On a recent visit to Thailand, I was privy to heated debates on whether Shwe Kokko is actually a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Someone turned to me and asked me my opinion. I confessed that while I knew what the Belt and Road Initiative was, I had not heard of Shwe Kokko. The person looked shocked and asked: “Do you not know that Indians are being trafficked to Shwe Kokko? I again confessed that I did not.
On my return to India, I did some research and found a video made by the company involved in developing Shwe Kokko, the Yatai Group, which is the mother company of Myanmar-based Yatai International. The video is in Chinese with English sub-titles and from the video I learnt that Shwe Kokko Yatai Special Economic Zone is being built in Myanmar’s Kayin state on the banks of the River Moei (Thaung Yin) bordering Myanmar and Thailand.
The town is strategically placed being adjacent to Myanmar’s second-largest clearance port and Thailand’s International airport at Mae Sot. According to the video, Shwe Kokko will be a passageway that will connect the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The Trans Asian Railway will pass through the town coming from West Yunnan in China through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and will touch Malaysia to Singapore.
The video makes an explicit claim that Shwe Ko Ko was indeed a part of the Belt and Road Initiative; then what was the controversy really about?
Shwe Kokko seemed to be a part of the infrastructure development that is the core of the Belt and Road Initiative. Since it was first announced in 2013, China has given the Initiative its top priority, committing money not only into the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank but also the New Silk Road Fund and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as bilateral arrangements with countries.
These investments, loans, and grants will be dispersed to create a network of infrastructure – including roads and rail lines, energy pipelines, power stations, and coastal ports – that is envisioned to extend west to Europe via the Silk Road Economic Belt, and downwards into Southeast Asia via the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
The Thailand-based veteran journalist and a long-time Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner, in an article in Asia Times wrote in March 2019, “Sceptical observers, including regional intelligence analysts, say that it is hard to believe that such as massive project could be carried out under the aegis of a state-owned company without official connections in Beijing.”
He added: “If so, that means the project is of strategic importance to China as it creates another outpost in its envisioned Myanmar-China Economic Corridor, a vital part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to connect China with the rest of the region and beyond.”
China denied any connection with the Shwe Ko Ko project in a post put out by the Chinese Embassy in Yangon on August 26, 2020.
The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar stated that the Shwe Kokko New City in Myanmar’s Kayin state “is a third-country investment and has nothing to do with the Belt and Road Initiative”.
It turns out that the man behind the Shwe Ko Ko project is a fugitive Chinese businessman with a Cambodian passport and who has operated under several names, Tang Kriang Kai, also known as She Lunkai, She Zhijiang, or Dylan Jiang. He is a former citizen of People’s Republic of China who made his fortune in the online gambling business in the Philippines and later in Cambodia where he acquired Cambodian citizenship in 2017. Thereafter, She Zhijiang conducted a “spectacular public relations campaign” after his appearance in Shwe Kokko, fashioning himself as a successful and patriotic member of the overseas Chinese business community and his project as an important component of the Belt and Road Initiative, according to Plato Cheng in a report on March 31, 2021
The fugitive Chinese businessman was finally arrested by the Thai police in August and there are reports that he may have been extradited to China. However, the multi-billion dollar online gambling business continues, despite efforts by Chinese government to curb it and it did succeed in checking it in the Philippines and Cambodia.
According to China’s Ministry of Public Security, at least 1 trillion yuan ($145.5 billion) worth of funds flow out of China into gambling every year, aggravating the country’s economic and financial security risks. Jason Tower and Jennifer Staats of the United States Institute of Peace have published the definitive report on She’s operations in Myanmar. The authors noted that China has shown an increasing willingness to go after shady investors who claim the mantle of Xi’s headline foreign policy initiative.
The effort of the West to criticise China’s Belt and Road initiative is a part of its China bashing and an example of how human rights discourse is being weaponised. In the process, real human-rights victims become invisible in such debates. In this case, it is the hundreds of people trafficked to Shwe Ko Ko to run the online gambling business. Among those trafficked are Indians who are lured to Thailand by online offers of lucrative jobs. When they arrive in Thailand they are abducted to Myanmar to work in Shwe Kokko.
The Times of India carried a report in September that over 300 Indians have been forced to work for cybercriminal operations after being trafficked to Myawaddy in Karen State.
The Indians had been lured with false promises of legitimate jobs, and then taken captive by trafficking gangs and taken from Thailand to Myanmar where they are forced to work for cyber-scam operations for more than 16 hours a day.
One of the people who had been abducted described the camp in which they were held as enclosed with high boundary walls manned by armed guards and snipers overlooking their camp. The captives were tortured, deprived of food and lived in fear of being shot. The men had been turned into cyber criminals committing large-scale data fraud. At least one man escaped after his family paid a hefty ransom in cryptocurrency.
Weaponising of human rights discourse has led to lowering of human rights standards and made victims of human rights abuse more vulnerable to exploitation often leaving them without recourse to justice.
The Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayatra Kendra has said it will look into the matter. It would be a befitting way to observe the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 8 as India celebrates its migrants if the government could bring those trafficked to Shwe Kokko back home, so they can re-unite with their families.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.