A Chinese gang is holding 19 young Burmese migrant workers against their will in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state after “buying” them from people posing as job brokers to operate online fraud schemes, according to the victims and their family members.
The 13 men and six women, all about 20 years old, signed what they thought were employment contracts for jobs in October, and agents associated with the gang took them to Mong Pauk township in the rebel United Wa State Army-controlled Special Administrative Region, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border with China.
The ethnic armed organization controls its own territory — known as Wa state — in parts of northern and southern Shan state. It has an estimated 30,000 soldiers and maintains close ties with China.
The people posing as brokers told the migrant workers they could earn 5,000 yuan (U.S. $715) a month working in the Wa region as long as they were computer literate and knew English so they could deal with foreigners.
When they discovered that their “job” was to defraud foreigners through fake social media accounts on Facebook and Telegram, they refused to work and demanded to return to their homes, said one of the youths, who is currently being detained in a building near a Wa administrative office in Mong Pauk.
“We called and told the agent lady in Mong Pauk that the job situation did not suit us and we did not wish to work for this company,” he said in a recording he made that was later obtained by RFA. “She said that she was not the only person who took the money from this company [and] there were other people who got their share of the money, too, [but] she could not bail us out.”
The woman, who is ethnic Chinese, told members of the group that job recruiters sold them to the gang for about 17,000 yuan (U.S. $2,430) each, the migrant worker said.
“We had no knowledge of the deal between the agents and the company,” he said. “We realized we had been sold only when we prepared to quit the jobs. This is an illegal job.”
When the workers threatened to quit, the scammers told them they would resolve the situation and sent them to a building near the Wa administrative office, but locked them inside, another young man told RFA.
“When we got here, they asked us to work here, too, but we also refused,” he said.
Work or be detained
The gang members have demanded that the migrant workers each repay the 17,000 yuan if they want to leave or else be jailed, according to relatives of the youths, six of whom are from two towns in Shan state, while the rest are from other regions, including Yangon, Mandalay and Bago.
“My son said he and his friends do not have a choice but to continue working or be locked up,” said one father.
Authorities handcuffed and led away two young men who refused to work in recent days, said their parents, although it was unclear whether their captors were police officers or Wa soldiers.
Sai Win Ko, a family member of one of the victims who lives in Shan state’s Hsipaw township, told RFA that the youths reached them using other people’s phones because their own phones had been confiscated.
“We are very worried, even more worried now because of the fact that they can’t even use their own phones,” he said, adding that all the youths are being held in the same unmarked building owned by a company called Hop Xiao Ho.
The workers said they reported the situation to the Mong Pauk Police Department, which falls under Wa administration, but the officers only called the Chinese gang members to “ask them questions.”
Family members told RFA they explained the situation to staff at the junta’s anti-human trafficking office and the UWSA liaison office, both in the town of Lashio, but said authorities have done nothing.
RFA was unable to reach either Kun Thein Maung, the junta’s spokesman and finance minister for Shan state, or Nyi Yan, chief officer of the UWSA liaison office, for comment on Tuesday.
However, in November, Nyi Yan told RFA that fraudulent activities are unacceptable in the Wa region and said those who commit such crimes are given lengthy prison sentences.
RFA also contacted the Chinese Embassy in Yangon for comment, but did not receive a response.
Fraud rings rampant
Every year, more than 30,000 migrant workers from different parts of Myanmar seek work in the Wa region, although an increasing number of them have been sold to gangs that run fraud rings following the military coup in February 2021 and the coronavirus epidemic, said an aid worker in Shan state.
The gangs force the migrant workers to open fake social media accounts and defraud people from wealthy countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States by convincing them to invest in fake businesses.
Veteran human rights attorney Kyee Myint said such activities are prohibited under international law because they are related to human trafficking, but little has been done to combat the problem in Myanmar since the military seized power from the elected government last year.
“That’s why Myanmar is on the blacklist of international condemnation for not doing much to help such victims,” he told RFA.
“But those who seized power during the military coup don’t care about these issues at all,” he said.
Labor activists in the region said that unless relevant authorities take effective action against Chinese gangs and fake job brokers targeting migrants, human trafficking will become more widespread.
Translated by Myo Min Aung for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Joshua Lipes.