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Price of Freedom

Until more cross-border cooperation is possible, victims of trafficking and their families have little way out except to pay huge ransoms to bring their children home – a cruel added scam that many cannot afford to pay

By Zhang Xinyu Updated Sept.1

Police escorting telecom fraud suspects from Harbin, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province arrive at Penglai International Airport, Yantai, East China’s Shandong Province, May 19, 2017. The crime group was accused of recruiting Chinese citizens to commit telecom fraud in Thailand and Indonesia (Photo by IC)

For the umpteenth time, Tian Xiaobei dialed the Chinese consulate in Mandalay, Myanmar. Yet again, he did not receive any good news.  

Tian has tried everything to help his little brother get home after receiving a disturbing message from him in January, which claimed he had been duped to go to Mandalay, a major city in northern Myanmar, where he is forced to participate in telecom fraud. Tian’s family calls the consulate every day like clockwork. They have contacted the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar, the consulate and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hundreds of times.  

The Foreign Ministry hotline 12308 has received so many similar calls this year that they have to publish frequent statements warning of the very situation Tian’s brother is in. Attracted by promises of high-paid jobs, they are illegally detained, blackmailed, abused and forced to work in telecom fraud, which in the lawless regions of northern Myanmar, operates on an industrial scale with the involvement of cross-border crime syndicates.  

On May 31, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai met with the country’s Vice-Premier and Interior Minister Soe Htut to discuss joint actions against crimes like telecom fraud in Myanmar. Chen urged Myanmar to try to rescue trapped victims.  

But it is nearly impossible to rescue people once they are trapped due to the complex situation in restive northern Myanmar. Many who return are “ransomed” by desperate families.  

“Buying their freedom is almost the only way to get people back. If someone can return this way, they’re pretty lucky,” Zhang Yan, a police officer in China’s southern Yunnan Province bordering Myanmar, told NewsChina. Zhang leads a taskforce which helps victims of trafficking in Myanmar return to China. 

Sovereignty Questions 
Since January, Tian’s father has been telling his story at every police station he can find. He petitioned the village Party committee, attaching the location of the alleged fraud company that detained his son. His letter was stamped by the Party committee and sent up the chain, but Tian did not get a reply.  

Tian’s family turned to social media, posting a short video about their lost son on Douyin, China’s TikTok. The video received millions of views. The Chinese consulate in Mandalay contacted Tian, but a month later there was still no news.  

According to Zhang, few trapped people are rescued by the Embassy or consulates, “because anything related to cross-border law enforcement is a hard nut to crack.”  

“China adheres to the diplomatic principle that we should not interfere in other country’s internal affairs, so we can’t infringe on other countries’ legal rights even when we are protecting ours. Any necessary law enforcement in other countries’ territory has to be based on criminal justice cooperation or international police cooperation,” Jian Kunyi, an associate professor at the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics and a criminal lawyer at the Lancang-Mekong Law Firm, told NewsChina.  

Cross-border cooperation between countries on criminal investigations should be based on agreements between sovereign states and a cooperation institution established by the countries, Jian said, but the current political situation in Myanmar precludes such agreements.  

Northern Myanmar has been in a state of turmoil for decades and is largely controlled by armed militias. Even if China and Myanmar reach a transnational agreement, the government has no power to enforce it there, Jian said. Regions controlled by armed forces are not jurisprudential sovereign states, so China cannot sign any cooperation agreements with them.  

“The long-term turmoil in northern Myanmar has heavily obstructed justice cooperation... since it can’t be implemented in a region out of government control,” Jian said, adding that Chinese police actions cannot go beyond the red line of “respecting other countries’ sovereignty,” making it hard to rescue stranded Chinese nationals, even if they are in distress. 

Ransom Route 
Despite this, Zhang said his team has saved several thousand Chinese people from all over the country in the last two years.  

The only sure way is being ransomed. “We have few means to save trapped people. We give them [fraud rings] money, and they release the person we want. There is no alternative,” he said.  

