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Sold Down to The Cyber River: Sri Lankan Youths Held by Criminal Group Expose Southeast Asia’s Cyber Slavery Underworld

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In a revelation that sheds a stark light on the challenges faced by migrant workers in Sri Lanka, the ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment of the island nation has brought attention to a distressing situation unfolding near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

The plight of 50 youths both male and female from the Island nation are being held against their will in a camp located about 25 kilometers from Myawaddy city in Myanmar, which is firmly controlled by a terrorist group.

These young Sri Lankans embarked on a journey to Myanmar seeking permanent employment through unconventional means by using visit visas, bypassing the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE)’s registration process in order to explore job prospects abroad. The Ministry clarified that these individuals undertook this journey independently without any organized facilitation.

According to ministry officials, this unconventional migration, coupled with the involvement of a terrorist organization, poses significant barriers to direct intervention.

Sources within Sri Lanka’s diplomatic circles stationed in Myanmar have hinted at diplomatic negotiations initiated with Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs to secure the release of detained Sri Lankans, Janaka Bandara, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Myanmar, confirmed these ongoing discussions, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation.

They were Initially tempted by the allure of promising IT jobs in Thailand, leading them to travel there with tourist visas. However, they were allegedly sold into cyber slavery upon arrival. Tasked with impersonating women on social media platforms to execute online scams, these captives faced both physical and psychological mistreatment.

Victims speaking to local news channels unveiled chilling narratives of being confined, enduring relentless hours engaged in online scams, and facing ceaseless threats of violence.

they were deprived of basic necessities and subjected to beatings if they failed to meet specific targets or quotas.

Gruesome reality of cyber slavery in south east Asia

The internet landscape worldwide faces an escalating menace posed by organized criminal factions operating throughout Southeast Asia.

Amidst economic struggles and limited prospects, opportunistic brokers entice prey with attractive job offers, manipulating vulnerable individuals. Collaborators further this exploitation by facilitating illegal border crossings, amplifying the underground trade of human resources.

These groups, ousted from China due to stringent crackdowns on domestic crime, have established strongholds in countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. They harness a network of trafficked individuals, dubiously labeled “cyber slaves,” to execute intricate online scams and financial deceit, amplifying their global impact.

The extensive influence of Chinese exiles transcending borders and the concerning expansion of criminal operations is underscored in a detailed report (2023) from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

The insidious operations, popularly termed as ‘pig butchering,’ target vulnerable individuals globally, baiting them with false promises of love and companionship.

Yet, this deceitful web leads to financial exploitation, leaving victims staggering from substantial financial losses, some even reporting losses upwards of $1 million.

Mostly comprising young, computer-literate, and multilingual individuals, victims fall prey to these schemes through varied channels: from unsolicited messages to seemingly alluring online advertisements. Red flags for these job offers often surface in the form of unreasonably high salaries with ambiguous responsibilities, coupled with promises of complimentary travel and accommodation.

The Moei River delineates the border between Thailand and Myanmar, offering a clear view of Myanmar’s terrain from Mae La sub-district, Tha Song Yang district, in Northern Thailand. Local reports suggest unauthorized crossings occur frequently in this area between Thailand and Myanmar.

The Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC) underscores the pressing need for heightened public and governmental awareness regarding this alarming issue. Their extensive research illuminates a global spectrum of victims originating from diverse countries worldwide. While the orchestrators and victims predominantly hail from China, the sinister operations span across Southeast Asian nations like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, as well as destinations in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The lucrative English-speaking demographic is increasingly sought after by these criminal syndicates, aimed at targeting larger, more profitable global audiences.

Cambodia and Myanmar serve as operational hubs for these illegal activities, capitalizing on lax law enforcement and pervasive corruption, enabling these compounds to operate with impunity.

Myawaddy, once a tranquil farmland near the Thai border, now reveals a disturbing reality, as satellite imagery discloses. According to New York Times 2020 reports, this very area has undergone a rapid metamorphosis, emerging as a focal point of cybercrime activity allegedly supported by Van Kuk Koi, famously known as “Broken Tooth,” the leader of the notorious Fourteen K Triad. Numerous global news sources corroborate Koi’s involvement, attributing the proliferation of analogous cybercrime hubs in Myawaddy to his investments, resulting in the entrapment of countless unsuspecting victims.

Efforts to combat this pervasive issue face an uphill battle, with China’s categorization of illegal border crossers as criminals hindering recognition of scammed individuals as victims of human trafficking. The Humanity Research Consultancy emphasizes the crucial role of foreign embassies in securing the release of their nationals, urging closer engagement as direct negotiations with local authorities often ends up with unproductive outcomes.

In parallel, financial institutions face a call for heightened vigilance in detecting suspicious payment patterns, often funneled through cryptocurrencies, a tell-tale sign of these scams.

Crucially, a potential solution lies in dismantling domestic trafficking networks in origin countries, pivotal players in recruitment and dispatching individuals for such perverse activities. Governments targeting these networks could pave the way for substantial progress in combating this intricate web of exploitation.

Concurrently, reports from the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) resonate with similar distressing accounts, shedding light on Myanmar’s citizens coerced into online scams, amplifying a narrative steeped in deceit, corruption, and violence. Chinese criminal gangs, operating with tacit approval from local authorities, perpetrate these exploitative activities, trapping individuals in a dark realm of cyber scams, gambling, and forced pornography involvement.

The Moei River delineates the border between Thailand and Myanmar, offering a clear view of Myanmar's terrain from Mae La sub-district, Tha Song Yang district, in Northern Thailand.
.The Moei River delineates the border between Thailand and Myanmar, offering a clear view of Myanmar’s terrain from Mae La sub-district, Tha Song Yang district, in Northern Thailand.

SHRF’s revelations underscore a surge in illicit operations within the Mekong region, propelled by pandemic-induced online gambling and economic instability, exacerbating vulnerabilities among the unemployed, leading to coercion into cyber scams. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights echoes this gravity, citing hundreds of thousands ensnared in online criminal activities across Southeast Asia.

The report uncovers disturbing instances of victimization, detailing cases of severe physical abuse, sexual exploitation, and tragic suicides, emblematic of the heinous coercion tactics employed. Local armed groups, like the Kokang Militia Force, reportedly guard these scam centers, fostering an environment of intimidation and fear, silencing victims’ voices.

SHRF vehemently urges authorities to take decisive action against these criminal networks, holding them accountable for the trauma inflicted upon their enslaved victims.

Also Read: The Channel 4 Effect: How the Documentary Reignited International Interest in Sri Lanka’s Accountability Crisis

Sahana David Menon
Sahana David Menon
Foreign Correspondent (Sri Lanka) - Sahana David Menon is a multimedia Journalist | Researcher | Story Teller based in South Asia. Sahana is a Foreign Correspondent for TheNews21. She began reporting in 2014 from the post-Srilankan civil war-ethic conflicts and has since worked with Marginalized communities, conflicts and Environmental issues in India, Srilanka, the Bali islands, and the Middle east. Sahana has won the best multimedia report award in 2016 in the Global Press awards


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