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China encouraged armed offensive against Myanmar government to protest proliferation of online scams

The military junta controlling Myanmar has struggled to control all of its territory thanks in part to China backing rebel forces as a way of expressing its displeasure about cyberscam centers operating from the country.

Myanmar’s military junta – known as the Tatmadaw – seized power and ousted the administration of state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi from control on February 1, 2021.

According to Brussels-based non-profit International Crisis Group (ICG), the coup was “an unwelcome shock” for Beijing, which had “invested significantly” in Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration in anticipation of gaining assistance on planned infrastructure projects that would connect China to the Bay of Bengal.

Beijing maintained engagement with Myanmar’s new regime despite its expression of anti-China sentiments.

One issue Beijing wanted the junta to address was the proliferation of scam centers in Myanmar, as they often prey on Chinese netizens.

The ICG report claims the junta’s failure to do so saw China lend tacit support to an armed offensive against the Tatmadaw. Known as Operation 1027, the offensive was launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance – a military coalition that opposed the Tatmadaw and its coup.

“Operation 1027 would not have been feasible without Beijing’s acquiescence,” argued ICG.

The offensive was named for the date of its execution – October 27, 2023 – and was executed in the Shan State among Myanmar’s border with China. It is widely seen as the most difficult moment for the junta, and saw hundreds of outposts and bases overrun and overland trade routes to China severed.

“The reason China allowed the 2023 offensive almost certainly relates to the proliferation of online scam centers in Myanmar in recent years, and the regime’s failure to crack down on them,” argued the report.

As many as 120,000 people, mostly Chinese, have been trafficked and held against their will in Myanmar, with the Kokang zone along the Chinese border considered a major hotspot, according to a UN report [PDF] released last year.

The estimated number of victims makes the Kokang zone a larger center for human trafficking related to online scam operators than Cambodia, which is estimated to have at least 100,000 people forcibly involved in online scams.

The scam centers make fake offers of well-paid jobs and housing that instead lure victims to a labor camp, where they are forced to execute online scams. Victims have their passports confiscated and face violence or threats of death if they do not comply, or attempt to escape.

Countries plagued by such operations have faced mounting global pressure to stop the scammers. Interpol launched its own operation late last year to fight the human trafficking and slavery, as the scheme has spread beyond Southeast Asia and into other areas like South America and the Middle East.

The UN declared that the military coup, ongoing violence and armed conflicts – which have resulted in the breakdown of rule of law in Myanmar – provided “fertile ground” for the crime syndicates.

“Tackling the criminal groups running these scams, which disproportionately target people in China, has become a top political priority for Beijing in recent months,” observed ICG of the period surrounding the offensive.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance released a statement the day it launched Operation 1027, promising to combat “the widespread online fraud that has plagued Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border” – a pledge that surely sweetened any deal for an alliance.

China did call for a ceasefire following Operation 1027, but “remained diplomatically focused on the handover of scam suspects, rather than pressuring the alliance of armed groups to end its operations,” claimed the ICG report.

Over 41,000 people were handed over to China, according to state media – mostly Chinese nationals. Several thousand more followed in 2024.

While many were low-level scammers or victims, some were considered kingpins – such as those reportedly involved in the Crouching Tiger Villa scam along the border, where a week earlier up to 100 victims were murdered while trying to escape.

The Tatmadaw did withdraw troops from the border after the operation in what is considered a “major humiliation” and the “most significant surrender in the Myanmar military’s history.” It also was “further embarrassed” by having to accept a China-mediated ceasefire, claimed ICG.

However, it seems that may have little consequence. The regime “cannot afford to alienate China” according to ICG, as it needs economic and diplomatic assistance – giving China considerable leverage with the status quo.

ICG has cautioned therefore that Beijing’s displeasure with the new junta should not be interpreted as support for Myanmar’s shadow government in exile, the National Unity Government (NUG).

The group warned that Beijing would not likely “stand idly by and let the [military] regime collapse, lest it be replaced by the Western-leaning NUG or some other configuration of a broadly anti-China resistance movement.” ®