The United States Institute of Peace, which has been tracking the explosion of human trafficking and proliferation of criminally run zones in Myanmar and across Southeast Asia, has called it a “growing threat to global security.”
It estimates that crime networks in Cambodia alone have drawn 50,000 to 100,000 people into slave-like conditions.
The institute believes that in Myanmar, the number could be two to three times higher, and pointed to the “particularly sinister” enclave called the KK Zone, located on the Moei River.
“By one account, as many as 10,000 people are enslaved there, tortured or, according to some accounts, threatened with having their organs harvested if they fail to generate adequate revenue from operating scams,” said USIP in a November report.
The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has long warned of the rise in criminal activity in the Mekong region and in the so-called “Golden Triangle” – the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.
Disrupting organised crime syndicates
Last year it estimated tens of thousands of people were trapped by scam gangs, but the UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas acknowledged the region “hasn’t really got a sense of the scale of the trafficking, except that it is obviously massive.”
“A regional response is fundamental,” he said. “Pressure applied in one country will see them [the syndicates] shift to another,” he said.
“The region really needs to disrupt organised crime syndicates and take away the conditions they use and look for to do business – if they don’t, not much will change.”
Last year, Stephan Wesley, 29, a graphic designer from Tamil Nadu, India, found himself trapped inside a large compound in Myanmar surrounded by electric fencing and guarded by armed henchmen, when he applied via social media for an attractive $1,100 a month job in Thailand.
The recruitment process was elaborate and persuasive, starting out with an interview in the Dubai Investment Park, before new recruits were flown to Bangkok and given a tourist visa but promised a one-year work permit. They were then driven to Mae Sot, a border town in northwest Thailand.
“We were made to wait outside a hotel and two Thai people came, armed with big guns. They took our luggage and made us get into a truck,” Mr Wesley told the Telegraph.
“They took us deep into the dark forest and local people came and took us to a river which I now know was the border with Myanmar. There were no fences or army personnel there.”