The growth of human rights atrocities in Myanmar has spilled over to the region – including Chinese nationals forced into labor.
By Debby S. W. Chan
August 23, 2022
Since the 2021 Myanmar coup, over 2,200 people have been killed by the military. The military doubled down on political repression by executing well-known political activists and burning villages with members participating in armed resistance. Threats to human security in Myanmar have spread to the region as observed by the outflow of refugees, human trafficking of women and children, drug smuggling and so on.
Foreigners have also become victims of human trafficking in the wake of the Myanmar coup. Dozens of Chinese-speaking people are being kidnapped from Thailand to Myanmar for scam activities. In May 2022, Malaysians were lured by offers of high-salary jobs in Thailand but subsequently trafficked to Myanmar. Later, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers also fell into similar job scams and were enslaved.
The victims were imprisoned and coerced to work for crime syndicates as online scammers. Those who disobey or underperform face physical punishments or worse forms of abuse. Families of the victims were asked to pay ransoms in exchange for the release of their loved ones.
Myanmar is not the only country where human trafficking gangs operate. Special economic zones in Cambodia and Laos are notorious human trafficking hubs as well. However, being enslaved in Myanmar is particularly problematic given the volatile situation in the country.
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Many victims are kept near the Shwe Kokko area in Myawaddy, Karen State. Shwe Kokko sits on the Thai-Myanmar border. The area is controlled by the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF) affiliated with the Myanmar military.
In 2017, Yatai International, owned by She Zhijiang, a Chinese national who holds Cambodian citizenship, formed a joint venture with the Karen BGF’s company Chit Linn Myaing Co Ltd, to develop a $15 billion special economic zone (SEZ) in Shwe Kokko. The project was portrayed as a high-tech hub with an airport, industrial zone, villas, hotels and other facilities. With the strong presence of Chinese investors, workers, and visitors, some dubbed the area Chinatown in Karen State.
Evidence shows that the so-called high-tech hub runs casinos and extends into scam and other illegal activities. She is a fugitive in China. The Thai authorities arrested him in August 2022 for running illegal online gambling operations.
She’s Yatai International claimed that the Shwe Kokko project was part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), capitalizing on the loosely defined undertaking. In 2017, Chinese state media Xinhua’s Yangon office once reported the Shwe Kokko project was an important component of the BRI. Furthermore, the project was reportedly constructed by state-owned enterprise China Metallurgical Group Corporation.
As reports about casinos and other crimes connected to the project surfaced, the Karen government suspended the project in 2019. The National League of Democracy (NLD)-led government also investigated the project the following year. Beijing subsequently dissociated itself from the controversy and stated that the SEZ was a private investment.
Prior to the coup, Karen organizations, including the Karen Peace Support Network, exposed illicit activities surrounding the Shwe Kokko project. Myanmar nationals were tricked into working in Shwe Kokko but ended up being forced into labor. One victim was rescued by an elected lawmaker in Karen State in 2020. Following the coup, however, these informational and rescue channels have been shut down.
Beijing promised to rescue trafficked victims from China and Hong Kong. However, to tackle the problem, the Myanmar government’s commitment to crack down on human trafficking criminals is essential. To save the victims from the Shwe Kokko area, the coup government must act.
Nonetheless, the military regime does not have a reputation for civilian protection. It loots citizens’ homes, shoots at children, tortures dissidents to death, sets fire to villages, and commits other mass atrocities. It is dubious what would incentivize the military to care about the lives of foreigners.
Moreover, the Karen BGF is under the partial command of the military. It fought alongside the regime against other armed resistance groups in Karen State. An investigative report even suggests that the coup government also profits from the lucrative business in the Shwe Kokko area. As the BGF is linked to the military, the coup government’s unwillingness or inability to clamp down on transnational crimes is troublesome.
Given the cordial relations between Beijing and the military, Beijing should have leverage in the situation. We hope for the best, that China’s diplomatic efforts can successfully bring the captives home. However, Beijing should revisit its relations with the Myanmar junta, who may be complicit in the kidnapping activities.
Contrary to international opprobrium after the coup, China and Russia are the two permeant members of the United Nations Security Council that have granted legitimacy to the military. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. It continues sticking to the golden rule in foreign policy despite no sign that the Myanmar military restrains its brutality.
Beijing even reassured the junta that it would always support Myanmar in safeguarding sovereignty when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi received the military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, in Anhui province in April 2022. Both sides agreed to advance the BRI projects along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and develop a community with a shared future.
The BRI aims to increase transcontinental connectivity. The infrastructure projects have great potential to enhance the economic development of China and the host countries if the projects are implemented transparently and responsibly. However, it is questionable whether the CMEC project implementation can comply with social and environmental standards in the host country under the current regime.
It appears that the BRI inadvertently reinforces the troublesome status quo in Myanmar. Financing the military and boosting its legitimacy inevitably intensify domestic human rights abuses and transnational crimes. The escalation of human rights atrocities in Myanmar and human trafficking in the country contradicts the visions presented by Beijing.
Since the coup, Beijing reiterated its preference for political dialogue instead of pressure as a strategy to de-escalate the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. However, the growth of human rights atrocities in Myanmar has spilled over to the region. China’s business-as-usual approach in post-coup Myanmar may undermine regional human security and harm its international image. With an ambition to be recognized as a responsible power, it is time for Beijing to review its relations with the Myanmar junta.
Debby S. W. Chan
Debby S. W. Chan is a visiting fellow in Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong. Her research concerns Belt and Road projects in Southeast Asia.