In December last year, the casino compounds of central Myawaddy swelled with thousands of Chinese workers eagerly awaiting the chance to return home for the upcoming lunar New Year festival.

Construction of a new city at Shwe Kokko, about 20 kilometres north of Myawaddy, had been suspended following a Kayin State government surprise check that same month. Billed as a US$15 billion undertaking, in which 30,000 acres of land will be turned into a “comprehensive international city”, the Shwe Kokko project is being jointly implemented by Chinese investors and the Kayin State Border Guard Force, a former ethnic armed group that is now part of the Tatmadaw and headed by Colonel Saw Chit Thu.

No longer able to work, thousands of Chinese nationals had been brought from Shwe Kokko to the casinos in downtown Myawaddy so that they could head home early for the lunar New Year holiday, by crossing the border into Thailand and flying out of neighbouring Mae Sot.

“There were about 3,000 Chinese workers at Shwe Kokko before construction stopped temporarily in December 2019,” a soldier with the Kayin State Border Guard Force told Frontier on March 19 on condition of anonymity. “I was in the security team that sent the workers to downtown Myawaddy in December. We separated them into many cars, took them to Myawaddy and put them in hostels inside the casino compounds. We provided them with security while they were in Myawaddy, too.”

The BGF operates dozens of illicit trade gates along the banks of the Thaung Yin River (which the Thais call the Moei) in Myawaddy Township, opposite Thailand’s Tak Province. These gates provide an alternative crossing, for both goods and people, to the official gates at the two Thai-Myanmar Friendship bridges. Eighteen casinos have also been built along the Myanmar side of the river on BGF-controlled land, mostly aimed at customers crossing on ferries from Thailand.

U Kyi Thein, who works in a casino near BGF Gate No. 1, remembers when the workers arrived. They were hard to miss: the hostels in the casino compound were overflowing. “I’ve never seen it so crowded as when the workers from the Shwe Kokko site arrived here,” he said.

And then they disappeared, batch by batch, starting from the second week of December. By the first week of January, they were nearly all gone, Kyi Thein said – sent back to Mae Sot through illegal gates 1 and 12, both of which are controlled by the BGF. It wasn’t only the Shwe Kokko workers who left, he said. Nearly all of the Chinese employees at the casinos and other businesses in the township – from restaurants and entertainment venues to mines – headed home for the holiday, too.

“Friends of mine who operate boats on the river said they had to send more than 15,000 Chinese people to Thailand over the four weeks, mostly at night time,” he said, a version of events that was confirmed by multiple other sources in Myawaddy.

The Return

But then, on January 7, Chinese health authorities announced they had isolated a new virus, the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCov, and said it was responsible for a spate of people in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, being hospitalised with respiratory problems. Hubei province was put into lockdown on January 23 and a week later the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The world began to pay attention to what until that point had been a health issue confined to China.

As the outbreak escalated, the Chinese workers on leave from jobs in Myawaddy rushed back to Mae Sot. In normal circumstances they would have entered Myanmar as tourists by applying for a visa on arrival, numerous sources told Frontier. However, the workers were unable to enter Myanmar through the two official crossings, apparently because the government had suspended visas on arrival for Chinese nationals on February 1.

Interviews with around 20 people in Myawaddy and Mae Sot familiar with the matter revealed that for about two weeks, thousands of stranded Chinese nationals lived in the no-man’s-land along the banks of the river in pre-existing informal settlements.

Thai officials encouraged them to return to China, but took no action against them because the settlements, of which there are around 50, are beyond the official Thai border wall.

“Some of my relatives live in that area – the Chinese workers stayed there about two weeks,” said Mae Sot resident Naw Mya Mya Aye. “Thai officials tried to get them to leave, but they wouldn’t.”

Several sources said that the people already living in the informal settlements provided the workers with some basic necessities. “The people living there had heard about coronavirus and were very afraid of catching it from the Chinese,” said one source. “But they are more afraid of the BGF, so they helped the Chinese.”

Finally, in the third week of February, the BGF arranged for the workers to return to Myawaddy, ferrying them across the Thaung Yin, one group at a time, to the casinos that line the riverbank.

