“Hi dear, I’m Ellie. I’m 30 years old. I’m from Singapore but live in New York,” wrote a Facebook account with the profile picture of an attractive young woman. 

But behind the message was a 27-year-old Myanmar man in Wa State, a de-facto autonomous zone within Shan State inhabited by the Wa ethnic group. Awng* contacted the target, Steve*, on Facebook Messenger after looking through his profile and gleaning that he was a small business owner.

When Steve replied, Awng carried on a friendly conversation, pretending to be a successful entrepreneur.

“I am an experienced investor in a new cryptocurrency company and our business is doing very well,” he wrote. “Would you like an opportunity to earn extra income? I can teach you how to trade online.”

Awng, from Kachin State, said he does not do this dirty work voluntarily. Four months ago, he found a job posting on Facebook for a digital marketing professional with an alluring salary package and travelled to Lashio in northern Shan. His travel expenses and accommodation were covered by the company – lending more credence to the idea that this was a legitimate and successful business.

Upon arriving in Lashio, one agent told Awng and around 10 other recruits that the pay was very good in nearby Wa State, whose territory is controlled by Myanmar’s most powerful non-state armed group, the United Wa State Army, which has kept a ceasefire with the military since 1989. Others said there were also job openings in Laukkai, capital of the Kokang region of Shan, which is controlled by the Myanmar military and its proxy militias, but where UWSA ally the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army also vies for control. 

Despite having no prior relevant work experience, they were promised a relatively high monthly salary of 5,000 yuan (around US$690), with accommodation also covered in Panghsang, the UWSA’s capital on the border with China’s Yunnan province.

“When we arrived in Panghsang, two people were immediately sent back to Yangon after they learned that they didn’t speak English and didn’t know how to use a computer,” Awng said, not knowing at the time that they had been spared a harrowing ordeal.

He and the other recruits were set up in bunk-bed dormitories, separated by gender, and provided adequate meals each day. But after signing up for a year of work, the situation deteriorated.

“Things went well for a few days after we signed the contract,” Awng said. “Then they started forcing us to find scam victims.”

They were ordered to target young English-speaking entrepreneurs, mostly from Western countries, working overnight because of the time difference. If they went 10 days without success, they were physically punished.

“We had to do 800 sit-ups and run for an hour around the compound,” Awng said, adding they were forced to work 15-hour days.

In his compound, he said there were around 18 Myanmar nationals and 30 Chinese forced to operate online scams.

“We complained to our boss that we can’t work here anymore,” said Awng, adding that the men in charge spoke Cantonese to each other. After about a month, Awng and some of the others were “transferred” to another company in Mongpauk Township – but he now realises they were actually sold. As of November, he was still in captivity, at this point working for a third company, also in Mongpauk.

Scourge of Southeast Asia

Human trafficking for scam operations linked to overseas Chinese criminal networks has surged in Southeast Asia in recent years. Much of it takes place in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, once billed as a new beach resort city for Chinese tourists, replete with casinos, but which has instead developed into a haven for organised crime.

However, more recently it has taken root in border areas of Myanmar controlled by armed groups that are mostly either allied to, or have a ceasefire agreement with, the military. The February 2021 military coup has exacerbated the trend, due to the breakdown in the rule of law amid widespread armed conflict and political instability. 

Frontier spoke to sources who had been trafficked to three locations controlled by the UWSA – Panghsang, Mongpauk, Monghpyak – and to another Chinese border city, Mong La, which is controlled by another UWSA ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army. Similar operations are underway in southeast Myanmar in Shwe Kokko, an area on the Thai border controlled by military-backed militia the Kayin State Border Guard Force.

While the Kayin State BGF fights alongside the military, the UWSA and NDAA have stayed out of the conflict between the military and pro-democracy forces seeking to overthrow the new regime. Instead, they have taken advantage of the military’s weakened position to demand greater political autonomy in negotiations with the junta.

People have been trafficked to casinos in these areas for several years now. However, Mr Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia, said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, human trafficking in Shan mostly revolved around manual labour and sex work. 

“But the casino industry and then pandemic have really changed the profile,” he said. “More articulate, educated people with technical skills are being trafficked to work in casinos and online gaming, and in scam operations set up in the same facilities or areas.” 

He said casino operators “accelerated” the move to online platforms during the pandemic, in an attempt to compensate for the loss of real-world customers. “The more ruthless have added scams that they need workers for, and some are forcing young women to work in online pornography,” he added. 

Douglas said while technology has given them the ability to penetrate every corner of the globe, they need flesh and blood workers with language skills to operate, and they will go to great lengths to retain their human resources.

“The groups running the online casinos and scams are not going to simply shut them down and release those that they have brought in. And if the border with Yunnan reopens they’ll have the benefit of fully running the floors again and being online – diverse revenue streams,” he predicted.

A Chinese national who worked for a scam operation in Laukkai from 2017 to 2020 confirmed that with the onset of COVID-19, the scam industry boomed and operators became more ruthless.

“There were fraud companies in Myanmar, but not as crazy as they are now,” he told Frontier. “Before there were no restrictions on personal freedom. After COVID hit, things changed.”

He returned to China in 2020 before moving on to Cambodia, but stayed in touch with contacts in Laukkai, who said they were afraid to step outside. They would only travel in groups, or with a friend in one of the various armed organisations, because otherwise they were at risk of being grabbed off the street and sold.

