A former member of parliament for Myanmar’s pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party wanted by Chinese authorities has died in police custody after being arrested for masterminding an online scam ring, according to junta-controlled media.
Police in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan state, along Myanmar’s border with China, arrested ethnic Chinese businessman Ming Xuechang in Laukking township on Thursday in addition to his son Ming Guoping and grandson Ming Zhenzhen, MRTV said in a report.
Beijing issued arrest warrants for the three late last week for allegedly helping to orchestrate telecom scam rings in Myanmar staffed by human trafficking victims.
During the arrest, Ming Xuechang was injured by what MRTV described as a “self-inflicted gunshot wound from his own pistol.” He later died in hospital while undergoing treatment, the report said.
Myanmar authorities handed Ming Guoping and Ming Zhenzhen over to police from China’s Yunnan province via the border gate at Yanglongkeng, according to MRTV.
In addition to the three, Chinese authorities had also issued an arrest warrant for Ming Xuechang’s daughter, Ming Julan, who remains at large.
Myanmar’s junta said the four family members committed online fraud, abduction, illegal detention, and extortion in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone.
Experts say that many powerful officials in Kokang hold Chinese national ID cards and passports, giving Chinese police the jurisdictional authority to issue warrants for their arrest.
Arrests in Yunnan
Prior to issuing warrants for the members of the Ming family, authorities in China arrested 11 businesspeople at a trade fair in Yunnan’s Lincang township on Oct. 1, according to Chinese state media.
Among them was Liu Zhangqi – a hotelier and former lawmaker for the Union Solidarity and Development Party in Kone Kyan township who is another of Ming Xuechang’s grandsons.
Phoe Wa, a native of Hopan township in northern Shan’s Wa state self-administered zone with knowledge of the online scam industry, told RFA Burmese that he believes the arrests are related.
“Some of the 11 are friends or relatives of the four who were the focus of the recent arrest warrants,” he said. “While there are [gambling] coin games on the first floor of hotels in Laukkaing, Muse and Chinshwehaw townships, there are typically restricted upper floors which house online fraud businesses. I assume that these cases are related to these online scams.”
A source who is close to Liu Zhangqi, also known as “Maung Maung,” told RFA on condition of anonymity that attempts by family members to meet with the 11 arrested businesspeople in Yunnan have been rebuffed by Chinese authorities.
Residents of Kokang who speak Chinese said that on Nov. 12, Liu published a statement in the Chinese media calling on the public to “help the Chinese government control online fraud” in the region. In the statement, Liu said Chinese authorities would “raid homes, hotels and casinos to find suspects,” and warned that anyone who resists arrest “bears responsibility for their own actions.”
While reports by local media suggest that Chinese special forces have entered Kokang to conduct arrests of online fraud suspects, RFA has been unable to independently verify the claims.
Kokang chief removed
The arrest of the Mings comes a day after the junta removed Myint Swe as chief administrator for Kokang and replaced him with Brig. Gen. Tun Tun Myint on a temporary basis.
Myint Swe was last seen in public on Nov. 8 at an emergency meeting of the National Defense and Security Council in Naypyidaw, which he had been invited to as a special participant. The junta’s announcement of his replacement made no mention of whether it was related to Thursday’s arrests.
RFA made several attempts to contact the Chinese Embassy in Yangon by email for comment on the warrants, arrests, and alleged operations by Chinese special forces in Kokang, but received no response by the time of publishing.
Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong led a delegation of officials to meet with junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on Oct. 31. During the meeting, the two agreed to form a joint Myanmar-China task force to eradicate online scam rings in the Laukkaing area, according to pro-junta media reports.
Days earlier, the “Three Brotherhood” Alliance of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army launched an offensive on Oct. 27 dubbed “Operation 1027” and have since made notable gains against the military in several key cities in Shan state. On Day One of the campaign, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA, occupied Chinshwehaw township and arrested several people for alleged roles in online scams.
Crackdown only ‘tip of iceberg’
According to pro-junta media, authorities in Kokang have arrested a total of 7,789 foreign nationals – including 7,395 Chinese, 189 Vietnamese, 162 Thais, 32 Malaysians and two Laotians – in connection with online scams in the region. Authorities have deported 6,892 of them to China, reports said.
Junta authorities in Myanmar’s Shan state have arrested and deported hundreds of Chinese nationals linked to telecom scams in the region in recent stings, but residents say the rings continue to flourish there, attracting workers with the promise of good-paying jobs.
Scamming gangs have proliferated in Shan state, along eastern Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand, amid the political chaos of the Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat, benefitting from widespread unemployment, poor oversight, and growing investment from across the border.
Residents told RFA Burmese that scamming operations continue to thrive despite the crackdown, offering high-paying jobs to candidates with computer and language skills who are then held against their will and forced to earn money for their captors by working as telecom scammers.
The gangs are known to brutally punish trafficking victims who refuse to work for them or fail to meet earning quotas, sometimes with deadly consequences.
MNDAA spokesman Li Kyarwen told RFA that local military officials are always involved in the scam rings and said the only way to eradicate them is to remove the junta from power.
“Military officials have relocated scam operators by helicopter in the past [to avoid arrest],” he said. “If we don’t get rid of the junta, they will continue to operate with impunity in this country.”
The United Nations and other International organizations are calling for increased pressure from authorities to combat online scamming activities in Myanmar.
And while police have arrested hundreds of gang members in Shan state in recent raids, residents say the busted rings are just the tip of the iceberg and more enforcement is needed.
Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.