To do this, Zhang needs the service of an intermediary. “We can’t directly contact the fraud ring, so we use people with connections abroad,” Zhang said. “Suppose someone was coerced to go to Wa Special Region 2 in Myanmar, and we know some official or influencer there, we’ll ask them to negotiate with the company.”  

One such intermediary is A Long, a writer who has lived in Southeast Asia for many years. After he became well known on social media, people started contacting him for help.  

“We’ve tried so many different ways to save people,” A Long said. Once in 2021, he helped police in Cambodia rescue a group of people who were about to be sent to a telecom fraud industrial zone. “We contacted police and gave them several thousand US dollars in ‘tips’ to stop the bus,” he said. The victims were brought to the police station and released.  

A Long has found the best way is to work through a local influential person to help with the negotiation. Once the price is set and the money secured, the telecom fraud gang releases the person. Victims say the “influential” locals can be police officers, business people or members of local militias.  

In 2022, A Long’s efforts saved 60 people, but this year, the number is growing fast – from March to June, he had already extracted nearly 60, and he thinks it will be 100 by the end of the year. The money to ransom them comes from the victims’ families.  

The amount varies and is determined by how much a fraud company spent when it trafficked the victim in the first place. The cost varies according to route, and which countries they cross. A Long is circumspect about how much or if he is paid for his part in the process.  

“Fraud companies pay the trafficker the cost of bringing them the victims. It’s about 50,000 yuan (US$6,899) each if they cross Thailand and Laos, and during the pandemic, to sneak into Myawadi (a center for telecom fraud in Myanmar), the cost rose to nearly 200,000 yuan (US$27,594),” A Long said.  

Fraud companies tally all the expenses for each victim. Some anonymous victims told NewsChina this includes water, electricity, meals, accommodation and even use of computers to conduct the illegal scams. The longer a victim is trapped, the bigger their ransom.  

Zhao Qi, whose son was detained in a scam operation in Myanmar, paid 500,000 yuan (US$69,736) to get his son back. He had to sell an apartment to raise the money. Zhao later introduced his middleman to two other victims’ families, who both paid less than 300,000 yuan (US$41,391) to ransom their family member. Zhao said he paid more because it had cost more to transport his son during the Spring Festival holiday when he fell victim to the traffickers, and because he had been in Myanmar longer.  

Among the people NewsChina interviewed, the biggest ransom paid was 800,000 yuan (US$110,375). “For a fraud company, releasing a person is like abandoning a piece of fattened meat, so they won’t easily free anyone unless they get a satisfactory price,” A Long said.  

He claimed that some of the telecom fraud industrial zones in east Myanmar are trying to shift toward legal operations. They are no longer involved in human trafficking, abuse or exploitation of minors. If the victims can prove they were trafficked, they are allowed to leave without paying a ransom, but they still have to pay to travel out of the country, although it may only be dozens of yuan. 

Great Escapes 
One young victim, Yang Tao, hatched a plan to save himself after being locked up in a telecom fraud company in Myanmar. He told media that in December 2022, he tried to escape by using bed sheets to shimmy down from a seventh-floor window. But he lost his grip and fell, sustaining serious injuries.  

The gang sent Yang to hospital where he was guarded by two people. He pleaded for a cellphone, saying he was too injured to walk. He called a local man who had advertised on social media that he could save people. This man agreed to send a car to the hospital if he could walk out himself. At 5am one day, Yang staggered out of the hospital, and the car sped him to safety. He had been in Myanmar for a month.  

Yang told media that he paid the driver 40,000 yuan (US$5,519). A Long arranges similar rescues. “It costs more to do something like this, as it’s a risk for drivers. If they get caught, they could be shot dead,” he said.  

Police officer Zhang Yan said most people cannot escape under their own steam. He once told a trapped person to pretend to be sick and even to eat washing powder so he would be sent to hospital and find a chance to escape. But few make it, since many fraud industrial zones are sited in secure compounds with their own medical care facilities, and they will not send people to hospital unless they are very ill.  

