Nearly 270 Thai victims of human trafficking who were trapped in fighting between rebels and Burmese junta forces near Myanmar’s border with China arrived in Bangkok on Monday following a multi-nation operation to rescue and evacuate them, officials said.
The 266 Thais, six Filipinos and a Singaporean were escorted from Laukkaing township in Myanmar’s Shan state to Kunming city in China’s Yunnan province, where they boarded two chartered flights to Bangkok, Thai police and foreign ministry officials said of the coordinated operation involving Myanmar’s military government, China and Thailand.
“The evacuation from Laukkaing of those Thais was sensitive. But the Thai government has to rescue those who are in a vulnerable situation regardless of their status, as a victim or a trafficker,” Kanchana Patarachoke, a spokeswoman for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters after their arrival.
“They are under the screening process to verify whether anyone was a victim or a trafficker,” she said, referring to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in Bangkok.
These alleged victims of scam call centers set up by Chinese criminals said they had been stranded in Myanmar since October after rebels launched offensives against strategic junta positions across the country, including in Laukkaing, according to authorities.
Post-coup Myanmar has deteriorated into a series of bloody conflicts since the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February 2021. It has become a regional hub lately for online scam operations and casinos that employ people trafficked from other countries in Southeast Asia.
On Monday, a returnee’s relative said she was happy to learn of the success with the evacuation and repatriation.
“Previously, I could not contact my niece, I was so concerned for her safety because the town was at war until a military official helped us find the news of her arrival,” said Kanisorn Payomhom, who asked that her niece’s name be withheld over privacy concerns.
“I don’t know what the legal process will be, but we are glad she was saved,” Kanisorn told BenarNews.
The Thai group was the second to be repatriated in the last two days, according to government officials. On Saturday, 41 Thais who had been rescued from Laukkaing were brought home via a land route from Myanmar’s Myitkyina province into Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
Kanchana said Thai authorities were trying to secure the release of an estimated “less than 100” Thai nationals who remained under the control of criminal bosses. She said their repatriation could be similar to the most recent rescue operation that involved multi-nation cooperation.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that 109 citizens were reported stranded in Laukkaing town as of Monday. The majority of these Malaysian citizens are believed to be victims of fraudulent job offers from overseas syndicates.
“The ministry, through the Malaysian Embassy in Yangon, the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, and the Consulate General of Malaysia in Kunming, is coordinating efforts to bring them home,” it said in a statement.
Since June, Thai authorities have warned its nationals to be wary of advertisements promising high-paying jobs inside Myanmar including in Myawaddy, across from Thailand’s Mae Sot in the west, and Tachileik, across from Thailand’s Mae Sai to the north.
Many Thais, Chinese and other Southeast Asian nationals have been lured into and forced to work into scamming centers and casinos or as prostitutes, Thai officials said.
“During the NRM process, we will assist and remedy the human trafficking victims. But we will further investigate the traffickers and see if they have committed any other crimes,” Torsak Sukvimol, the Thai national police chief said Sunday.
In August, a report by the U.N. human rights agency identified Myanmar and Cambodia as epicenters of a new human trafficking scourge in Southeast Asia.
Thousands of people were “being forcibly engaged by organized criminal gangs into online criminality in Southeast Asia – from romance-investment scams and crypto fraud to illegal gambling,” the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported.
Myanmar’s junta forces have killed nearly 4,200 people and arrested more than 25,400 since the coup in 2021, the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported.
Wilawan Watcharasakwej in Bangkok and Iman Muttaqin Yusof in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.