China issues warrants for ‘key leaders’ of Myanmar scam rings

Move comes as the junta clamps down on scam operations.
By RFA Burmese
2023.10.12
China issues warrants for ‘key leaders’ of Myanmar scam rings Chinese police are seeking Chen Yanban [left], the minister for construction in the Wa region and a former brigade leader of the United Wa State Army, and Xiao Yanquan, the mayor of Wa’s Mengneng county.
Chinese police

Chinese authorities have issued arrest warrants for two top officials in eastern Myanmar’s Wa special region based on accusations that they helped orchestrate telecom scam rings staffed by human trafficking victims.

Chinese police in Jiejiang province’s Hanzhou city and Yunnan province’s Kunming city issued warrants on Wednesday for Chen Yanban, the minister for construction in the Wa region and a former brigade leader of the United Wa State Army, and Xiao Yanquan, the mayor of Wa’s Mengneng county.

A statement released with the warrants identified the two men – also known as Bao Yanban and He Chuntian – as “key leaders” of the gangs and offered a reward of 100,000-500,000 yuan (US$13,700-$71,200) for information leading to their arrests.

According to a report by The Irrawaddy, Chen and Xiao hold Chinese national ID cards with residency in Yunnan and Guangdong, respectively. Experts say that many powerful officials in the Wa region hold Chinese national ID cards and passports, giving Chinese police the jurisdictional authority to issue warrants for their arrest.

The warrants follow a call this year by Beijing for Myanmar’s ruling junta to take action against scam operations located within its borders that it says have “seriously harmed Chinese interests.”

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based commentator on Myanmar social issues, said Beijing is serious about cracking down on scamming rings across the border.

“China has already warned the Wa in advance, although it is likely that they don’t listen,” he said. “So, now [China] has issued arrest warrants.”

Attempts by RFA to contact Nyi Rang, the spokesperson of the United Wa State Army, which administers the region in northern Shan state, for comment on the warrants went unanswered Thursday.

Arrests have little effect

Junta authorities in Myanmar’s Shan state have arrested and deported hundreds of Chinese nationals linked to telecom scams in the region in recent stings, but residents say the rings continue to flourish there, attracting workers with the promise of good-paying jobs.

Scamming gangs have proliferated in Shan state, along eastern Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand, amid the political chaos of the Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat, benefitting from widespread unemployment, poor oversight, and growing investment from across the border.

ENG_BUR_ChineseArrested_10112023.1a.jpg
Myanmar and Chinese officials detain Chinese nationals suspected in online scamming businesses in northern Myanmar, Sept. 30, 2023. Credit: Citizen journalist

The gangs have formed a foothold in the ethnic Wa and Kokang special regions of the state, where local authorities have joined forces with Chinese police to deport more than 2,300 Chinese nationals linked to the scams in a series of raids in recent months.

But residents told RFA Burmese that scamming operations continue to thrive despite the crackdown, offering high-paying jobs to candidates with computer and language skills who are then held against their will and forced to earn money for their captors by working as telecom scammers.

The gangs are known to brutally punish trafficking victims who refuse to work for them or fail to meet earning quotas, sometimes with deadly consequences.

On Oct. 6, a gang operating in Wein Kawng town, under the administration of the United Wa State Army, beat 23-year-old Zaw Than to death, just days after “buying” him from a Chinese national to whom he allegedly owed a gambling debt incurred at a casino in the Wa region, a family member told RFA Burmese.

“We want to know who sold him off and who bought him and we want to see the group that beat him to death brought to justice,” said the family member who, like several others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal. “We have appealed to the Wa state government about his case, but it remains to be seen what they will do about it.”

The family member said that Zaw Than – a college graduate from Shan’s Tang Yan township with degrees in English and computer science – is just one of many Burmese who have fallen victim to the scamming rings.

‘Like a prison’

People interviewed by RFA about their experiences working for scamming gangs said that they are proliferating in Kokang’s Laukkai township, where 377 Chinese nationals were arrested and deported for illegal immigration last month.

Aung Naing, who worked for a gang in Laukkai, said that while he could not speak to the situation in the Wa region where Zaw Than was killed, scam operators in Laukkai often detain their “staff” in prison-like conditions and force them to work under threat of physical harm.

“The gang [I worked for] had built a two-layer wall with barbed wire on top of it, like a prison, and they positioned [militia fighters] on high towers for security,” he said. “CCTV cameras were installed to ensure no one could escape ... I saw that the employers beat the staff if they couldn’t find people to scam. Some employees had been sold there by brokers.”

ENG_BUR_ChineseArrested_10112023.2.jpeg
Zaw Than, a Myanmar national who died in the hospital after being beaten while held by a scamming gang, Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Citizen journalist

Aung Naing said that unemployed college graduates or educated young people from across Myanmar either sought out the rings themselves or were sold to the gangs after being lured by the prospect of earning 1.2-1.5 million kyats (US$570-$715) a month.

Myint Swe, chairman of the leading body of the Kokang special region, said at a departmental meeting last month, that authorities are cracking down on telecom scamming gangs and deporting foreign nationals involved in the rings. The issue of scamming rings was raised again at a meeting on Oct. 9.

Residents of the region said that there are some 300 telecom scamming groups run by Chinese nationals in Muse, on Myanmar’s border with China, with around 10,000 “employees.” They said a number of gangs also operate in Tachilek, another regional town on the border with Thailand.

RFA spoke with a man who was held by a scamming ring that operated out of a seven-story building in Tachilek’s Hong Pan district, staffed by around 50 people using three different languages to fleece would-be targets.

“They use Burmese, English and Chinese languages and have ‘hired’ people who know those languages,” he said. “It’s a global scam. They use burner phones that they put in different baskets with numbers and tags to contact their ‘prey.’ There are 10 to 15 phones at each desk.”

Crackdown in Yunnan

In the meantime, official Chinese media reported at the end of September that the Chinese government had established a special zone in Tengchong, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province to crack down on scams targeting Chinese nationals.

Reports said authorities will strictly monitor who enters the zone and that anyone who enters without permission will face arrest.

They said that the move was aimed at curbing smuggling to and from China as well as telecom scamming along the China-Myanmar border.

ENG_BUR_ChineseArrested_10112023.3.jpg
Security officials from the Kokang special region transfer 337 Chinese nationals arrested for suspected involvement in online scamming gangs, Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Kokang News

Kyee Maung, who assists migrant workers from Myanmar in the Chinese city of Ruili, across the border from Muse in Yunnan, told RFA that Chinese authorities are carefully monitoring the issue and warned Myanmar nationals to avoid arrest.

"Chinese nationals pay 400-500 yuan (US$55-70) to buy back Chinese mobile SIM cards that Myanmar nationals bought using their passports for registration,” he said. “Then they open online accounts using those phone numbers to use in scamming.”

Kyee Maung said that Chinese authorities trace confiscated phones back to the Myanmar passport used in their original purchase and will blacklist those passport numbers.

“If someone enters China using that passport, they seize the document and deport the individual,” he said. “If workers from Myanmar have resold or handed over their SIM cards to these gangs, they will get arrested for something they didn’t do."

The United Nations and other International organizations are calling for increased pressure from authorities to combat online scamming activities in Myanmar.

And while police have arrested hundreds of gang members in Shan state in recent raids, residents say the busted rings are just the tip of the iceberg and more enforcement is needed.

Attempts by RFA to contact local authorities and the Chinese Embassy in Yangon for comment on the scam operators went unanswered Wednesday.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.