“Buying them back is nearly the only way they can come home. There’s almost no chance a victim can leave Myanmar without paying anything,” Zhang said.  

The Global Anti Scam Organization (GASO), a non-profit organization registered in the US which has helped save many trapped foreign nationals in Myanmar, opposes ransoms. Lu Xiangri, a volunteer at GASO, told NewsChina that it is the same as investing one’s life savings in a scam company. If too many victims pay, then no company will ever release anyone for free. It seems it has already become a new business model.  

The victims and their families think differently. A Long receives a lot of gratitude from the families of those he helps.  

In an online chat group for victim’s families, when a family says their child has been ransomed, they also show their gratitude to the middleman that helped. Many families told NewsChina that not paying leaves their child to an unpredictable fate, which they cannot tolerate. 

The People’s Court of Dafang County, Southwest China’s Guizhou Province publicly tries a cross-border telecom fraud case in June. The two lead suspects stood accused of arranging to smuggle people into Myanmar to conduct telecom fraud. Forty people were convicted in the case and sentenced to 1-19 years in prison (Photo Courtesy of the People’s Court of Dafang County)

Myanmar police hand over telecom fraud suspects to Chinese police, Yangon International Airport, Myanmar, June 19 (Photo Courtesy of the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar)

Fourteen Chinese people suspected in a cross-border telecom fraud case are sent back to China under police escort, Bangkok, Thailand, February 2016 (Photo by IC)

Easy Targets 
For victims’ families, it is not just a matter of raising the cash. First, they have to find exactly where their relative is being held, which leaves them open to being scammed again.  

Given the large number of victims trafficked to Myanmar, some swindlers target their families claiming they can save their children.  

Sun Jixing did not know that her son was trapped in Myanmar until October 2021 when she received a call from police telling her that her son was working in a telecom fraud company in Myanmar. Her son had always told her that he worked in Yunnan, in case his family worried about him. After his attempt to flee failed, he begged his family to save him.  

Sun tried very hard to contact the person who coerced her son to Myanmar, wheedling and cajoling him to bring her son back, and even threatening to fight him. This man, who claimed to know where Sun’s son was, agreed, but asked for 25,000 yuan (US$3,500).  

The man then asked for another 1,000 yuan (US$138) for traveling expenses and meals plus 200 yuan (US$28) for accommodation. Sun did not realize it was a scam until the man asked Sun to pay for his pandemic quarantine in Yunnan. The swindler cut contact with Sun when she saw through the scam. 

It was not the first time that someone tried to cheat Sun.  

Another man told Sun and several other victims’ parents that he could help get people out of Myanmar. He asked the families for 124,000 yuan (US$17,108) each, but after paying him, he disappeared for months. Eventually, after much pressure and threats to destroy his ancestral graves, a great humiliation, the swindler returned the money, but never spoke of the children. 

Sun also met someone who claimed that he could retrieve people from the telecom scam company that had her son, and he showed Sun a video of her son allegedly being beaten by an electric prod. When Sun told him that she could not come up with the money, the man threatened to cut her son’s hand off. Sun still has no contact with her son.  

“Many swindlers send videos like that of victims being abused and threaten their families that if they don’t hand over money, they’ll beat their children to death. They easily get what they want, because they know most families value their child’s life over money,” Zhang said.  

This is why A Long no longer posts videos of trapped people rescued on WeChat after he found that swindlers used his videos to cheat other families.  

Scams within scams make it even harder for families to rescue their children, as they do not know who to trust. 

‘It’s His Fate’ 
Even if victims have been coerced or suckered into working in telecom fraud or other scams, they are still liable to be punished under Chinese law when they return. Mostly they receive a fine of several thousand yuan or a few days of detention.  

