Rebel offensive in Myanmar takes aim at online scam industry


A rebel group in northern Myanmar is preparing to lay siege to the city of Laukkaing — a hub of the country’s flourishing cyber-scamming industry that has drawn criticism from Beijing.

When the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a coalition of three ethnic militias opposed to the Myanmar junta, announced their offensive late last month, they singled out doing away with the online scam compounds that proliferate along the border with China as one of the goals of the operation.

“To eradicate telecommunications fraud, fraud dens and their protective umbrellas across the country, including the China-Myanmar border areas, our three coalition forces decided to jointly carry out this military operation,” they wrote.

Since then, they have successfully seized large swathes of territory, including key border towns, and hundreds of victims of trafficking have reportedly been rescued from compounds.

On Sunday, the government of Thailand arranged the repatriation of 266 Thai citizens, six Filipinos and one Singaporean who had been trafficked.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance’s offensive puts into sharp relief how the so-called pig butchering scam industry has grown into a humanitarian catastrophe — and one that is increasingly an issue of international political concern.

In August, the United Nations estimated that 120,000 people had been trafficked into scamming operations in Myanmar.

Often, they are lured by fake job postings on social media promising decent pay in work related to information technology, with the requirement being relocating for the job.

What they find is the stuff of nightmares: imprisonment in compounds alongside other trafficked victims, with passports confiscated, and orders to carry out online scams.

Chinese crackdowns

In Myanmar, pig butchering — which gets its name because it “resembles the practice of fattening a hog before slaughter,” according to U.S. law enforcement — is big business for the groups who control the border areas. That’s especially true in Kokang, an area about the size of Lebanon that is administered by the Kokang Border Guard Force (BGF) under an agreement with Myanmar’s military. Organized criminality within Kokang is well-known — and, until recently, tolerated.

The victims of trafficking, as well as the targets of scams, are often Chinese and this year China finally began putting pressure on the Myanmar government and other forces to crack down on the industry.

In May, during a visit to Myanmar, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang “pointed out that telecommunications network fraud gangs have long been entrenched in Myanmar’s border areas, seriously infringing on the interests of Chinese citizens, and the Chinese people deeply hate this,” the Foreign Ministry wrote, in a translated statement. “The Chinese government attaches great importance to it and is determined to crack down hard.”

The results of this pressure were mixed, however, according to the United States Institute of Peace.

“China may want to appear tough on crime, but thus far its cooperation with the Myanmar junta to crackdown on this activity has done little more than show the junta’s inability to control its own Border Guard Force,” they wrote in July. “It will take nothing short of a full-fledged military operation to dislodge this criminal activity, given the extent to which the compounds are protected by armed militias, armed criminal groups and even elements of the Myanmar army.”

In September, China doubled down on its efforts, focusing on areas where they have significant influence on the local groups in charge, according to USIP. They issued arrest warrants for two local officials who they accused of being scam ringleaders, and soon thereafter more than 4,000 people from 40 compounds were sent to China after raids by local armed forces.

China’s crackdown had little impact in Kokang, however, where criminal operations reportedly continued with no interruption. In September, 11 officials in the Kokang BGF accused of being involved in telecom fraud were arrested by China after being lured across the border to attend a festival.

Then in October, a massacre at a scam compound in Kokang reportedly resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, including Chinese citizens. Arrest warrants for four members of a family allegedly involved in the massacre were issued, and the patriarch reportedly took his own life before he was captured.

“Scores of Chinese nationals were murdered by Border Guard Force police as they tried to escape from a scam center compound,” Jason Tower, Myanmar country director at USIP, told Voice of America. “And I think that is really the reason why you saw China give support to… the Brotherhood Alliance.”

Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the rebel forces who launched the recent operation were strategic in signaling to Beijing that they would crack down on criminality.

“The Three Brotherhood Alliance is well aware of Beijing’s growing impatience with the scam industry and has used its own willingness to take on the scammers in order to manage the risk of Chinese backlash in response to its operations,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Public Security said that 31,000 “suspects” of telecom fraud had been handed over from Myanmar since the crackdown began.

In a statement last week, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — one of the coalition rebel groups — said it would soon attempt to take Laukkaing, the area’s major city.

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James Reddick has worked as a journalist around the world, including in Lebanon and in Cambodia, where he was Deputy Managing Editor of The Phnom Penh Post. He is also a radio and podcast producer for outlets like Snap Judgment.


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