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How cyberscams are drawing China into Myanmar’s civil war

The surprising connection among cybercrime, human trafficking, and a raging guerrilla war.

A photo illustration of a hand reaching out from a cell phone. Behind it are collaged elements including: a roulette wheel, a floral textile and armed men. Jared Bartman for Vox
Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

Last fall, a coalition of rebel groups known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched a rapid-fire offensive across Myanmar’s northern Shan state, quickly overrunning more than 100 military outposts and seizing several key towns along the country’s border with China.

This in itself was not unusual. Myanmar’s military government has faced insurgencies from ethnic and political militias for decades, and there’s been a major uptick in rebel activity since the 2021 coup, which brought the country’s current military junta to power, ending a short period of representative government. Over the past few months, the government has been rapidly losing ground to rebel forces in several regions of the country.

But what made “Operation 1027,” named after the date it began, so notable was the declared goals of the rebel groups that carried it out. In addition to their long-term aim of overthrowing the military government, one they share with a variety of other groups throughout the country, the Three Brotherhood Alliance also vowed to “eradicate telecom fraud, scam dens and their patrons nationwide, including in areas along the China-Myanmar border.”

This might sound more like a piece of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s platform than a goal for a rebel group fighting a civil war. But the statement was a testament to both the rapid rise in Southeast Asia of a novel form of criminal enterprise — abducting people across national borders and forcing them to carry out internet scams — and how this practice has drawn China’s government to become ever more enmeshed in the dizzyingly complex and increasingly bloody war in neighboring Myanmar.

The explosion of such scam centers is a reminder that even crimes carried out in the virtual world need physical infrastructure in the real world. And just like more established criminal enterprises that range from drugs to conflict minerals, the perpetrators of cyberscams have taken root in a zone of armed conflict and disputed political control — a reminder that a world that is less secure is also one where such crime can flourish.

The “pig butchering” cyberscam, explained

If you’re reading this, you’re a person with access to the internet, which means that chances are, you’ve already been targeted by one of these scams. Here’s how it works: You get a conversational text or a message on a service like WhatsApp that appears to be a wrong number. The seemingly innocent texts may lead to a conversation that could involve the promise of an exciting love affair or a valuable business opportunity. But these messages are, in fact, written by people forced into service thousands of miles away, and they are actually the first step in a scam that can end with the victim wiring large amounts of money into the scammers’ accounts.

The practice is known as “pig butchering” — as in, the victims are gradually “fattened up” for the slaughter — and it’s a booming industry. In 2022 alone, Americans lost more than $2.6 billion to such pig butchering scams, according to the FBI.

Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, are this illicit industry’s ground zero. The scam centers evolved out of a lucrative casino business along these countries’ borders with China and Thailand, which once catered to junkets of Chinese high-rollers. Many of these casinos operate in “special economic zones,” where lax regulation and tax incentives are meant to attract international investment, but which in practice often become the bases of organized crime. The Southeast Asian gambling business was helped along by the Chinese government’s crackdown on the casino industry in Macau, long considered the Las Vegas of Asia.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a major blow to the casino business, putting an end to lucrative Chinese gambling junkets as Beijing shut the country’s borders. This led organized crime groups to search for new sources of revenue. With people around the world spending far more time online during the pandemic and cryptocurrencies exploding in popularity, cyberscams were an obvious choice.

But finding people to operate the scam centers required another scam altogether. Criminal groups began luring young, tech-savvy workers from around the world with the promise of tech jobs, then holding those workers against their will in tightly controlled compounds. “People really believe that they’re applying for legitimate jobs. The companies seem legitimate, they often go through a process of multiple interviews,” said Rebecca Miller, regional program director for human trafficking at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok.

This practice — while still awful — is somewhat different from the normal image of human trafficking. “It’s a white-collar crime,” Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Vox. “You need an office block with reliable electricity, a good internet connection, and your workers, even if they’re enslaved, have to be kind of fairly well-educated, technically literate people.”

