China-backed controversial mega project in Myanmar rapidly becoming human trafficking hub
Rising incidents of human trafficking have alarmed human rights activists, with reports that the Shwe Kokko New City in southeast Myanmar's Karen State has become a people-trafficking hub.
The town, which is home to numerous Chinese-owned businesses and dubs itself a Special Economic Zone, sits opposite Thailand on the banks of the Moei River and is controlled by the Karen Border Guard Force, which is affiliated with the Myanmar military, reported The Irrawaddy.
According to The Diplomat online magazine, most victims of human trafficking in the region come from Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.
They are imprisoned and forced to work as online scammers for crime syndicates. A significant number of trafficked persons are Mandarin or Cantonese speakers, who have to work day and night for the sinister syndicates.
Shwe Kokko has a strong presence of Chinese investors, workers and visitors, many drawn to the area by the presence of casinos and nightclubs. Some reports have claimed that Shwe Kokko New City is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), reported The Irrawaddy.
Beijing, though, has denied that and distanced itself from the USD 15 billion so-called Special Economic Zone. In August 2020, China's embassy in Myanmar said on its Facebook that Shwe Kokko "is a third-country investment and has nothing to do with the Belt and Road Initiative."
Disputing that claim, The Diplomat cited a 2017 report by China's state-run Xinhua news agency which reported that the Shwe Kokko project is an important component of the BRI.
According to the Xinhua report, the state-owned enterprise China Metallurgical Group Corporation was engaged in constructing the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone.
The Irrawaddy cited the Asia-Pacific High-level Conference on BRI Cooperation held in Beijing in June 2021. At this meeting, which was attended by the junta's foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin, China told member countries that it would continue investing in BRI infrastructure projects despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, Thai authorities arrested She Zhijiang, Shwe Kokko's boss and the head of the Yatai International Holding Group, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant for allegedly running an illegal online casino.
According to multiple media reports, he has also been involved in gambling ventures in Cambodia and a lottery scheme in the Philippines. She Zhijiang is alleged to have been on the run from Chinese authorities since 2012. Thai authorities have said that the process of extraditing him to China is ongoing.