In the case of Chinese nationals, recruitment websites typically lure workers to southern Yunnan, where they are smuggled across the border into Myanmar before the true nature of the work is revealed. The Chinese worker who spoke to Frontier said people from Yunnan typically don’t need a passport to enter territory controlled by non-state armed groups like the UWSA, but just need a permit from the group in question. He said some companies will then demand as much as 300,000 yuan in “compensation” if the worker wants to leave – effectively a ransom.

Posing as a job seeker, Frontier spoke to multiple Chinese recruitment agencies based in Laukkai, Shwe Kokko and Muse, a major trading hub on the border with China in northern Shan. Some of the agencies were open about the fact that they were scam operations, while others said they were “online marketing” agencies or “click-farm” operators. All insisted they did not abuse their employees, although when pressed some acknowledged requiring a “pay-out” to leave. 

“Yeah, you do have to pay if you would like to quit,” said one recruiter in Shwe Kokko, who said it would cost 200,000 yuan to leave.

One Chinese man admitted to state media that while being forced to work as a scammer in Mongpauk in September 2020, he met a middle-aged divorced Chinese woman online, establishing a remote romantic relationship with her before encouraging her to invest in a fake company. Initially, the investments seemed to pay off. She earned 1,000 yuan in a matter of days, which quickly rose to 35,000. Blinded by her new relationship and soaring profits, she invested 1.44 million yuan, which then vanished into the pockets of the man’s criminal bosses, who celebrated by setting off firecrackers.

Escape from Wa State

“I came here because of the pay rate and because I thought it was just a marketing position at first,” said Awng.

He explained that the scam workers in Mongpauk, where he was being held at the time of the interview, must initiate contact with at least eight people every day, before choosing the two most promising individuals to continue talking to, in an attempt to build friendships or even romantic relationships. Eventually, he said, they convince them to invest in a cryptocurrency, but the platform is fake, and the money goes directly to the scammers.

“Our target is to make $10,000 per month each [for the company]. If we don’t meet these expectations, we are handcuffed, beaten with bars and stung with electric shock batons,” he said. “It’s a living hell.”

Awng said one of his colleagues, who failed to meet the target in October, was beaten unconscious by a group of men.

“I never get enough sleep,” said Awng, explaining that he works from 4:30pm until 7:30am the next day. “They wake everyone up at 4pm and we have to take a shower within 20 minutes before work. Once we start work, we chat with our old customers and find new ones to meet the target.”

Awng spoke to Frontier using a mobile phone that he managed to keep hidden from his captors. “If they catch me, they’ll kill me,” he said.

Ma Win Khine*, a 26-year-old from Yangon’s Mayangone Township, managed to escape from a similar compound, returning to Yangon last month. She told Frontier she had been with Awng for almost two months, first in Panghsang and then in Mongpauk, before they were sold to different companies.

“All of us were asked to bring a national ID and told we would be trained for three months first,” she said, explaining that she believed she would be working as a social media manager, posting advertisements on Facebook and Instagram.

When she arrived in Lashio, en route to Panghsang, an agent explained that she would need to convince foreigners, including Chinese nationals, to invest in a business. At first, the scam operators would make sure that the victims made a profit, convincing them to invest more money, which they then stole before cutting off all contact, just as the Chinese scammer described to state media.

When she was transferred to Mongpauk, Win Khine said she was escorted by UWSA soldiers, who took her by car to a building in the town where she was locked in an eighth-floor apartment with guards posted outside.

“They only fed us two meals a day, and they were much worse than in the first place. We had to drink water from the sink inside our room. Fifteen days later, we were moved to another location [in Mongpauk] – a big house with a yard and bungalows. We were told to sign another contract there,” she claimed.

When she and others refused, the company demanded that they reimburse the 70,000 yuan they had paid to their previous employers to purchase them. When some still objected, their captors turned violent.

“One woman was beaten by a group of Chinese men when they found out she was talking badly about them. She was hospitalised for head injuries,” she said, adding that men in UWSA uniforms were also often present.

After the woman was beaten, Win Khine’s group was split up, and it was at this point that she was separated from Awng. She was sent to another location in Mongpauk, this time on the ninth floor of a building above an entertainment complex that housed karaoke venues, nightclubs and bars. There, the abuse continued.

“A Chinese man from the second company threatened to kill us and get rid of our dead bodies if we refused to work,” she said.

After suffering a heat stroke, Win Khine was sent to a hospital, where she used her hidden phone to contact her sister, who sent a taxi driver she knew to rescue her.

“My friends are still there,” she lamented.

Accounts on Chinese social media are equally harrowing. One man from Sichuan, identified as Fei, was reportedly tricked into coming to Panghsang in 2020, where he says he was violently abused for failing to meet quotas and twice sold on to other companies. He escaped by jumping from a fourth-floor window and using a company cell phone he had snatched to call a police station in his hometown of Guang’an, which helped to facilitate his rescue. Fei says a companion wasn’t as lucky, and was caught during the escape attempt, beaten bloody and stabbed with a steel kickstand as Fei fled.

In another account posted to video sharing site Bilibili, a man claims he trekked more than 10 hours back to Yunnan by foot after seven months in a scam compound. “Some tried to flee and got caught and then had their fingers cut off. Some were beaten with electric rods. And some even lost their lives,” he said.

Ko Chan*, a volunteer from a charity in Monghpyak, told Frontier they are sometimes able to negotiate the release of victims, particularly if the Chinese police get involved. He also said they are working on raising public awareness about the nature of the jobs, as even those who know they are coming to work for a scam operation don’t realise they will become victims themselves – imprisoned, tortured and unpaid.

“Most of the youngsters who come here are fooled by their brokers,” he said. “Those who come to work here dream of money.”

*Indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

This article was originally published on Frontier’s website.