Police in Sihanoukville have arrested 15 Chinese nationals and confirmed shots were fired during a Friday raid on a hotel casino complex that was hosting online gambling operations.
In a significant escalation of activity against organised crime in the Cambodian port city, officials under military police command detained 14 men and one woman and seized two assault rifles and five pistols, ammunition and body armour, the Khmer Times daily and other local media reported on Monday.
The targeted complex was the Xihao Yinghui hotel casino, with some reports indicating two Chinese nationals detained at the property were rescued during the operation.
Only the female suspect carried a passport and the other suspects had no identification, the report said.
It was not immediately clear who fired the shots or if there were casualties.
The outlet quoted unnamed officials saying that police are preparing a wider crackdown on 12 locations in Sihanoukville that form part of a network dubbed “The China Project”.
The China Project is a loose term for locations in Sihanoukville where gangs force trafficked and traded Chinese and other nationals to engage in online gambling work, online fraud, prostitution and other criminal activity.
The report said that at least 8,000 victims, largely Chinese, remain trapped in the China Project network and are routinely assaulted, starved and molested, and are sometimes killed or commit suicide.
It added that fatalities within the China Project network of locations in Sihanoukville are reported fortnightly on average. Gang bosses are also preparing to move operations to new parts of the city and expand into Phnom Penh and other locations, the report said.
The China-Cambodia Law Enforcement Cooperation Office told the daily that similar organised crime networks are active in Myanmar and Indonesia, in addition to the Philippines, where slave labour conditions for some Chinese migrant workers have persisted for years.
During a state visit to Cambodia on Monday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and other Cambodian officials and requested stronger action against illegal online gaming and criminal activity.
The latest arrests provide more evidence that Hun Sen’s nearly two-year ban on online gambling has done little to nothing to suppress underground operations, and that organised crime groups with online gambling interests continue to operate with near impunity, sometimes with the active support of authorities, throughout Cambodia.
Prior to the ban, Sihanoukville had transformed into an over-developed, poorly resourced gambling hub with tens of thousands of imported Chinese workers and a nascent land-based and online industry combination that exploded in volume in the absence of substantial regulation.
Since the online gaming ban, and with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, many land-based operations have struggled and folded, but online operations have endured and even flourished, overwhelming the city’s mediocre and politicised law enforcement organs.