In this way, as the coronavirus outbreak was gathering pace around the world, thousands of workers who had recently returned from China had been smuggled into Myanmar, skipping both immigration formalities and health checks.

A spokesperson for the BGF, Colonel Naing Maung Zaw, told Frontier on April 2 that he did not know anything about the workers being brought across the river from Thailand.

He said that the BGF had closed its trade gates on February 29 ­– after the Chinese workers had returned, according to Frontier’s sources – and no one had been able to cross the river since then. “We checked the casinos to make sure there were no gamblers left before closing the gates,” he said, declining to comment further.

Immigration officials said that – officially at least – they also knew nothing of the returning workers.

U Aung Khaing Swe, the director of the Immigration Department for Myawaddy District, said there were 200 Chinese nationals living in Myawaddy Township officially, of whom 82 held work visas.

But he acknowledged that policing the border was difficult because of the informal crossings. “We know about the BGF gates but have no idea how to control them. We aren’t allowed to enter these areas without informing the BGF, but when we do tell them we are coming, the BGF clears the area before immigration officers can come and check,” he said.

He said that immigration officers had been searching downtown Myawaddy for illegal Chinese visitors but had not found any recently.

Locals told Frontier that the Chinese workers have not left the casino compounds since returning to Myanmar – unlike in the past, when they could often be seen in downtown Myawaddy.

Dying Workers Spark Panic

Myawaddy residents who were already concerned at the potential health risk posed by the returning Chinese workers have grown more alarmed in recent weeks after at least three workers have died in unusual circumstances.

On the night of March 21, a labourer at the Heng Sheng 1 casino, Mr Xio Kai, 29, was taken to Myawaddy District Hospital for treatment after complaining of a fever and coughing, but he died before he could receive treatment.

A spokesperson for the hospital, Dr Yan Naing Oo, said in a statement distributed to Myawaddy-based media on March 22 that Xio did not die of COVID-19, though it appears he was not tested for the virus. (As of April 10, only five people had been tested in Myawaddy Township for COVID-19 and all returned negative results, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports.)

“When we conducted an autopsy, we found out that the patient’s liver was 1.5 times larger than normal. [There were also] blood clots on the right side of the brain. We assume that the patient died of a stroke and it is not because of COVID-19,” Yan Naing Oo was quoted as saying.

The doctor recommended that the authorities check the health of other people living in the casino compound, but it is unclear whether any checks have been conducted.

On March 27, a Chinese national living in Shwe Kokko, Mr Jian Yong Rong, died in Myawaddy Township Hospital after being admitted the previous day complaining of a sore throat. A medical report listed the cause of death as a heart attack.

The following day, an administrative officer at Shwe Kokko, Mr Huang Lifei, also died, prompting police to investigate on March 29. A police officer from Myawaddy, who asked not to be named, said the man had a history of heart disease. “He often went back to Mae Sot for treatment. We found that he died of a heart attack and had no symptoms of fever,” said the officer.

Kayin State Hluttaw lawmaker U Thant Zin Aung (National League for Democracy, Myawaddy-2) said the recent deaths – coming shortly after Myanmar had confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 – had caused significant concern in Myawaddy.

“The residents worry about COVID-19 after hearing about Chinese nationals dying in Myawaddy,” he said, adding that he had visited Myawaddy Township after Jian’s death on March 27. “We are trying our best to ensure there are no cases of COVID-19.”

Rising Tensions

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the presence of large numbers of Chinese workers was a source of tension in Myawaddy.

In recent years, thousands of Chinese have flocked to the township to work in casinos, construction projects, mines, restaurants and entertainment businesses.

“Chinese people are everywhere in Myawaddy Township,” said Myawaddy resident Saw Aung Aung Min, who drives a tuk-tuk. “Their population has grown over the past two years or so alongside the increasing number of casinos and other Chinese investments in Kayin State.”

Aung Aung Min said he often takes Chinese passengers from near the official border crossing at the No 1 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge or the BGF-run gates to the casino compounds along the river.

“I think they enter Myanmar with a tourist visa but they never leave through the official gates after staying in the casino area. If they go back home, they just use the boat behind the casino” to cross back to Thailand, he said.