As a recent UNODC report describes, during the pandemic, “organized crime groups managed to quickly turn casino complexes into large-scale online scam and fraud compounds. Dormitory style bedrooms were constructed in the complexes; scammer training manuals were created; enforcers were hired to control trafficking victims; and the mass recruitment of trafficking victims began.”

Once taken to the scam compounds, victims are often told they have to work off a debt before they can be released. There are frequent reports of beatings and electrocution for those who disobey. According to accounts collected in the report, women are often threatened with sexual violence or being sold into prostitution and some victims have even been threatened with having their organs removed and sold.

There are also a significant number of people working in these compounds willingly, but victims interviewed by the UNODC say the scam operators prefer trafficked workers, who are easier to control. The upshot is that “pig butchering” is a crime with two sets of victims: the scammed and the scammers themselves.

Initially, many of the trafficking victims came from countries like India, Malaysia, and Thailand. This changed once China loosened Covid restrictions at the end of 2022.

“Once the borders opened, young Chinese started streaming across the border to man the scams,” said Priscilla Clapp, a former charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Myanmar now at the US Institute of Peace. Chinese workers were targeted for their language skills — they were better able to scam their countrymen in Mandarin — and poor economic conditions in China coming out of the pandemic made them easier to recruit.

“There’s been a real employment problem for young people in China,” said Clapp. “Well-educated college graduates can’t find work, so they’re the ones who are responding [to the fraudulent ads].”

While total numbers are difficult to come by, the UN has estimated there may be as many as 100,000 people held in scam centers in Cambodia and 120,000 in Myanmar, making it one of the largest coordinated trafficking operations in history.

“I’ve worked in this space for over 20 years and to be honest, we’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing now in Southeast Asia in terms of the sheer numbers of people,” the UNODC’s Miller told Vox.

How Myanmar became a cyberscam hotspot

While several countries host scam centers, the UN says Myanmar has become an increasingly popular location, thanks to the political chaos in the war-torn country. Many of the scam centers are located in areas along the country’s borders that are not under the direct control of the government, but have been essentially farmed out to Border Guard Forces (BGFs), which rule on the military’s behalf.

The BGFs are often led by former members of the very ethnic rebel groups fighting the government, and many have alleged links to transnational crime. “On paper, these Border Guard Forces are part of the chain of command of the military, and they have some Myanmar military officers sort of seconded to them,” said Crisis Group’s Horsey. “But in practice, they’re a lot more independent than that and they make an awful lot of money.”

Areas of ambiguous and overlapping authority like these are perfect for black-market enterprises. According to the UNODC’s report, the criminal groups in these regions often use the same smuggling routes for human trafficking that they use for drugs and illegally traded wildlife. They also make it all the more difficult for victims to get out, since there’s no government in these regions for authorities to negotiate with.

Horsey says that while the military regime is not formally deriving revenues from the scams, “there’s plenty of money going into people’s back pockets and being distributed around patronage networks. There are lots of ways that everyone is being kept happy.”

With Myanmar’s economy under heavy international sanctions since the coup, illegal activities like cyberscams have only grown.

“Until the situation returns to stability, the scam centers will continue to grow, because the economy needs money,” said Amara Thiha, a conflict researcher in Myanmar with Peace Research Institute Oslo.

China steps in

China has often turned a blind eye to the growing gambling centers on its borders, some of which even pitched themselves as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global program of Chinese infrastructure investments. China — which is Myanmar’s largest trading partner — also has longstanding political ties and economic interests in Myanmar. It did not join Western countries in sanctioning the junta after the 2021 coup, which Beijing euphemistically described as a “major cabinet reshuffle” and has continued selling the government weapons. “China’s main goal is just to have a stable Myanmar state,” said Thiha.

But as the war rages, the junta has been increasingly unable to provide that stability. Beijing is clearly losing patience with the chaos on its borders and in particular with the scam centers targeting Chinese citizens as both scam victims and trafficking victims. It has repeatedly urged the Myanmar government to do more to crack down on the centers, albeit with little result.

