The Kapok Star Hotel and attached casinos beside vacant lots and unfinished buildings in Laos's Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in June last year. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

‘Like slaves’: Myanmar workers trafficked to Laos scam hub


While travellers pass through immigration from Thailand’s Chiang Saen district to Laos’s Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, posters in Thai, Chinese and English warn travellers of the dangers of human trafficking.

“I brought in a big group of Filipinos yesterday,” a Thai woman told Frontier in June last year at the border crossing on the Mekong River. She had just returned from Laos, disembarking from one of the small wooden motorboats that ferry people across the river.

Those Filipinos were cogs in a massive cyber scam industry that’s taken root in the SEZ. The industry relies on forced labour and has also snared thousands of Myanmar migrant workers like Ko Nyunt Tin*, whom Frontier interviewed by phone a year after the trip.

Nyunt Tin and his wife, both in their 30s, were primary school teachers in a small village in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region before the military seized power in February 2021, plunging the country into a political and economic crisis.

They joined a mass strike known as the Civil Disobedience Movement against the new regime, leaving their state jobs to toil on the meagre farmland they inherited from the wife’s parents. But with limited experience and the high cost of agricultural inputs, they struggled to support themselves and their 13-year-old son.

So when Nyunt Tin was contacted by a friend working in the Golden Triangle SEZ in February this year, he thought it might be a good opportunity to provide for his family.

“I met him when I went to the nearest town to join the protests after the coup. He is also a CDM teacher, so I believed him without any doubts, even though I knew what kind of place the Golden Triangle area is,” he said.

The Golden Triangle is the largest SEZ in Laos and has become infamous for gambling, money laundering, prostitution, human and wildlife trafficking, and more recently, cyber scams. It was established in 2007 by the Hong Kong-registered Kings Romans Group, run by Chinese gangster Zhao Wei, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for a long list of criminal activity.

Similar to other scam cities, like Myanmar’s Shwe Kokko and Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, the Golden Triangle SEZ is a bizarre mix of opulence and squalor. Its centrepiece – the dazzling Kapok Star Hotel and attached casinos – towers over abandoned buildings and empty construction sites. During Frontier’s visit last year, the hotel rooms were the picture of luxury, but on the fourth floor, the advertised bar, restaurant and fitness centre were nowhere to be found. Instead, there was only rubble.

Beaten-up Porsches, BMWs and other expensive cars lurched down roads riddled with potholes. They had Chinese or Lao licence plates – if they had plates at all. Other vehicles merely had four numbers stuck to the windshield as part of a local registration system.

At the Blue Shield Casino, attached to the Kapok Star, Frontier witnessed two people withdraw two 12-gallon garbage bags full of Chinese yuan from the chip exchange window. The Basel Institute on Governance says criminals often launder money through casinos using the “cash in, cash out” method.

“The most common way to launder money through a physical or online casino is to simply convert dirty money into chips or an electronic balance, gamble for a short period of time, then cash the funds out,” the Swiss-based corruption monitor said in a report.

Despite this atmosphere of criminality, Nyunt Tin’s friend told him he was working an innocent customer service job in the tourism industry, and that there was a vacancy at his company.

“He told me I would receive 3,000 yuan [US$410], equal to about K1.2 million at that time, during the probationary period, and it could rise gradually. So, I decided to join him,” he said.

The Wa connection

In the second week of February, Nyunt Tin flew from Yangon to Tachileik, a town in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State near the Golden Triangle – so named because it’s where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos all meet, divided by the Mekong. He crossed the river to Laos, finding his friend and a stranger waiting for him at an illegal port on the other side.

“He said the stranger was his friend but he couldn’t speak Burmese. Later I learned that he is a security guard for the company, an ethnic Wa, who tagged along with my friend to make sure I didn’t run away,” Nyunt Tin explained.

Some 800,000 Wa are believed to live in Myanmar but many speak the Wa language or Mandarin rather than Burmese.

Ko Than Lwin*, a broker for Myanmar migrant workers, said it’s easy to enter the SEZ informally by bribing security officers. He said most border gates have armed Lao police and Wa guards, and sometimes Burmese-speaking assistants who are typically unarmed.

“If we pay 300 yuan for each worker, they allow us to pass and enter the SEZ. We don’t need to worry about being arrested. Here, we can solve everything with money,” he said.

Than Lwin and Nyunt Tin were both unsure if the Wa security guards they’ve encountered were linked to the United Wa State Army. Myanmar’s biggest non-state armed group, the UWSA controls two large non-contiguous swathes of territory in Shan, one on the Chinese border and another on the Thai border near the Golden Triangle.

Barbed wire fencing surrounds the labour office, where newly-arrived migrants can register with Zhao Wei’s administration, seen in June last year. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

But a Wa guard at one of the SEZ’s biggest nightclubs told Frontier during the 2023 visit that the UWSA functions as an auxiliary police force there, in cooperation with the Lao national police.

