River of Dreams – Lawless ‘zones’ on Thailand-Myanmar frontier

Thailand and Myanmar are friendly and close neighbours separated only by a strip of water, so the story goes. Along the Moei River, a fantastic US$15 billion (500 billion baht) city of the future, Shwe Kokko Yatai New City, is under construction.

Development is well underway in Myanmar’s Karen state, perhaps the most unpleasant place in the world today, where ethnic Karen forces continue their insurgency against the central government that dates from WWII.

Shwe Kokko Yatai New City is a joke, but not a very funny one. It was too corrupt even for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and was disowned by China’s embassy in Myanmar in 2020.

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At least in the dry season, River Moei has never posed a formidable obstacle for the unceasing movement of goods and people.

The city lies 14 kilometres from Thailand’s Mae Sot. It will be the ideal city of the future when completed, boasting “science and technology industrial parks, leisure and tourism areas, ethnic culture areas, business and logistics areas, and ecological agriculture areas,” according to the promotional material. There will even be a “firearms training” facility.

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Shwe Kokko – ‘golden raintree forest’ – is billed as Myanmar’s Silicon Valley, just as so many developing cesspools are from Turkmenistan to Tanzania. It’s also a “key way station” along China’s maritime Silk Road, something China denies. The reality, if such a thing is possible, is much darker.

Shwe Kokko is a crime hub used for gambling, scamming, human trafficking and the trafficking of almost anything else from tortoises through emeralds to truckloads of methamphetamine.

Thailand shut off power and telecommunications to the city in 2020 but power was restored within a fortnight of the 2021 coup.

Border crime zones – industrial parks for the 21st century – have sprung up everywhere along the shallow, winding Moei, which at the driest times of the year can be crossed on foot.

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In the Kings Roman Casino, clocks are set to Beijing time and almost no one accepts the Laotian kip as currency, preferring the Chinese yuan instead.

This is Southeast Asia’s new heart of darkness, and an unavoidable metaphor it is hard not to pair with “the horror, the horror.” This lawless area is a growing threat to global security. Not all of these “cities” have brick-and-mortar casinos – the hallmarks of dubious “special economic zones” (SEZ) along Thailand’s borders with Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These zones contain people, many trafficked from all around the world, and by some accounts squeezed into rooms 16 at a time.

NikkeiAsia describes life in lawless ‘zones’ on the Thailand-Myanmar frontier.

The city-like enclaves appear more like penal colonies. Indeed, 4 metre concrete walls topped with coiled razor wire can be seen. In some instances, raised sentry posts make them resemble concentration camps. On the Thai side, new cell towers offering 5G reception have been erected facing directly across the river. Concrete ramps have been built into the riverbanks at numerous points, making it easier for heavy trucks to cross with building materials and other supplies.

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 June 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. Some 175km by road to the west lies Moulmein (Mawlamyine), an Andaman Seaport. Yatai’s proposed maritime Silk Road connects Moulmein to Laem Chabang, Thailand’s largest port, by road and from there to China’s massive southeastern port of Guangzhou. Shwe Kokko is in the vicinity of Kawamura, where the Karen National Liberation Army’s Battalion 101 was based until 1994.

Today, this stretch of border is controlled by a Karen breakaway group, the Karen Border Guard Force, which brokered peace and business arrangements with Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw.

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The Karen Border Guard Force welcomes anyone with yuan to spend.

Covid-19 lockdowns and official clampdowns on casino junkets reduced Macau’s gambling revenues last year to the lowest level this century. 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. Online gambling technology and infrastructure have also been used for scamming, causing a regional “scamdemic.”

The city’s driving force was She Zhejiang – 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 Entrepreneurs, which along with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese is among Shwe Kokko’s endorsers. 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 prison cell awaiting extradition to China, a procedure complicated by his Cambodian citizenship. But Yatai is carrying on with business as usual.

She, 40, was born in Hunan but, like so many Chinese gangsters, holds a Cambodian passport that can be bought legally for around US$200,000. With reinvented identities, they are now floating around Southeast Asia as supposedly legitimate businessmen.

A Thai reporter who visited casinos in Myawaddy in early 2020, before Covid-19 lockdowns came into effect, found them full of Cambodian dealers and croupiers, who moved across from Sihanoukville after the Cambodian government clamped down in 2019 at Beijing’s request.

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In April, Ekapop Lueangprasert, a Thai good Samaritan who runs the independent Survive network for rescuing trafficking victims, presented a heavily disguised 25-year-old woman to the press. She had been duped with a phoney job offer into crossing the border at Myawaddy and forced into prostitution. She managed to escape but estimated that at least 300 Thai women remained captive.

In April, Ekapop Lueangprasert, a Thai good Samaritan who runs the independent Survive network for rescuing trafficking victims, presented a heavily disguised 25-year-old woman to the press. She had been duped with a phoney job offer into crossing the border at Myawaddy and forced into prostitution. She managed to escape but estimated that at least 300 Thai women remained captive.

“It is next to impossible to help these trapped people,” Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative in Bangkok of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told Nikkei.

“The other side of the Moei might as well be on another planet. The situation is a governance nightmare – it is out of control. Telecoms and electricity should be cut off to the criminals and their casinos.

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Jon Whitman

Jon Whitman is a seasoned journalist and author who has been living and working in Asia for more than two decades. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Jon has been at the forefront of some of the most important stories coming out of China in the past decade. After a long and successful career in East sia, Jon is now semi-retired and living in the Outer Hebrides. He continues to write and is an avid traveller and photographer, documenting his experiences across the world.

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