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Shwe Kokko, Myanmar’s internet crime capital


Seen from the Thai side of the Moei River, with its cornfields and houses on stilts, Shwe Kokko la Burma offers nothing more to the walker than the unsightly amalgam of villas and apartment blocks flanked by a a giant concrete cube without a window around which a few workmen work limply. Then, as the sun sinks into the sticky haze, the city comes alive. We pick up karaoke tunes, huge screens light up where tropical fish and a Chinese deity of wealth, the lucky charm of games of chance, appear.

A view of the town of Shwe Kokko on the Thaung Yin River on the Thailand-Myanmar border on March 1, 2023.

Shwe Kokko is a Burmese mini-Las Vegas, a city of casinos where customers from Thailand were transported, before the Covid-19, on a barge pulled by a cable. But these informal crossings have not reopened since the end of the pandemic. It does not matter: “the hell of the game” is only a facade. The Chinese-owned “smart city” whose construction, north of the border town of Myawaddy, alarmed the civilian Burmese government at the time in 2020, has turned into a Babylon of digital crime.

Small hands of the online scam, under the control of Triads, Chinese mafia organizations, harpoon preys in all the countries of the world. Approached on dating sites by fake profiles promising quick profits, victims are tricked into investing in cryptocurrency and other financial products. But, after a few successful operations, their online contact disappears along with their money.

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Manmeet (not his real name), a young Indian from Punjab, worked in these online scam centers but against his will. He had believed that the job interview he had in Dubai was for an information technology position in Thailand. But, once he arrived in Bangkok, in the summer of 2022, he was taken to Mae Sot, the Thai city facing Myawaddy. “Then they put you in a car, they confiscate your phone and I ended up in Shwe Kokko”he details in a letter sent to the Indian authorities.

After three days of work, seeing that colleagues who had not reached their profit targets were beaten up, Manmeet decided to leave. But his bosses are asking him for the equivalent of 13,000 euros. Prevented from fleeing by the Border Guard Forces (BGF), a local militia of Karen ethnicity integrated into the army in 2010, Manmeet will eventually redeem his freedom, thanks to the help of his family.

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