So last September China began cracking down on its own, issuing arrest warrants for government-linked militia officials in Myanmar’s northeastern Wa state, on the Chinese border, accusing them of being “kingpins” in the scams. That prompted a crackdown that resulted in thousands of people being returned to China from scam compounds in the state. The government also arrested 11 officials with ties to pro-government militias in Kokang state after luring them across the border to a folk festival in early October.

China also launched a PR campaign last fall with what appeared to be the coordinated release of several hit movies about the dangers of southeast Asian scam centers. The most popular of these, No More Bets, tells the story of a computer programmer and model who are lured abroad by a job offer and forced into scamming through imprisonment and torture. The film, which made $500 million at the Chinese box office, does not name the Southeast Asian country where it takes place, but its release prompted diplomatic protests from both Cambodia and Myanmar, suggesting both thought it could plausibly be about them.

The situation further deteriorated on October 20 with a reported massacre at a scam center in Shan state. While details are still scant, local media and an independent expert quoted by Voice of America suggest 60 to 100 people, many of them Chinese, may have been killed by the local Border Guard Force in an escape attempt.

A week later, the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched its campaign to eradicate the scam centers. China’s exact role in the rebel group’s Operation 1027 is a bit murky. One of the main groups in the alliance, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, is composed of ethnic Chinese fighters in Myanmar and reportedly has links to Chinese security services. While it’s unlikely they were acting as direct proxies, Scot Marciel, a former US ambassador to Myanmar, told Reuters “the Chinese weren’t troubled that they did it.” At the very least, the alliance’s outspoken anti-scam message was a clear bid for Chinese support.

Initially pro-junta media outlets accused China of backing the rebels and the regime-backed nationals held protests at the Chinese embassy in Yangon. But, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing also belatedly agreed to Chinese demands for a specific timeline for cracking down on the scam centers.

All this has led to suggestions that China is now playing both sides in Myanmar’s civil war — or at least hedging its bets.

The scams are just starting

Operation 1027 was certainly a blow to the scam centers in Shan state. Three weeks after the operation began, some 7,000 people have escaped to China. But USIP’s Clapp is skeptical it will deal a long-term blow to this illicit industry.

“The people running them have moved south and they’ve set up new compounds in Karen state along the Thai border,” she said. “They’ve probably also moved into Cambodia and Laos, because they already had a foothold in those places.”

The practices of the scammers seem set to change as well. Scammers may increasingly rely on artificial intelligence tools and translation tools to communicate with victims. The UNODC warns this doesn’t necessarily mean trafficked workers won’t still be used, just that their profile may change, with IT skills taking precedence over language skills. According to the agency’s report, while most identified trafficking victims in the early days came from Southeast and East Asian countries, recently more victims have been identified from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, suggesting a widening scope of targets.

UNODC’s Miller says the complexity of the crime makes it a particularly vexing problem for law enforcement. “We’re really talking about a form of transnational crime that involves fraud, cybercrime, human trafficking, money laundering, corruption,” she said. “If we don’t address all of these facets, the criminal groups are just going to continue to flourish.”

The conflict in Myanmar also shows no sign of abating, and continues to be a problem for China. During the first week of January, stray shells from fighting in Shan state fell across the border in neighboring Yunnan province, causing several injuries and prompting official protests from Beijing. China mediated a ceasefire between the military government and the Three Brotherhood Alliance in mid-January.

In some ways, this is an old story. Ungoverned spaces and isolated, heavily sanctioned regimes are always fertile ground for illegal activity, from North Korea’s counterfeiting to the Syrian regime’s links to the illegal drug trade. And from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Colombia’s FARC to Congo’s M23, there can often be a thin line separating politically motivated rebels from profit-motivated criminal syndicates.

Myanmar’s recent experience suggests that as crime moves online, its links to real-world armed conflict aren’t going anywhere.

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