“If there’s a case like theft, the Wa soldiers deal with it. If there’s a conflict between Chinese people, the Wa soldiers settle it. If there’s a conflict between Lao people, they use the Lao police,” said the security guard, who had been working in the SEZ for six years.

Since late last year, the Chinese government has cracked down on online scam operations in northern Shan, which often relied on forced Chinese labour to scam Chinese nationals online. Beijing pressured ethnic armed groups in the area, including the UWSA, to repatriate thousands of Chinese citizens involved in the operations.

China also allegedly backed Operation 1027, a stunning military offensive launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups in late October. The alliance went on to seize significant territory from the military junta in northern Shan and wiped out the Kokang Border Guard Force, a junta-aligned militia that was deeply involved in the scam industry.

While some operations were completely dismantled by the offensive, others relocated to areas that also have flourishing scam industries, including Myawaddy Township in Kayin State and the Golden Triangle SEZ in Laos.

But a lesson was learned – using Chinese forced labour, and scamming Chinese nationals, risks incurring Beijing’s wrath and disrupting the entire business. With the United States Institute of Peace estimating criminal syndicates in Southeast Asia are swindling upwards of $64 billion per year, there is much at stake. So, many have adapted to trafficking non-Chinese workers like Nyunt Tin who can speak English, and using them to scam English-speaking victims instead.

The Golden Triangle SEZ viewed from the Kapok Star Hotel in June last year. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

Into the belly of the beast

After passing from the border to the SEZ without any problems, the car took Nyunt Tin to a gated compound with a five-storey building. During Frontier’s visit, the city was full of high-rise apartment complexes surrounded by 10-foot tall fences, usually with barbed wire, and guard houses at the gate. But unlike in a typical luxury residence, this security wasn’t meant to keep people out, but to keep people in.

“The company manager told me I had to sign a six-month contract in order to work there,” Nyunt Tin said. “The contract was in Chinese, so I felt a little uncomfortable, but my friend encouraged me to sign it, so I did. They didn’t assign me much work at the beginning, and just got me familiar with the computer system.”

Three days later, his friend told him he was going to visit family in Myanmar because he had 10 days off. He never returned, and eventually Nyunt Tin realised his friend had brought him to the company to replace him so he could escape.

“By the time I realised, it was too late. It’s not a tourism company at all; it’s a zhapian company,” he said, using a Chinese word for scamming.

The company uses a common method known as “pig butchering”. After finding targets on social media, the scammers convince victims to invest in a cryptocurrency platform, often while establishing an online romantic relationship with them. At first, the cautious investors typically put down small amounts of money, but quickly see impressive returns, convincing them to invest more and more.

But the investment platform isn’t real and neither are the profits. After a sufficiently large deposit has accumulated, the “pig” is butchered – the money is withdrawn and the victim is blocked across all communication platforms.

“I had to find the people to scam through social media. They set us targets … for example, a worker has to make 10,000 yuan in a month,” he said. “If a worker hits their target easily, they increase the target each month.”

While much of what his friend told him was a lie, the salary was real. Nyunt Tin made 3,000 yuan a month, which he was able to send home to his family in Myanmar.

His English is good enough to chat via text, so he was put in a group of 50 people primarily targeting victims in the United States. He operated a social media page with a woman’s name and pretended to be a single mother; if any of the prospective victims got suspicious and asked to speak over the phone, a female worker fluent in English would step in. Because of the time difference, his 13-hour work day lasted from 9pm to 10am the next day, with other scammers working different hours depending on their geographic focus, including some who were still scamming people in China.

As in many other scam centres, the workers at Nyunt Tin’s company were subjected to severe restrictions, as well as harsh punishments for failing to hit targets.

He said they were mostly confined to the compound, let out to visit the town one day per month, but only if they hit their targets. Those that were struggling would have their salaries cut or were even levied fines. If they couldn’t pay the fine, they were often beaten and then sold to a broker who took them to another scam compound.

Many scammers are completely deceived into the work, but from monitoring social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook and Telegram, Frontier found many companies are also openly advertising for jobs in the online scam industry.

Ma Kyawt Kyawt* came to the Golden Triangle SEZ in December last year looking for work, but after a month of searching, the Myanmar migrant knowingly took a job at a scam company.

“The manager is not very strict at my company. We get paid less than some others, but we don’t have as much pressure either and get two days off per month,” she told Frontier by phone. “Some other managers are rude and treat the workers like slaves.”

She added that the company even has staff to clean their rooms and do their laundry, allowing them to “focus on finding people to scam online. But it’s still so stressful on the days when we can’t find anyone.”

