous points, making it easier for heavy trucks to cross with building materials and other supplies.
Mae Sot is indeed a frontier town of immense logistical importance.
Located on Asian Highway 1, it is connected across the Moei to Myanmar’s Myawaddy by the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which for now remains closed.
A building damaged by a massive car bomb in June is still clearly visible on the Myanmar side – evidence of the national volatility that has displaced tens of thousands.
Just north of Myawaddy is another bridge with customs checkpoints for hauling freight.
It is open to container traffic despite the armed unrest in Myanmar.
Some 175km by road to the west lies Moulmein (Mawlamyine), an Andaman Sea port on the Indian Ocean first developed by the British in Lower Burma in the early 19th century.
Yatai’s proposed maritime Silk Road connects Moulmein to Laem Chabang, Thailand’s largest port, by road and from there to China’s massive southeastern port of Guangzhou.
Shwe Kokko, Yatai’s flagship development, is in the vicinity of Kawmura, where the Karen National Liberation Army’s Battalion 101 was based until 1994.
Today, this stretch of border is controlled by a Karen breakaway group, the Karen Border Guard Force, which brokered peace and business arrangements with Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw.
Its offices in Shwe Kokko are directly alongside Yatai’s.
That relationship indicates a direct connection between the Chinese underworld and Myanmar’s regime, though how much it actually yields is pure speculation.
Yatai, which did not respond to requests for comment, envisions the city as stretching 19km along the Moei, with an overall footprint of 120sq km.
That would be slightly larger than Macau, the only region in China where gambling is legal, albeit decreasingly tolerated by Beijing.
Covid-19 lockdowns and official clampdowns on casino junkets reduced Macau’s gambling revenues last year to the lowest level this century.
Casino financiers have been moving out of the former Portuguese colony since at least 2016 to less regulated territories, such as Sihanoukville and Poipet in Cambodia, and later over Thailand’s borders with Laos and Myanmar, creating countless unregulated casinos beyond any rule of law.
Online gambling technology and infrastructure has also been used for scamming, causing a regional “scamdemic”.
Shwe Kokko’s main casino is larger than most.
The city’s driving force was She Zhijiang – or Dylan She, as he often refers to himself – the chairman of Yatai International Holding Group.
He is also vice-chairman of the China Federation of Overseas Entrepreneurs, which along with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese is among Shwe Kokko’s endorsers.
According to China’s Caixin news portal, She has been on the run from Chinese authorities since 2012.
He has reportedly set up gambling networks in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Since August he has been sitting in a Thai Immigration Bureau prison cell awaiting extradition to China, a procedure complicated by his Cambodian citizenship.
But Yatai is carrying on with business as usual.
She, 40, was born in Hunan but, like so many Chinese alleged gangsters, holds a Cambodian passport that can be bought legally for around US$200,000.
Observers suspect that some Chinese suspects have parlayed betrayals of colleagues in ongoing mainland crime purges into exit passes.
With reinvented identities, they are now floating around Southeast Asia as supposedly legitimate businessmen.
She is also reported to be connected to KK Park, not far southeast of Myawaddy.
It has the most sinister reputation among the new enclaves.
Malaysians, Taiwanese and Indians are among those known to have been trafficked there for ransom or online scamming to buy back their freedom.
Maps on Google carry denunciations of KK Park – sometimes called KK Zone or KK Garden – many in Malay and Chinese.
Somebody has marked “prison” in English on two secure side-by-side structures with windowless outer walls.
In the centre, two substantial luxury villas are surrounded by additional high concrete walls.
“Effectively, the whole Moei has become a river of criminality,” Tower told Nikkei.
“You are seeing increasing numbers of people being duped into crossing over, and once they are there, being held for ransom,” he said, adding that even paying does not guarantee freedom.
“The other side of the Moei might as well be on another planet. The situation is a governance nightmare”
A Thai reporter who visited casinos in Myawaddy in early 2020, before Covid-19 lockdowns came into effect, found them full of Cambodian card dealers and croupiers.
These casino staffers had been moved across from Sihanoukville after the Cambodian government clamped down on online gambling in 2019 at Beijing’s request.
He saw online gambling being conducted openly on these premises.
Malaysians have become particular trafficking targets because of their proficiency in Mandarin, which is helpful for scamming the wider Chinese diaspora so long as mainland Chinese are locked down at home and unavailable.
Many Malaysians also speak English, which opens up other markets.
The same is true of Filipinos, Indians and Africans.
Most are lured by false advertisements for lucrative employment.
Usip speculates that more than 100,000 foreign nationals could be trapped inside Myanmar, mostly along the Moei.
A Southeast Asian diplomat monitoring the situation from Bangkok was incredulous that the numbers could be so high.
Still, numerous Malaysians have surfaced for repatriation after being smuggled up to the Myanmar border.
One Malaysian who escaped through Mae Sot after jumping out of a third-storey window claimed to have seen thousands of compatriots in different buildings.
A Thai lawyer attached to Mae Sot’s main police station told Nikkei that he had dealt with two Malaysian boys of 15 who had to be deported home by Thailand’s Immigration Bureau.
In April, Ekapop Lueangprasert, a Thai good Samaritan who runs the independent Survive network for rescuing trafficking victims, presented a heavily disguised 25-year-old woman to the press.
She had been duped with a phony job offer into crossing the border at Myawaddy and forced into prostitution.
She managed to escape, but estimated that at least 300 Thai women remained captive.
“It is next to impossible to help these trapped people,” Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative in Bangkok of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told Nikkei.
“The other side of the Moei might as well be on another planet. The situation is a governance nightmare – it is out of control.”
Douglas is calling for tough measures.
“Telecoms and electricity should be cut off to the criminals and their casinos and scams dotted along the border. They can’t run them otherwise,” he said.
“And we would also recommend investigating how access was arranged in the first place.”
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