Myanmar border militia emerges as nexus in regional scam network

Banks, corporations and politicians in Thailand and Malaysia are identified in rights group’s report.
By Kiana Duncan and Pimuk Rakkanam for RFA, Shailaja Neelakantan and Iman Muttaqin Yusof for BenarNews
2024.06.13
Mae Sot, Thailand
Myanmar border militia emerges as nexus in regional scam network A Thai soldier stands guard in Mae Sot, Tak province, Thailand, April 13, 2024.
Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

An ethnic minority militia force based on Myanmar’s border with Thailand is suspected of enabling extensive internet fraud, human trafficking, forced labor and other crimes, and is being enriched by a business network that extends across Asia, a rights group said in a report.

The group Justice for Myanmar detailed a multitude of business links that the junta-allied Karen Border Guard Force, or BGF, has established in Thailand, Malaysia and beyond, and it called on governments to act to stop the illegal activity.

The militia was formed by fighters who broke away from the Karen National Union insurgent group in the 1990s and sided with the junta. It became  one of several military-backed Border Guard Forces in 2009.

Control over border crossings gave the group access to lucrative revenue streams, while its self-ruled zones became a magnet for illegal casinos, online gambling and scam centers that have proliferated along Myanmar’s borders with both China and Thailand. 

The operations, which gangs organize throughout the region, are often run on the labor of people tricked into thinking they’ve landed legitimate jobs but forced to adopt false identities online in what have become known as “pig-butchering” schemes, forming relationships with victims then tricking them into investing in fake schemes.

University of Texas researchers estimated in a March report that scammers had tricked investors out of more than US$75 billion since January 2020. 

The leader of the Karen force, Saw Chit Thu, “has built a criminal business network with his family members and associates … … (overseeing) a proliferation of illegal casinos, online gambling and cyber scam centres run with trafficked labour from across the world who have been subjected to forced criminality, torture and extortion.”

“The Myanmar army in return has benefited through revenue from BGF organized crime,” the rights group said in its report.

Saw Chit Thu did not answer repeated phone calls from RFA seeking comment.  

A BGF officer, Major Tin Win, in a recent interview with the Irrawaddy news outlet, said his group only had a “small business” and he was not aware of scams operations. He said his group rented out land for casinos and he had little knowledge of their operations beyond their use of computers. He also rejected accusations of forced labor saying his group had checked and found no such cases. 

RFA was unable to contact Major Tin Win for comment. 

But Justice for Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung said governments and businesses across the region were enabling cyber scam operations by failing to take action against the profitable flows they generate.

“Transnational criminal organizations have established networks in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia that profit from trafficking, slavery and the theft of wealth from scam victims across the world,” she said in a statement to RFA. 

“Those governments have failed to crackdown on the sometimes well-connected investors profiting from these crimes.”

Thai businesses

The BGF’s hub of business operations is Shwe Kokko, a sprawl of buildings on the Myanmar side of a border river, 32 km (20 miles) north of the Thai town of Mae Sot.

That is where a joint venture called Yatai International Holding Group Company Limited was established by the Border Guard Force and a businessman called She Zhijiang to develop Shwe Kokko’s Yatai New City real estate project, Justice for Myanmar said in its report.

She Zhijiang is a naturalized Cambodian national born in China who owns property and gaming ventures across Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines. He was arrested in Thailand in 2022 and was not available for comment. 

Britain imposed sanctions on She Zhijiang in 2023, along with Saw Chit Thu and another top officer in the border force, Col. Min Min Oo, on suspicion of human trafficking, forced labor and other abuses. RFA was not able to contact Min Min Oo for comment.

Yatai says its business is registered in Hong Kong and headquartered in Bangkok. The Thai address it lists online matches one for a hotel, Bizotel. The hotel did not respond to inquiries from RFA. 

Another branch of the operations, Myanmar Yatai International Holding Group Company Limited, leases a shop in Mae Sot’s airport.

