In Southeast Asian region, China is a troublesome bugbear not because of its avoidable territorial designs against its neighbours but also because of its human trafficking syndicates who lure away hundreds of people from Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand on the pretext of providing them decent but force them to work in illegal cryptocurrency business, brothels, and massage parlours for 17 to 18 hours, most often without food and water.
This is a modern-day slavery which Chinese human trafficking syndicates perpetrate without facing meaningful resistance from authorities in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos—all three major hubs of trafficking business, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, maintains South China Morning Post in its recent report. Working through highly networked groups, these Chinese human trafficking syndicates operate in nexus with local authorities in these countries. For example, in Laos, Chinese businessman Zhao Wei runs Golden Triangle SEZ, which is a multibillion-dollar gambling enclave and a known hub of human trafficking activity in this Southeast Asian country. Between May 2021 and May 2022, as per Radio Free Asia, Laotian authorities rescued 477 people of Laotian and Thai nationalities from Golden Triangle SEZ where they were forced to work in massage parlours and brothels built inside premises.
In her article published in Investment Monitor on March 28, 2022, Thibault Serlet, Director of Adrianople Group, the US-based research, and business advisory services provider, said, “for years, the Golden Triangle SEZ has been home to numerous illegal industries including human trafficking, wildlife smuggling, and drugs production.”
Despite this, “the zone has announced significant expansion plans,” she said. Chinese national Zhao Wei has been under US Treasury sanctions since 2018 for human rights abuses linked to trafficking. Yet he is moving scot-free across the Southeast Asian region and keeps recruiting Laotian and Thai girls, women, and men to work in the SEZ. “There are many SEZs and autonomous territories with security and crime problems dotted across the Mekong, but the GT SEZ is one of the most prolific and notorious, and Zhao Wei and his group are clearly very well financed and able to move money despite sanctions,” Jeremy Douglas, a senior official of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was quoted by Voice of America as saying.
But no less horrific condition is that of Myanmar where, its isolation from the world since the coup in February 2021, has turned it into a fertile ground for human traffickers from China. Last year in December, three Thai women in their 20s managed to be freed with the help of an NGO from the clutch of Chinese traffickers in Myanmar’s Shan state after their search for a job through a Facebook advertisement in Thailand, landed them in a prostitution racket instead.
The Facebook advertisement given by a Thai broker, had promised every recruit more than 50,000 baht (US $1,485) per month for working in an entertainment industry in Myanmar. These Thai women unstintingly took them as a genuine offer and accepted it, which later became the very reason of their unspeakable ordeal for months. According to Benar News, which is published from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh, these Thai victims of human trafficking were starved of food, water, beaten up, forced to take drugs and perform prostitution. Quoting data from an NGO, the Foundation for Children and Women, Benar News said trafficking complaints have doubled from 102 cases in 2021 to 255 cases in 2022 in Myanmar.
In its 2021 report, the US-based Institute of Peace said Myanmar has become a centre of action for Chinese criminal groups whose networks have grown far beyond the Southeast Asian country. “In Kokang, the political and economic leadership of the socalled Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) has built its entire power structure on gambling and related activity,” the Institute of Peace said in its report. It further added: “Kokang connections to Chinese criminal networks also run deep. Chinese court records document hundreds of criminal convictions related to illegal casinos, fraud, kidnapping, drugs, and weapons in the Kokang SAZ.” Last year, the Thai police’s Anti Trafficking in Person Division (ATPD) reported prosecuting 248 trafficking cases, compared with 188 in 2021. Investigation revealed that more than half of cases emerged from illegal online recruitment.
For Cambodia, human trafficking is seen through the prism of an organised crime act which has otherwise failed under the weight of crime syndicates spawned and curated by Chinese nationals.
On September 17, 2022, weeks before organising the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in November, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a widespread crackdown on the scourge of illegal gambling and human trafficking in the country. Media reports suggest that thousands of individuals involved in human trafficking activities in Cambodia’s gambling epicentre of Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh were arrested and put behind the bars.
Still the business of human trafficking has not stopped. On January 18, a group of Filipinos were rescued by authorities in Cambodia from a Chinese syndicate that allegedly forced them to work in a cryptocurrency scam. In fact, menace of human trafficking is hurting the image of Cambodia which has of late become an epicentre of all sorts of illegal activities in the Southeast Asian region and for this, crime syndicates run by Chinese nationals are held responsible.
In 2021 alone, the number of human trafficking cases increased to 359 in Cambodia, the National Committee for Counter Trafficking of the country said in its annual report in 2022. In the first six months of 2021, as per Xinhua, Cambodia cracked down on 198 human trafficking and sexual exploitation cases. Critics say a strong signal from China, which wields enormous clout across Southeast Asian, could help in eliminating the problem of trafficking of people in the region, but no one knows why Beijing continues to dilly dally over the issue even as the region is creaking under the weight of Chinese nationals-led menace.