Special Economic Zones and self-governing statelets across the Mekong region have become conduits for human trafficking on a massive scale.
*Mong La, a town on the border between China and Myanmar, is notorious for a gambling town dubbed a ‘City of Sin’ in the heart of the Golden Triangle with Laos and Thailand”
A view of Mong La, a gambling enclave on the border between China and a rebel-administered sliver of Myanmar’s Shan State. (Sebastian Strangio)
Around six months ago, Ekapop Lueangprasert, a local government official and business owner in the Sai Mai suburb of Bangkok, was checking messages sent to his Sai Mai Must Survive Facebook page – a volunteer initiative he’d set up to try and help local people struggling financially during the pandemic – when he received a disturbing video from an 18-year-old girl.
“Today is January 28th at 1 am, 2022. I’m in a building opposite the Karaoke Bar,” says the Thai teenager into the camera, her eyes swollen from crying. She seems exhausted, close to breaking point, but determined to get as much information across as she can while she has the chance. The woman explains that she traveled from Bangkok to Sa Kaeo on the Thailand-Cambodia border to meet a Thai broker who had promised her a job in Poipet, a seedy casino town just over the border in Cambodia. She was then told that the role would actually involve scamming strangers online – and that if she wanted to leave, her father would have to pay 40,000 baht ($1,080) to secure her release. “I know everything and I’m afraid that [the boss] will kill me,” she sobs. “I don’t know what he will do to the others after this and I don’t know if I can contact you again. I’ve heard that at least 20 or 30 people have died.”
The request had come out of the blue and Ekapop was initially apprehensive. “I asked her, how can you use your phone?” he says. But as the teenager hastily sent and deleted location pins, photos from the compound, and other evidence of her treatment, it became clear she was telling the truth – and in the coming months, messages, videos, and photos flooded in from other Thai trafficking victims trapped in borderland casino towns in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. All told near-identical stories about being duped by offers of well-paid, legitimate work, only to find themselves imprisoned in horrifying conditions by Chinese gangsters. Under constant threat of violence, they were forced to engage in illegal activities – mostly tricking people into making fake investments online – with the knowledge or even collusion of local authorities.
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