Kyawt Kyawt said some of her colleagues seemed like they had been deceived into working there, and everyone had restrictions on their freedom of movement and were closely monitored. She said she personally has suffered verbal abuse and salary cuts on occasion, and has seen other workers being denied food as punishment for poor results.

The Kapok Star Hotel towering over a largely vacant walking street in the Golden Triangle SEZ in June last year. (Andrew Nachemson | Frontier)

For Nyunt Tin, the pressure quickly became too much. “I wasn’t happy with the job, so after three months I told the manager I wanted to quit … He told me if I wanted to quit, I had to pay off the remaining three months’ salary in my contract,” he said.

He decided to pay what was essentially a ransom in order to leave. However, he didn’t have the money to hand, having sent his previous salary payments home for his family to spend. He also spent money getting to the SEZ, so the family was forced to make tough choices to bail him out.

“My wife transferred me the money after selling her jewellery and one acre of land, and they returned my personal documents they had taken on the first day and let me leave the job,” he said.

Nyunt Tin said there was one other way out – finding another worker to replace him, like his friend had done. But, he said, “I didn’t want another person to suffer like me.”

Migration patterns

Even before the scam boom of recent years, the Golden Triangle SEZ was a popular destination for migrant workers from Myanmar. Ma Chaw Chaw*, who spoke to Frontier by phone earlier this month, has worked for a cleaning service there since 2018. She said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, most Myanmar nationals worked in construction, cleaning and maintenance, or as kitchen staff.

During Frontier’s visit last year, nearly every construction site was packed with men wearing longyis and sandals, Burmese chatter occasionally wafting out over the sound of heavy machinery. At night, while wealthy Chinese tourists wagered eye-watering amounts of money in glittering modern casinos, Myanmar migrants packed into shabby, cheroot smoke-filled gambling dens where they played traditional games like galok-galok.

Giant dice with sides showing different animals – a peacock, a tiger, a pegasus – were rolled while punters placed money on the corresponding images on a table mat. Many bet on the peacock, a symbol used by the National League for Democracy and the pro-democracy movement more broadly in Myanmar. “Amay [Mother] Suu, Amay Suu,” they chanted for good luck before the roll, referring to imprisoned NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Chaw Chaw said lately, demographics had been shifting, with younger and more educated Myanmar people coming to work in the scam centres, rather than doing low-paid manual labour.

“They target the workers who have computer skills. If a worker can write or speak in English, they will be offered a high salary,” she said, adding they can earn as much as K3-4 million per month.

A member of an aid group helping migrants in the SEZ, who commented on the condition of anonymity, said brokers who are also from Myanmar play a key role in the forced labour taking place there.

“They will sell the workers to another broker if the company already has more workers than it needs. The workers don’t even know they are being sold. Sometimes, the companies fine a broker if the worker is fired because of bad performance. If so, the brokers sell them to a worse workplace,” she said, adding some women are sold into prostitution.

There are no firm figures on migration to the SEZ but the aid group member estimated that it contains between 40,000 and 50,000 Myanmar people.

U Peter Nyunt Maung, the Yangon-based vice chair of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, told Frontier that the regime only officially allows Myanmar workers to travel to Laos by air and has no data about the number of migrants in Laos.

But, despite an airport recently opening near the SEZ, no flights appear to be operating there yet, and the vast majority of migrants seemingly enter the country via an illegal crossing on the Mekong.

Seven migrant workers told Frontier they chose Laos over other countries because the broker fee was much cheaper – around K1.3 million including transport, compared to over K2 million for Thailand and about K5 million for Malaysia. Workers already in the SEZ typically have to pay a K200,000 fee to a broker, but there’s no fee for scammers, because the companies pay brokers specifically to find them.

While migrants can enter the town without any documents, they are told to register at a labour supervision office run by Zhao Wei’s administration. With the recommendation of their employer, they can then receive a labour card and temporary resident’s book.

The registration must be renewed every six months for an 800 yuan fee. Because of this cost, broker Than Lwin said many avoid registering.

“If they don’t have [the documents], they have to play hide and seek with the police. But arrested workers can be released easily by paying a fine of 1,000 yuan along with a guarantee from their boss or broker,” he said.

But despite the lax immigration regime, migrants enjoy few rights and can be exploited easily. The aid group member said the bosses in the SEZ know about the political situation in Myanmar – including the armed conflict and recent conscription drive – and use this to take advantage of the workers.

“There are many employers who pay Myanmar workers less than they should get. Some bosses even don’t issue the salary at all once the work is done,” she said.

She urged aspiring migrants to think twice before coming to the Golden Triangle SEZ, warning that many of the construction projects have stopped since COVID-19, and Chinese language skills are a must for hospitality jobs.

“Honest work is rare, and more and more Myanmar people are forced to enter workplaces with corrupt morals,” she said. “I don’t want Myanmar people to come to this country, especially girls. It’s very dangerous.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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