Thailand's Department of Airports declined to comment on whether Mae Sot airport was taking money from Myanmar Yatai International Holding Group or the Border Guard Force. An official who declined to be identified told RFA the department could not confirm whether the organization or its associates had any outlets at the airport. Mae Sot’s airport lists the shop on its website. 

Some major companies from Thailand’s financial sector have at least shown an interest in Shwe Kokko, Justice for Myanmar said in its report. It published a photograph of people it said were representatives of four Thai banks visiting Shwe Kokko in 2020. It also cited a Thai associate of the BGF, who it said had posted the photograph, as saying the purpose of the visit was “to explore the potential financial support for the growing economy.”

Representatives from KBank, Bangkok Bank, EXIM Bank and Krungthai Bank travel to Shwe Kokko via an illegal border crossing to discuss financing - Source - Chumroen Benchavitvilai's Facebook page, 2020.jpg
In this image included in a report by Justice for Myanmar, representatives from Thai banks are pictured in Shwe Kokko in 2020, according to Justice for Myanmar. (Image via Justice for Myanmar)

Justice for Myanmar said in its report it could not confirm whether the Thai banks had struck any agreements.

One man who was forced to work at what he said was a scam operation in the zone said his family had to pay to get him out. The 28-year-old Chinese man, who asked to be identified as Neo Lu, told RFA  he was tricked into a job at the compound in June 2022. 

After Lu’s release was brokered by an unidentified Chinese national, a member of the BGF agreed to take him across the border for a trafficking fee. In text messages seen by RFA, Lu asked his parents for a payment of 15,000 baht (US$409) through Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank to an account designated by the BGF, belonging to a “Mrs Win.” 

Kasikorn Bank did not respond to a request for comment from RFA. 

Malaysian links

A major investor in the facility Lu was forced to work in, Dongmei Park, south of Myawaddy town, is a Washington-sanctioned former Chinese triad boss, Wan Kuok-koi, also known as Broken Tooth, Yin Gouju. He is also wanted by Malaysian police, Justice for Myanmar said in their report.

The group said Wan, former leader of the 14K Triad crime gang, set up Dongmei Park with “well-connected Malaysian citizens.” Those individuals included  a politician from what was for decades Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, Mashitah Ibrahim, and her husband Abdul Shakor Abu Bakar, in addition to two individuals named Sri Liong Kee Huat and Yong Mun Hong. The United States in 2020 sanctioned Wan and Dongmei Park, which it said was another name for Dongmei Investment Group Co. Ltd. 

Mashitah, who is still active in politics with UMNO, was deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department from 2008-2013.

BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, called Mashitah for comment several times on her mobile phone and sent her text messages. Her only response was: “Not interested.”

Justice for Myanmar said Mashitah had posted accounts on her Facebook page that showed she was at least acquainted with Broken Tooth and associated with the Dongmei Park project.

BenarNews could not find any public record for Liong Kee Huat, or a phone number for Yong Mun Hong. No one answered the door at a residence in Kuala Lumpur listed under Mun Hong’s name in Dongmei Group’s corporate registration in Hong Kong.

Police Chief Razarudin Husain and Home Minister Saifuddin did not respond to requests for comment on any involvement of Malaysian investors with the former triad boss and the Myanmar militia.

Justice for Myanmar called for action from Asian governments.

“This criminal business network is a global threat … causing widespread suffering to local communities, workers from across Myanmar and the world who are kept in slave-like conditions, and the victims of cyber scams everywhere,” it said in its report.

“Authorities in the region, notably China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, should investigate the involvement of their citizens, residents and companies that are perpetrating, enabling and benefiting from the transnational crimes and human rights violations committed in Myanmar, and hold them accountable,” the group said.

Edited by Taejun Kang. Rakkanam contributed to this report from Bangkok, Duncan from Mae Sot, Neelakantan from Washington, and Yusof from Kuala Lumpur.

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