One of the ethnic militias that controls part of Myanmar has arrested 1,207 Chinese nationals said to be involved in online scams, per reports from the Associated Press and others. Those arrested were handed to Chinese police on September 6 at a border crossing between the countries (pictured).
The arrests were made in the Eastern Myanmar state of Shan by the United Wa State Army (UWSA). UWSA is one of several armies vying for control of parts of Shan. A history of fighting within Myanmar has led to greater Han Chinese influence over the population of Shan, which has a lengthy border with the Southern Chinese province of Yunnan. UWSA is the army of the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the de facto rulers of portions of the neighboring Myanmar state of Wa. Myanmar’s central government does not officially recognize the UWSP government, but tolerates it in practice. UWSP split from the Communist Party of Burma in 1989 and runs its Shan enclave as a one-party dictatorship, emulating the Chinese Communist Party’s style of government. China supplies weaponry to the UWSA despite also being on friendly terms with the military dictatorship that overthrew Myanmar’s democracy in 2021.
This operation comes amidst a string of other operations that are targeting Chinese telecoms and online fraudsters based in neighboring countries. China Daily reports that on September 3, a joint operation by Yunnan and Myanmar police arrested 269 telecoms scam suspects, 186 of whom were Chinese nationals. They also report that law enforcement officials from Laos transferred 164 suspected online scammers to China on September 11.
Outlets that have the support of China’s government reinforced the news by publishing stories about Chinese citizens being kidnapped and forced to work for online and telecom scam operations. The Chinese government has an aggressive policy of seeking the extradition of Chinese-speaking fraudsters who are based in other countries. Publicity about crackdowns like these are likely designed to reassure citizens that the Chinese Communist Party will succeed in curbing these crimes. It is unclear how the arrested will be treated despite the majority being presented as victims of human trafficking.
A recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner stated that organized criminals engage in human trafficking across South East Asia so they can force people into working in scam centers that move from place to place. Per the report:
These concerns occur in the context of wide-ranging digital criminal activity such as romance-investment scams, crypto fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. At the time of writing this paper, the situation remains fluid: hundreds of thousands of people from across the region and beyond have been forcibly engaged in online criminality, States within the region are trying to identify actions and policies to address this phenomenon, while criminal actors are reacting by finding ways to change and relocate their operations, building new centres across the region and upgrading existing compounds.