Plea for help from telephone scam victims falls on deaf ears among Chinese officials


They are just a few of the thousands tricked and trapped to work in Myanmar border town

Plea for help from telephone scam victims falls on deaf ears among Chinese officials

A Chinese national says he’s being held in Myanmar in the Dongfeng Park area of Myawaddy, which is a sub-district of KK Park, shown in this Dec. 2023 photo.

A Chinese man from Hunan province says he and many others have been kidnapped and are being held to ransom by traffickers in prison-like facilities near the Thai-Myanmar border, but their desperate pleas for help have gone unanswered by Chinese officials.

One man who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals said he had been sold to traffickers at the Dongfeng Park guarded complex in Myawaddy township, just across the Moei or Thaungyin River from the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Thousands of human trafficking victims from all over Asia – and as far away as Africa – are being held hostage by scammers in the area, victims have told Radio Free Asia in earlier reports.

They say they were originally lured by false advertisements and forced to scam other people, then tortured if they refused to comply.

Chen approached RFA’s Cantonese service with a plea for help, calling on the media to publicize the plight of “at least 1,000” Chinese nationals trapped in Dongfeng Park by a gang demanding a minimum payment of US$30,000 from their families for their release.

“I’m in the Dongfeng Park area of Myawaddy, which is a sub-district of KK Park,” Chen said via a messaging app, in a reference to a notorious district used by trafficking gangs in the border area.

“There are a lot of people in here who have been lured in under false pretenses,” he wrote. “They beat us if we don’t get results.”

But Chen, his two companions from Hunan and many like them come from poor families who have no way to raise that kind of cash, he said, adding that the trio has already reported their plight to police in Hunan, who warned them they could face criminal prosecution unless they “returned to China immediately.”

“If that was of any use, then there wouldn’t be so many people trapped here, unable to leave,” he said.

Chen’s appeal came as Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Myanmar, and called on the authorities there to crack down on the gangs responsible.

“Qin Gang pointed out that Myanmar’s border areas have long been home to gangs of telecommunications and Internet fraud, which have seriously infringed on the interests of Chinese citizens and are abhorred by the Chinese public,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a May 3 statement on its website.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to and is determined to crack down on that,” it said, adding: “China asks Myanmar to take concrete measures, coordinate efforts with various departments to continue advancing the China-Myanmar-Thailand joint combat operation, and rescue trapped Chinese nationals in a timely manner.”

According to the report, the Myanmar authorities said they were ready to work with Chinese law enforcement to crack down on the traffickers in the border regions of the country.

Chinese involvement?

But there is another twist in Chen’s story. 

According to him, the criminal gangs running the scam complex where he is being held have connections inside the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar.

“You need to understand that the [Chinese] Embassy in Myanmar is in cahoots with [people in] Myanmar,” Chen wrote. “The park [gang] pays money to someone inside the embassy, so there’s no point in contacting them for help.”

Attempts to seek comment from the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar went unanswered. But an official who answered the phone at the Chinese Consulate in Chiang Mai said they know that large numbers of Chinese nationals are trapped in Myawaddy, but that the region comes under the remit of consular services in Myanmar.

“If you want our assistance, then the person needs to get from Myanmar to Thailand. However, we do not recommend this course of action,” the official said. “Sneaking across a border is an illegal act, so they need to make that judgment call themselves … and know in advance about [possible] punishment.”

 An official who answered the phone at the Hunan provincial police department refused to respond to a request for help when contacted by RFA Cantonese on Friday.

“Who are you asking? We don’t know, we’re a separate technical department,” the official said.

An official who answered the phone at the foreign affairs ministry declined to assist, saying the case wasn’t within the ministry’s remit and referring enquiries to the consular protection department, which didn’t pick up the phone.

“You need to call the global consular protection office – how can they not pick up?” the foreign affairs ministry official said. “Try again. You need to tell them about this. It’s nothing to do with us.”

Baiting victims

Many of the scams lure people in with offers of high pay in glitzy casino towns around Southeast Asia – many built with the backing of Chinese criminal syndicates that operate in poorly policed borderlands difficult to reach

The syndicates that originally ran the casinos switched to phone scams after the pandemic hit business, according to rights activists.

Last month, a court in Taiwan jailed three of the island’s citizens for “deceiving people” into modern slavery, handing down sentences of up to seven-and-a-half years to individuals found guilty of involvement in similar scams.

The ring would bait victims to either Cambodia or Thailand through promises of quick money making jobs and schemes guaranteeing benefits while living abroad, the court said in comments reported by Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

“Once the victims arrived at their overseas destination, they had their passports confiscated and were put under observation by surveillance cameras and guards carrying firearms while being forced to work shady jobs to scam others online,” the agency reported on March 31.

“Victims who disobeyed orders were punished with physical violence or sold to other rings, while those who requested to return home were either forced to secure their own scapegoat as a replacement or have their family pay for their freedom through a ransom.”

For Chen, who fears beatings, “water imprisonment” and other forms of torture if he is discovered talking to the media, the lack of help was devastating.

He said he would no longer be able to contact RFA Cantonese, as the situation had gotten more and more dangerous.

Before ending contact, he sent out a warning that nobody should respond to social media messages or friend requests on WeChat, LINE or other social media apps from people claiming to be beautiful women and asking for cash or cryptocurrency for “investments.”

“They may let you withdraw a small amount to start with, to build trust,” Chen told RFA Cantonese via a messaging app. “But then they won’t let you take any out.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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