Dozens of Thais stranded in Myanmar after being allegedly trafficked there pleaded online Friday to be evacuated from the war-torn country amid reports that anti-junta forces were planning a major attack in Laukkaing town, near the Chinese border.
Relatives of the Thais have reached out to the Chinese government seeking its help in evacuating their loved ones. On Friday, the group submitted a letter to China’s embassy in Bangkok, through a local police officer, requesting that Beijing intervene.
In a video posted on Facebook Live by Ekarat Sukonthamas, a Thai man trapped in Laukkaing said he and his friends were living in a field hospital at a local school after they were rescued from a call center after being trafficked and recruited as part of a scam. They wanted to return to their Thai homes, the man said.
“Living in the midst of explosions and gunfire all day and night is really terrible. Some people are in a state of stress and pressure to the point where they can’t sleep,” said another Thai man who appeared in the Facebook post but also did not identify himself.
“We have been cut off from water and electricity. Now we have to buy our own drinking water,” he said, adding he and the others had received small portions of rice, including some that was not edible.
Post-coup Myanmar has disintegrated into bloodshed through various conflicts since the Burmese military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February 2021. Lately, it has become a regional hub for online scam operations and casinos that employ people trafficked from other countries in Southeast Asia, as BenarNews-affiliated Radio Free Asia (RFA) has reported.
A woman, who also did not identify herself, said in the Facebook video that the group had been alerted about a major battle that would take place sometime soon.
“We want to return before the 18th [Saturday]. We would like the government to help and appeal to the Chinese government as well,” the woman said.
BenarNews could not immediately verify the authenticity of the video.
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.
Hundreds of 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.
In Bangkok, a spokesperson for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said about 300 Thais remained in Laukkaing as of Friday. Of those, 254 were being kept safe by the Myanmar military while 40 to 50 were being held by their employers.
Meanwhile, a group of 41 Thais have been removed from the region and were being held in Myitkyina province where they were undergoing background checks. Myitkyina province borders Mae Sai district in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
The Thai government previously said the 41 were to be sent home on Thursday.
On Friday, Col. Nathee Timsen, commander of the Chaotak Unit of the Pa Muang Task Force and a member of the Thai-Myanmar Border Local Committee (TBC), said he met with Col. Thura Soe Win So, commander of the Tachileik Tactical Operation Command, to inquire about their return.
The Myanmar commander said he was waiting for approval from his superiors, expected in a day or two, to allow their release.
‘Not an easy situation’
In the Thai capital, eight relatives of Thais trapped in Laukkaing town traveled to the Chinese Embassy to submit a letter seeking assistance from the Chinese government.
“My niece is stuck there. She went there in June. After the first month, she contacted us and said that she was taken to Laukkaing, locked up and she wanted help,” Kanisorn Payomhom told BenarNews.
“Her sister went to report to different foundations, but we got no response. Some family members contacted the Thai consulate in Myanmar for help, but when the gang found out about it, some people were beaten up.”
Kanisorn said her niece was rescued earlier this month and was now in the care of the Myanmar government, which has not allowed her to leave the country.
“We think that the Chinese government can help because they are allies,” she said, adding family members were worried about a potential junta attack in that region.
Kanisorn’s group delivered the letter to police Col. Ekarat Malawanno, deputy superintendent of Huai Khwang Police Station, because the Chinese Embassy did not send a representative to receive it.
The group then went to Government House, the prime minister’s office in Bangkok, to submit a similar letter.
Kanchana Patarachoke, director-general of the Department of Information and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Thai government was making every effort to assist those stranded in Myanmar.
“We assure you that we are trying, but it is not an easy situation. We are also discussing the legal process of cases in Laukkaing,” Kanchana said. “We are trying to work with the person in charge of this matter instead of hiring a random person out of necessity.”
The Thai Embassy in Myanmar issued warnings to citizens in June and October to be wary of being lured to work in Myanmar through online job postings. It warned that while the postings promise good salaries, respondents could be sold to work in scam centers or forced into prostitution.
Malaysian efforts to extricate nationals
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Fadillah Yusof, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, asked the Chinese government on Thursday to assist in efforts to repatriate citizens who had fallen victim to similar scams and were trapped in Myanmar.
Fadillah, who was on a working visit to China, said Malaysian nationals had their passports taken away and were unable to leave. He said Chinese officials pledged to help.
Earlier this week, 16 Lao workers who had been released from a Chinese-run casino in Myanmar and had been the victims of human trafficking were able to return home, RFA reported. The 16 were held in a police station for two months before being released.
On Friday, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), an NGO of Southeast Asian lawmakers, called on the international community to “turn their attention to the plight of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees at the [Thailand-Myanmar] border.”
“We therefore reiterate our calls to ASEAN and the international community to take firm action against the illegal Myanmar junta, including by suspending any military or diplomatic cooperation, and to recognize the National Unity Government as the legitimate representatives of the Myanmar people,” Mercy Barends, chairwoman of the parliamentarians group, said in a statement.
“As long as the junta remains in power, the suffering of IDPs and refugees will only increase, leading to an unsafe Thai border as well as wider regional instability.”
Wilawan Watcharasakwej in Bangkok contributed to this report.