Many of the businesses they work for are linked to the BGF. The ethnic Karen force was established in 1994, when disgruntled Buddhist members of the Christian-dominated Karen National Union broke away with the encouragement of a radical monk to form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and allied themselves with the Tatmadaw. In 2010, the DKBA transformed into the BGF and was formally integrated into the Tatmadaw.

In 2017, BGF leader Colonel Saw Chit Thu began working with a Hong Kong-registered company called Yatai International Holding Group to develop the Shwe Kokko project. Dubbed “Chinatown” by locals, it is located on the edge of a scruffy, pre-existing town that has served for decades as a hub for smuggling cattle to Thailand. So far, the joint venture company, Myanmar Yatai International Holding Group, only has Myanmar Investment Commission approval to build 59 luxury villas at a cost of $22.5 million, but as reported by Frontier, construction work has far exceeded that allowed under the MIC permit.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a March 30 report on Myanmar-China relations that the developer’s “stated long-term goal may be a useful cover for more controversial short-term activities”, namely online gambling – a lucrative industry estimated to be worth $24 billion across Asia last year. It noted that many of the Chinese at Shwe Kokko appeared to be “white collar” professionals rather than construction workers.

Numerous sources, including the Karen Peace Support Network, have reported as many as 10,000 Chinese working at Shwe Kokko. The 18 BGF-linked casinos closer to Myawaddy are believed to house many thousands more.

Major Saw Maung Win, a BGF spokesperson for the Shwe Kokko area, told Frontier that when the project got underway in 2017 Myanmar Yatai had said it planned to bring 1,700 workers from China to Myanmar via Thailand with visas on arrival. It built 700 temporary accommodation units at Shwe Kokko to house them, he added.

However, he said the BGF was just responsible for security and did not know exactly how many workers were at Shwe Kokko, or what they were doing.

“We don’t know the exact number of Chinese workers at the moment in the project area because the number is not stable and we are just responsible for security. But the number increased when the first phase was completed, because then more workers came and lived in the villas that were built. The 700 temporary accommodation units are full of people,” he said.

Immigration officials in Myawaddy told Frontier on condition of anonymity that they kept an informal list of Chinese workers in the township, including Shwe Kokko, and estimated there were around 15,000 altogether.

The workers enter the country officially, they said, usually taking advantage of the visa on arrival facility for Chinese nationals, and then stay on beyond the expiry of their visa and work illegally. Exiting via the illegal border gates allows them to avoid penalties for overstaying.

Locals complain about many of the Chinese working illegally but the authorities are unwilling or unable to tackle the issue because of the involvement of the BGF.

Tempers flared in September 2019, when a brawl broke out between locals and a group of Chinese workers accused of urinating in front of a shop in Myawaddy. In the following months residents staged several protests, calling on the authorities to take action against the workers. This prompted a fairly modest response, with the state government forcing businesses to take down Chinese-language signs and deporting a handful of Chinese nationals for violating immigration rules.

Kyi Thein said “hundreds” of Chinese people were living in the compound of the casino where he works, and there was a similar number at the casino where he was previously employed.

“I have never seen immigration officers enter their hostel in the casino compound and check their visas. They pretend they are staying legally but I’m sure they are not,” he said. “I’ve no doubt that the BGF is hiding the real number of Chinese workers living in casino compounds in Myawaddy.”

The BGF soldier who helped transport thousands of Chinese workers from Shwe Kokko in December said that some casino compounds in downtown Myawaddy had large “hostels” that could accommodate more than 1,000 people. Only Chinese workers and BGF members were allowed to enter these areas, he said. “We have the right to arrest anyone who enters the areas around the Chinese workers’ hostels,” he said.

Although most jobs at the casinos, from management to security guards, are reserved for Chinese workers, it’s not clear exactly why the casinos need so many staff.

Frontier Detained

Border Guard Force representatives told Frontier their businesses were operating according to the law.

Saw Min Min Oo, the managing director of Chit Linn Myaing, the BGF’s main holding company, drew a distinction between projects such as Shwe Kokko, in which the BGF is formally involved, and business activities along the border, such as casinos.

A former BGF colonel, Min Min Oo retired from the force when he was appointed to run the BGF’s formal businesses.

