In the end it was the thriving online scam centers that finally forced China to lose patience with Myanmar’s brutal military rulers.
The impoverished Southeast Asian nation has long been a trouble spot on China’s southwestern border. For decades Beijing’s leaders have played a careful game of backing Myanmar’s military regimes – lending them much-needed economic, military and diplomatic support, including at the United Nations – whilst also maintaining close ties to powerful rebel militias along its borders.
But Beijing’s frustration has been building with Naypyidaw’s generals who seized power in 2021, overthrowing a democratically elected government that Beijing had built close relations with, and resurrecting the kind of isolated junta rule that Myanmar’s people had spent decades living under.
The deeply unpopular regime has since been busy fighting a vicious civil war, struggling to govern growing swathes of its territory or deliver on Beijing’s economic and strategic interests there, including an ambitious infrastructure corridor aimed at connecting China’s landlocked southwest with the Indian Ocean.
In recent months, that displeasure has reached new heights as the junta dragged its feet on a pressing security priority for Beijing: shutting down the infamous online scam centers that have proliferated along its border with Myanmar.
The country’s mountainous borderlands have long been a haven for gambling, drugs and the trafficking of both humans and wildlife. But since the Covid-19 pandemic, online scam operations – many run by Chinese organized crime bosses – have flourished.
In heavily guarded compounds controlled by local warlords, tens of thousands of people, mainly Chinese, have been trapped and forced by criminal gangs to defraud strangers with sophisticated schemes over the internet.
Beijing has pressed Myanmar’s military government to rein in the scam operations with little success.
Things started to change in late October, when an alliance of ethnic rebel groups launched a major offensive – dubbed Operation 1027 – against the junta.
As the ethnic militias captured towns and military posts in the northern Shan state, numerous scam compounds near the Chinese border were liberated. Thousands of trafficked victims have been sent back to China, along with suspected ringleaders, according to Chinese authorities and the triumphant militias.
Powerful warlord families, backed by the junta and once deemed untouchable by the law, are now in the custody of Chinese police.
“China has been leveraging Operation 1027 in order to maximize pressure on the military regime to compel it to begin a crackdown on cross-border crime that targets Chinese nationals,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
Last week, Beijing said it helped the junta broker a temporary ceasefire with the rebels, after arranging for the two sides to meet in China for peace talks.
But Beijing’s assistance has carried a heavy price tag – the downfall of the remaining crime families the junta had relied on to rule the border region.