Laotians languish in Myanmar jail after ‘rescue’ from scam ring

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Laotians languish in Myanmar jail after ‘rescue’ from scam ring Trucks and buses line up along the Yangon-Myawaddy section of the Asia Highway road near Kawkareik township, Myanmar, Sept. 27, 2023.

A group of 16 Laotians released nearly two months ago from a Chinese-owned casino in Myanmar where they were forced to work for a scam ring are languishing in police detention while authorities deliberate over how to return them home, according to their relatives.

The 16 between the ages of 15 and 22 were among 45 Laotians – mostly from Laos’ Luang Namtha province – trafficked last year to a place called “Casino Kosai,” in an isolated development near the city of Myawaddy on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand.

They were held against their will at the casino and forced to earn money for their captors by scamming people online or by telephone. Those who refused or who failed to meet earning quotas, were beaten and tortured, the victims and their family members told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

The scam rings in Myanmar are one example of the vast networks of human trafficking that claim over 150,000 victims a year in Southeast Asia.

In recent months, the scam operators released a dozen detainees across the border to Thailand after their families in Laos agreed to pay a ransom. On Aug. 29, authorities in Myanmar convinced the group to release another 16 into their custody without payment.

Those 16 have been in police custody in Myawaddy for seven weeks with no clear timetable on their return to Laos, while another 16 Laotians from the original group of 45 remain in captivity at the casino. At least one victim from the group at the casino is known to have been sold to another scam gang, according to her family.

RFA spoke with an anti-human trafficking official in Laos who said that the delay in repatriating the 16 in police custody was related to their “illegal entry” into Myanmar.

The official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the media, said their return was also complicated by the war in Myanmar following the military’s February 2021 coup, a lack of passports and visas and the Lao Embassy’s inability to provide police with key details of their personal information.

No access

In the meantime, Lao diplomatic staff said they have not been able to meet with the 16 since they were taken into police custody and their family members want answers.

The Lao Embassy in Yangon told RFA in August that anti-human trafficking agencies in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar were coordinating to repatriate the 16. But since then, attempts to contact embassy staff for comment on the group’s situation have gone unanswered.

The anti-human trafficking official in Laos recently told RFA that his unit has been “waiting for an answer from the Lao Embassy about what Burmese authorities told them to do to repatriate” the 16, including how they will be sent home and who will pay for their travel.

“There is nothing to worry about as all 16 were released from the casino and are safe, in the care of Burmese authorities,” he said. “We’re just waiting for Myanmar to tell us what to do to get them home.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA that the Lao government and the United Nations need to push authorities in Myanmar to return the 16 to their families.

“It’s unclear what is taking the Burmese and Lao governments so long to resolve this issue, but these kids need to be returned home as soon as possible,” he said. “In fact, the United Nations should intervene and ask the Lao and Burmese [governments] why they remain in custody in Burma.”

Robertson said the Lao Embassy is obligated to meet with the 16 to confirm they are Lao citizens before ensuring their safe return.

“This is a priority for them – it’s one of their most important duties – but they aren’t doing anything,” he said. “The embassy staff need to do their jobs and the Burmese government should be assisting them. Instead, they haven’t pushed to meet with them and they aren’t responding to repeated inquiries from family members.”

Others in captivity

For the 16 Laotians still held at the Casino Kosai, their future is uncertain.

Last month, they urged the Lao government in an interview with RFA to help free them as soon as possible, saying they were fearful of how they would be treated after Burmese authorities rescued the 16 others.

Their family members also called on Lao authorities to help them, expressing concern that the scam ring operators might sell them to another gang.

RFA more recently spoke with a woman who said her 17-year-old daughter was among the 45 held at Casino Kosai but was sold to another scam ring in July after suffering several beatings at the hands of her captors.

The mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, told RFA that her daughter recently contacted her and said she is being held at a new location “not far from Casino Kosai.” She said her daughter’s new captors have demanded she recruit 10 other Lao nationals to come work with her, but she has refused to do so.

Lao anti-human trafficking officials said there are at least 50 other Lao nationals held captive by scam rings in Myawaddy alone, along with victims from other parts of Asia.

In a sign of the scale of the issue in Myanmar, Chinese authorities last week announced that 2,349 Chinese nationals suspected of involvement in online scamming activities and telecom fraud were transferred from Burmese to Chinese custody on Oct. 14, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency.

The latest transfer brings to 4,666 the number of Chinese nationals sent back to China from Myanmar for alleged involvement in the scams in 2023 alone, according to China’s Ministry of Public Security.


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