Why Myanmar’s warring groups are vying to combat cybercrimes

In an unexpected twist, the warring groups in Myanmar’s civil war have a unified goal: combating cybercrime and ingratiating themselves with China.
This photo taken on 10 November 2023 shows fighters of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking down a street market in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. A surprise offensive by Myanmar ethnic armed groups has blocked two strategically vital roads to the country's biggest trading partner China, choking cross-border commerce and denying the cash-strapped junta taxes and foreign exchange. (Mai Nyi/AFP)
This photo taken on 10 November 2023 shows fighters of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking down a street market in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. A surprise offensive by Myanmar ethnic armed groups has blocked two strategically vital roads to the country's biggest trading partner China, choking cross-border commerce and denying the cash-strapped junta taxes and foreign exchange. (Mai Nyi/AFP)

On 27 October, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA), former rulers of the Kokang region in Northern Shan State, launched a surprise offensive against strategic checkpoints and strongholds of the State Administration Council (SAC) across the state. The operation was executed in collaboration with their powerful ethnic armed counterparts, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

Chinese involvement in crime operations 

The primary goal was to wrest back control of the Kokang region from the SAC. But the statement released by the MNDAA and its allies introduced an intriguing dimension: a commitment to liberate the region from the influence of criminal syndicates and cyberscams.

To compound the intrigue, it appears that the various groups involved in Myanmar’s civil conflict — the SAC and anti-junta groups such as the MNDAA and the United Wa Army — have the same goal: eradicating cybercrime to ingratiate themselves with China and mollify its concerns about such activity.

This bizarre turn of events underscores the notable surge in cybercrime, especially online gambling and scam-call operations originating from the casino cities of Northern Shan State and Kayin State. The scam-call epidemic has transcended Myanmar’s borders, exerting a profound impact on Southeast Asia and even China. These illicit activities generate billions of dollars in revenue, and have sparked concern in China due to the involvement of Chinese nationals in such operations.

...scam victims were held captive by criminal syndicates, and were coerced into perpetuating the same scam calls they themselves fell victim to.

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This handout photo taken and released 28 October 2023 by the Kokang Information Network shows members of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) walking past a Myanmar military base after seizing it during clashes near Laukkaing township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. (Handout/Kokang Information Network/AFP)

Following the passage of new gambling legislation in 2018, numerous casino cities emerged along Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand. The law sought to attract Chinese and Thai nationals to these cities. Subsequent to the 2021 coup, pro-military militias in these areas took advantage of post-coup instability and lawlessness. They often carried out their operations in collaboration with shadowy figures linked to Chinese criminal syndicates.

As a result, many young people in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia were enticed into the web of illegal gambling establishments and casinos run by Chinese triads and pro-military militias. Initially drawn by promises of employment opportunities or romance, scam victims were held captive by criminal syndicates, and were coerced into perpetuating the same scam calls they themselves fell victim to.

Chinese movie 'tarnishing Myanmar's image'

The recent Chinese box office hit No More Bets portrays the story of a Chinese programmer and model initially attracted by high-paying jobs. They are subsequently pressured into scamming and online gambling operations. The feature film’s narrative mirrors the experiences of scam call victims lured to casinos in Myanmar and held against their will by criminal gang members. No More Bets did not explicitly mention or depict any Southeast Asian nations. But in an apparent demonstration of guilt by admission, the SAC and Cambodia have protested against the film’s content.

Myanmar’s state-run paper, Global New Light of Myanmar, reported on 29 September that the Myanmar consul-general in Nanning, China, had raised the issue with the director of the Foreign Office of China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He had expressed Myanmar’s concerns about the movie’s potential impact on “tarnishing of Myanmar’s image”.

This suggests Beijing’s commitment to combating transnational crimes in the Mekong region at the expense of relationships with its neighbours.

It is worth noting that No More Bets is a film produced and released in China. Most films depicting Myanmar in a negative light originate from Western countries. Comparatively few originate from Myanmar’s neighbouring nations. China, in particular, is well known for its sensitivity to unfavourable portrayals in the media and has, in the past, openly protested against certain Hollywood movie scenes or even banned them within its borders.

Regardless of Myanmar and Cambodia’s objections, the Chinese government did not attempt to remove the screening of a movie featuring illegal activities within countries that China considers its “friends and partners”.  This suggests Beijing’s commitment to combating transnational crimes in the Mekong region at the expense of relationships with its neighbours. It also highlights the extent of the impact of these illicit activities on Chinese citizens.

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A screen shot of the official trailer for the movie No More Bets, which portrays online scam operations in Southeast Asia. (Internet)

China’s resolute commitment to combat transnational criminal networks sends a clear signal to all stakeholders in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war to address the issue of transnational crimes proactively. Despite the SAC’s criticism of the movie, the junta has collaborated with China to combat cybercrimes.

Vying to combat cybercrimes 

In September 2023, the SAC extradited thousands of Chinese nationals linked to these unlawful operations back to China. Despite enduring a series of military setbacks in the wake of the surprise offensive conducted by the MNDAA and its allies in October, the SAC persists in placing transnational crimes at the forefront of its negotiation agenda with their Chinese counterparts. This helps the diplomatically isolated junta to retain the support of China.

The SAC also wants to leverage China’s influence on ethnic armed groups, which is vital to prevent the Northern Shan state crisis from escalating. The SAC is also willing to violate Myanmar’s foreign policy by allowing Chinese special police forces to operate within the country in a desperate effort to maintain ties with China.

...warring factions in Myanmar’s civil war are now engaged in a race to eradicate cybercrimes, vying to garner favour from China.

The SAC is not alone in seeking to curry favour with China. The United Wa State Army, one of the largest ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, has repatriated thousands of offenders to China to maintain its close economic ties with the country. Similarly, the MNDAA’s expressed goal of seeking to free the Kokang region from the influence of criminal syndicates and cyber scams appears to be an attempt to secure China’s tacit approval for the new offensive.

Taken together, it appears that warring factions in Myanmar’s civil war are now engaged in a race to eradicate cybercrimes, vying to garner favour from China.

For China, the successful cross-border actions present a substantial public relations coup, enabling it to burnish its image as a champion of justice and security in the region — a narrative of immense potential that Beijing cannot afford to disregard. This may motivate all parties in Myanmar’s civil war to maintain their efforts against cybercrime. In an unexpected twist, cybercrime has become a unifying concern in Myanmar’s civil war.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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