Myanmar Military Havoc Threatens Online Gambling, Scam Operations

April 12, 2024
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A Myanmar hub for online gambling and cyber scamming operations in Kayin (Karen) State has been captured by fighters with the Karen National Union and allied pro-democracy forces, threatening a swathe of criminal ventures along the region’s border with Thailand.
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A Myanmar hub for online gambling and cyber scamming operations in Kayin (Karen) State has been captured by fighters with the Karen National Union (KNU) and allied pro-democracy forces, threatening a swathe of criminal ventures along the region’s border with Thailand.

The KNU said on its Facebook page on Thursday (April 11) that fighters with the Karen National Liberation Army, the Karen National Defence Organisation and other allied fighters captured the last military camp in the Myawaddy area under control of Myanmar’s military government after a four-day siege.

“At this time, all camps under [central government control] in Myawaddy have been attacked and occupied, and the remnants of [government] forces will continue to be mopped up,” it said in a Burmese-language statement.

“The public is informed that it should cooperate without fear.”

In a second Facebook post, the KNU said government-aligned soldiers remain on the river border with Thailand, looking to cross a crucial bridge into the Thai trade hub of Mae Sot, along with more than 10,000 civilians fleeing the conflict.

The statement further warned that, in response to the loss of a key trade route and source of tax revenue, the Myanmar government “may carry out aerial bombardment attacks on civilian areas at any time”.

Such an attack would likely severely impact or destroy a series of online gambling and cyberscamming precincts and drive their operators into other parts of Myanmar or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Aside from this military threat, the KNU has expressed hostility to the underground online gambling industry and its meshing with scam operations, as well as to the enslavement of thousands of foreign nationals who are duped into working there or trafficked from other locations.

In a statement on February 13, the KNU Supreme Headquarters said it is “absolutely opposed to any illicit business and is willing to combat the online scams and illegal casino gambling businesses".

“The KNU is ready to cooperate with neighbouring countries and international organisations to clear out the online scam activities and illegal casino gambling businesses,” it said.

The statement traced the proliferating industry to poverty and corruption “practiced by successive governments”, and accused the Myanmar State Administrative Council, or junta cabinet, of “directly benefiting from these illicit businesses and … protecting and supporting them from behind".

“This has resulted in various social problems, not only for the Karen people in Karen State, but also for all those involved, and brings instability to the region, threatening global financial security and economic stability.”

Other online gambling and scam precincts in the area, such as those in riverside town Shwe Kokko just to the north, had flourished after striking lucrative deals with the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), a splinter ethnic militia working with the Myanmar government to oppose KNU forces under central command.

However, that deal has collapsed, with the BGF splitting from the central government in January and severing a series of government attempts to shut down illegal operations.

Frontier Myanmar reported on Monday (April 8) that the collapse of the deal has led to the BGF extracting more taxes from online gambling and scam operators and workers in their territory, despite an initial promise of a crackdown, thereby “deepening its dependence on the illegal industry”.

The BGF has made efforts to clean up the industry by deporting almost 1,000 Chinese nationals involved in operations in February and March, but worker numbers have been replenished by Myanmar nationals fleeing other conflict areas or conscription, and by a big increase in English-speaking staff, according to the report.

Meanwhile, The Irrawaddy media outlet has reported that senior KNU leaders are themselves implicated in the operation of KK Park, an alleged online gambling and scam centre run by Chinese criminals just to the south of Myawaddy.

The report, which released land contracts linking KNU figures and KK Park, follows a denial in February 2023 by the KNU that its leaders support the industry.

Earlier that month, reports of KNU involvement in casino activity triggered outrage among civil society and overseas Karen groups, which demanded in an open letter that the central executive committee stand down.

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