“All of our businesses are registered as official companies with the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration,” he said, distinguishing these ventures from “BGF-owned land along the Thaung Yin River [that is] rented to Chinese and Thai investors who run casinos and hotels. These are not under the management of the BGF.”

The land along the river is administered by Colonel Saw Mote Thone, an assistant to Saw Chit Thu who is responsible for “BGF security management”, Min Min Oo said. This is where the BGF also operates its dozens of illegal trade gates, at which huge amounts of contraband – everything from beer and liquor to cars and whitegoods – crosses the border on small boats and ferries in broad daylight.

Min Min Oo declined to comment on these activities, but confirmed that there were 18 casinos on BGF-controlled land along the river.

Although Myanmar’s gambling law was amended last year to permit casinos for the first time, the process for legally operating a casino has not yet been set out in any by-law or notification. Although it is unclear whether the Myawaddy casinos are licensed, the law only permits foreigners to gamble in a licensed casino and when Frontier visited Myawaddy in October 2019 there were large numbers of Myanmar nationals playing the tables at the riverfront casinos.

On the evening of March 4, a photojournalist and I were detained by security while taking photos of construction work at a casino close to the No 1 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. Residents in the area had said the construction work was taking place at the rear of the Heng Sheng 1 casino along the river, and many of the workers were Chinese. The buildings under construction were hostels for more Chinese workers.

Although we were outside the casino compound, an official from a nearby BGF security post, known as thae pone security gate, sent security guards to detain us. The security post is part of BGF Gate 1, which is overseen by Mote Thone, the BGF commander.

An official from the security post named U Soe Kyi then confiscated a camera and phones from us and deleted the photos.

While waiting at the post, we could see the entire casino compound, including what appeared to be at least 500 Chinese workers. Soe Kyi said they were labourers working to build the casino, but refused to say if they were working legally.

We were then taken in a car with Soe Kyi and two security guards from Heng Sheng 1, who carried high-powered rifles, wore black uniforms adorned with Chinese characters that differed from BGF uniforms, and spoke Chinese to each other.

We were then detained for 27 hours and subjected to physical abuse by men in BGF uniforms. We were released on the evening of March 5 and BGF leaders explained that the incident had occurred without their knowledge. Mote Thone, the BGF commander, personally apologised to us and promised to take action against those involved in our arrest.

He said that Soe Kyi is just an official from the casino construction project and security gate, but does not have a formal position in the BGF. According to Mote Thone, Soe Kyi used BGF soldiers to detain us without seeking permission from the group.

Soe Kyi, who was also present when we were released, claimed that it was a “misunderstanding” and that he had thought we were taking photos of BGF soldiers. He did not mention the Chinese workers or the construction site.

Two days later the BGF announced that it had sentenced four soldiers who assaulted us to six months at a BGF prison in Hlaingbwe, while Soe Kyi and four other soldiers who participated in the arrest were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in BGF cantonment 4.

Heng Sheng, which also operates a second casino at Myawaddy, could not be reached for comment.

It describes itself as being “a comprehensive investment group with multiple industries including entertainment, tourism and e-commerce” that was established in 2011 and is based in the “Miaowadi [sic] Special Economic Zone” ­(Myanmar has only three SEZs, at Thilawa, Dawei and Kyaukphyu), with branches in Vietnam and thousands of employees.

Our 27-hour detention earned the BGF condemnation from human rights and press freedom groups. Although the BGF leadership was quick to distance itself from the incident, that it happened at all seemed to indicate the extreme sensitivities around Chinese immigration and labour in Myawaddy. Moreover, despite the BGF’s attempts to portray itself as a mere landlord where the casinos are concerned, the detention also showed how closely its soldiers are involved in protecting them.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people of Myawaddy say that their concerns and fears about unregulated Chinese migration, which has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, are not being addressed by anyone who holds power in the area.

Myawaddy resident Daw Htun Kyi said she wanted the state authorities to immediately check the Chinese in the casino compounds, expel any illegal workers and monitor the health of the rest.

“I saw the news about Chinese people entering Myawaddy and before that I saw a lot of Chinese people everywhere across the township,” she said. “Then I heard that Chinese people here were suddenly dying. Have they got COVID-19? I suspect so.”