Tue, 31 Jan 2023

Mae Sot [Thailand], December 16 (ANI): Chinese underworld floods to Thailand-Myanmar river border as Macao squeeze spawns new gambling and trafficking hubs akin to 'penal colonies,' writes Dominic Faulder in Nikkei Asia.

Covid-19 lockdowns and official clampdowns on casino junkets reduced Macao's gambling revenues last year to the lowest level this century, he writes.

Casino financiers have been moving out of the former Portuguese colony since at least 2016 to less regulated territories, such as Sihanoukville and Poipet in Cambodia, and later over Thailand's borders with Laos and Myanmar, creating countless unregulated casinos beyond any rule of law, he says.

Online gambling technology and infrastructure has also been used for scamming, causing a regional 'scamdemic', reported Nikkei Asia.

"Thailand and Myanmar are friendly and close neighbors separated only by a strip of water," stated Hong Kong-based Yatai International Holding Group in a Facebook video, promoting its purported contribution to a China-Thailand-Myanmar economic corridor.

Along that strip, the Moei River, Shwe Kokko Yatai New City has been conceived as a USD 15-billion city of the future.

With bogus Belt and Road Initiative credentials -- questioned by Myanmar's former government under Aung San Suu Kyi and publicly disavowed by China's embassy to Myanmar in 2020 -- the city lies just north of Thailand's Mae Sot, the report said.

Shwe Kokko has also been billed as 'Myanmar's Silicon Valley' and a key way station along a 'maritime Silk Road', part of a land bridge between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, reported Nikkei Asia.

The reality is much darker. Shwe Kokko is a known criminal hub used for online gambling, scamming and human trafficking, said Faulder, adding that it is far from development, raising red flags.

More crime zones immediately began springing up southward along the shallow, winding Moei, which at the driest times of year can be crossed on foot, he said.

This lawless area is branded a 'growing threat to global security' in a US Institute of Peace (USIP) commentary published last month by analysts Priscilla A. Clapp and Jason Tower.

"USIP has so far identified 15 distinct criminal zones in the area," they wrote, adding that their existence and chronology can be confirmed on Google Earth and by visits to the border.

Not all have brick-and-mortar casinos -- the hallmarks of dubious 'special economic zones' along Thailand's porous borders with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

"The city-like enclaves appear more like penal colonies," USIP observed. Four-metre concrete walls, topped with coiled razor wire, can be clearly seen, reported Nikkei Asia, adding that in some instances, they raised sentry posts make them resemble concentration camps.

Mae Sot is a frontier town of immense logistical importance. Located on Asian Highway 1, it is connected across the Moei to Myanmar's Myawaddy by the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which for now remains closed.

A building damaged by a massive car bomb in April is still clearly visible on the Myanmar side -- evidence of the national volatility that has displaced tens of thousands. Just north of Myawaddy, is another bridge with customs checkpoints for hauling freight. It is open to container traffic despite the armed unrest in Myanmar.

Some 175 km by road to the west lies Moulmein (Mawlamyine), an Andaman Sea port on the Indian Ocean, first developed by the British in Lower Burma in the early 19th century.

Shwe Kokko, Yatai's flagship development, is in the vicinity of Kawmoora, where the Karen National Liberation Army's Battalion 101 was based until 1994. Its offices in Shwe Kokko are directly alongside Yatai's. That relationship indicates a direct connection between the Chinese underworld and Myanmar's regime, though how much it actually yields is pure speculation, said Faulder.

Yatai, which did not respond to requests for comment, envisions the city as stretching 19 km along the Moei, with an overall footprint of 120 sq. km. That would be slightly larger than Macao, the only region in China where gambling is legal, albeit decreasingly tolerated by Beijing.

Shwe Kokko's main casino is larger than most. The city's driving force was She Zhijiang -- or Dylan She, as he often refers to himself -- the chairman of Yatai International Holding Group.

He is also vice chairman of the China Federation of Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs, which, along with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, is among Shwe Kokko's endorsers.

According to China's Caixin news portal, She has been on the run from Chinese authorities since 2012. He has reportedly set up gambling networks in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Since August, he has been sitting in a Thai Immigration Bureau prison cell awaiting extradition to China, a procedure complicated by his Cambodian citizenship. But Yatai is carrying on with business as usual, reported Nikkei Asia.

Observers suspect that some Chinese suspects have parlayed betrayals of colleagues in ongoing mainland crime purges into exit passes. With reinvented identities, they are now floating around Southeast Asia as supposedly legitimate businessmen.

She is also reported to be connected to KK Park, not far southeast of Myawaddy. It has the most sinister reputation among the new enclaves. Malaysians, Taiwanese and Indians are among those known to have been trafficked there for ransom or online scamming to buy back their freedom, said Faulder.

A Thai reporter who visited casinos in Myawaddy in early 2020, before COVID-19 lockdowns came into effect, found them full of Cambodian card dealers and croupiers. These casino staffers had been moved across from Sihanoukville after the Cambodian government clamped down on online gambling in 2019 at Beijing's request. He saw online gambling being conducted openly on these premises, reported Nikkei Asia. (ANI)

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