“We can’t confirm exactly what they did in Myanmar,” Zhang said. Not everyone is as innocent as they claim, he said. Many knew exactly what job they were going to do. “They were lured by the high pay, but they obviously thought it was going to be an easy job, and didn’t realize they’d be abused for performing badly,” he said.  

“The high pay is just an illusion. They can’t endure the huge gap between their perceptions and reality,” he added.  

A Long agrees. “Minors and old people are mostly coerced into it, but many young people aren’t,” he said, adding some young people he saved admitted they did not think telecom fraud would be so hard to do.  

Zhang said if police have enough evidence to prove that victims of the fraud gangs had committed crimes, they would be charged and punished.  

But it is more important to prevent the crimes in the first place. In an article titled Cross-Border Cyber Crime of Chinese Citizens in Southeast Asian and Its Governance published in journal Southeast Asian Affairs in 2021, co-authors Zhuang Hua, an associate professor at Guangdong Police College and Ma Zhonghong, a professor at the People’s Public Security University of China, proposed ways to narrow the cyber-crime space by making comprehensive efforts to combat cybercrimes, improving international justice cooperation, strengthening border administration, and increasing clampdowns on the gray industrial chain related to cybercrimes. 

Zhang said that the current rampant trafficking is partly due to the low penalties. This needs to be dealt with before the trafficking situation improves.  

Social media and online platforms both serve as a means to warn people against scams as victims relate their experiences, and as ways to hook victims by advertising “high-paid jobs” in Myanmar.  

“Online platforms should confirm the identity of each [scam] poster to help police track them and set up a complaint and reporting system for users to report illegal content,” Zhu Wei, deputy director of the Institute of Media Law, China University of Political Science and Law, told NewsChina. “But the platforms should be exempt from the responsibility for examining all the information. It is beyond their ability and may infringe on people’s right to speech,” he added. 
Zhu emphasized that specialist sites like job recruitment platforms should be obliged to check the authenticity of the information published by employers.  

“We have to reach a consensus in the international community that many crime organizations in northern Myanmar show characteristics of being cross-border gangs which should be a target for us to crack down on based on China’s Anti-Organized Crimes Law and The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” Jian told NewsChina. “We have to make joint efforts other than separate management among departments, and we have to ally with international efforts to root out cross-border gang culture to curb the crimes,” he added.  

Jian suggested that police in border regions establish a system against cross-border organized crime with their counterparts in neighboring countries based on the Anti-Organized Crime Law. “We should make good use of the law to exchange information and cooperate with police in neighboring countries in a more flexible way,” he said.  

Starting this year, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has strengthened cooperation. In March, the MPS, the National Police Bureau of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the National Police Bureau of Thailand held a meeting on human smuggling where the three parties proposed to crack down on cross-border crimes like human smuggling and telecom fraud. In June, six Chinese telecom fraud suspects were caught and sent back to China from Myanmar under escort.  

Yet many parents are still waiting for news of their children trapped in Myanmar. They can do nothing but wait.  

Li Dongmei is one such parent. Before she spoke with NewsChina, a 16-year-old boy who was coerced to Myanmar with her son was ransomed for 1 million yuan (US$138,370). But Li cannot afford such a sum. She told NewsChina that her trapped son is 19 and was raised by his grandparents after Li’s husband died of cancer 11 years ago, forcing Li to leave home to work. 

Already in debt of around 1 million yuan (US$138,370) and having to support her younger son who is 15, Li said earning money is her top priority. She refuses to sell her house to ransom her elder son as some relatives suggest. “I can’t ruin my life, nor my younger son’s. I have to support my younger son’s education,” she said. As for the elder son, Li said she can only wait for good news. “It’s his fate,” she said.  

In mid-May, Li’s elder son sent her a message, pleading with her to save him, but Li said she could not afford it. Li’s elder son has not contacted her since.

A police officer in Pu’er, Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar and Thailand, teaches residents how to use a government-developed app against telecom fraud, August 16, 2022 (Photo by IC)