The last of a group of 15 Thai citizens who were duped into taking sketchy jobs in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone returned home Tuesday, RFA has learned.
Middlemen recruited the 15 Thais in December, promising them good jobs in the de-facto Chinese-controlled Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in return for 15,000 bhat (U.S.$450) each.
In January they took small boats across the Mekong River border between Thailand’s Chiang Rai province and Laos’ Bokeo province, arriving in Tonpeung district, home of the Golden Triangle SEZ.
Once there, they began working as online chatters, selling shares in companies within the SEZ to tourists. They immediately realized that the job was not what they had been promised.
Five of them were able to escape in late February by paying brokers to ferry them back to Thailand. Then in early March six more escaped the same way. The final four were rescued and departed Monday on flights to Bangkok.
One of the first to escape was a male resident of Chiang Rai province. He told Chiang Mai News that after the escapees arrived in Laos, they were picked up and quarantined in a building outside the SEZ.
“Then we were taken to the SEZ, quarantined there for 14 more days, then taken to the 9th floor of a blue building which is strictly well-guarded,” he said.
“On our first day of work, we were taken to a large room with a lot of tables, each of us was given a smart phone, a computer and connection to the internet. There were about 50 workers in the room. Most of them were Chinese and Lao, and there were the 15 of us.”
A woman who was among the group of five to escape first told a Thai reporter that their initial task was to create Facebook pages and Instagram accounts using fake names and photos.
“They said we were working as administrators of the website of the Kings Romans Casino. … Later we were told to disguise ourselves on the fake social media accounts, trying to convince others to invest or buy shares of the company,” she said.
“At this point, we said to our Chinese boss that we wanted to go home, but the boss said that we have to pay the company 100,000 Baht ($3,000),” she said.
The chatters were told they must work 12 hours each day but actually worked about 16 hours with two breaks, another female member of the first five escapees said to the same Thai reporter.
“After we worked for three days, we realized that we were not doing the work that we had actually agreed upon. We wanted to stop working on the fourth day, but our boss insisted that we continue, or else we would be sold into prostitution,” she said.
Living conditions were harsh, and the sales goals were nearly impossible to achieve, a second male escapee in the initial group of five said.
“We didn’t get paid at all. We stayed all together in a bedroom and received two meals a day. If we couldn’t reach the target, they would threaten to sell us to another company. Because we were new, we couldn’t do much,” he said.
“One of the workers who was there for a long time said she was able to convince a customer to transfer 10 million baht ($300,000). After a week, our boss asked us to sign a labor contract that stated that we’ll get paid 25,000 Baht ($750) per month and two months later, we’ll get 30,000 baht ($900) plus commission.”
It was then that they realized they had been tricked.
“In mid-February this year, we contacted the Chiang Rai Governor’s Office and the Thai Embassy in Laos who advised us not to sign the contracts, and to wait, as help was on the way,” he said.
Pasakorn Boonyalak, governor of Chiang Rai Province, sent a letter to the governor of Bokeo Province on Feb. 21, requesting the Lao authorities to help rescue the Thais trapped in the SEZ.
A day later, the first group of five decided to escape back to Chiang Rai Province, their home province.
“My four friends and I (3 male and 2 female) were able to escape thanks to a Lao woman who worked at the first quarantine center,” the second male escapee said.
“We asked this woman whether there were any ways that we could escape. She told us that there was a Lao man who can help us, but we would have to pay 30,500 Baht ($911) per person to escape and 14,000 Baht ($418) per person for a boat ride across the Mekong River. We called our families, and one family pawned their home for their son’s freedom,” he said.
The third male escapee, identified as Mr. C, said that he had been assigned to sell shares to European customers because of his English skills.
“I realized that this job was illegal and immoral, so I convinced four others to escape. We left the blue building at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 22, leaving behind all the belongings in our bedroom. We dressed in dark colors, then ran away from the security guards to the back of the blue building,” he said.
“We continued to walk for almost one hour. When we got to a village we were picked up by car. I don’t remember how long and how far it was, but we later got to the Mekong River where the Lao man was waiting with a small boat,” Mr. C said.
Once they arrived in Thailand, they were taken to a rubber plantation where a Thai man held them until he received electronic payment from and the Lao man. Once that was done, the Thai man dropped them off at a local market in Chiang Sen, Chiang Rai province.
“About a week after, I found out that six other Thais also escaped exactly the same way we did; one of the six paid up to 90,000 Baht ($3,000) for his part for the escape. Now, only four in our group are still trapped in the SEZ and all of them have been traded to another scamming gang. I’d like to ask the authorities to rescue them and many other Thai nationals in the SEZ as soon as possible,” Mr. C said.
A Lao official in Bokeo Province told RFA’s Lao Service Monday that authorities assisted the final four in returning home.
“After we received the request from the governor of Chiang Rai Province, we wrote a letter asking the Golden Triangle SEZ Management to look at every building if there were any Thai workers there,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The first group of escapees on Monday went to a police station in Chiang Rai to assist with the investigation. There they formally asked the Thai authorities to rescue the remaining four, as well as other Thais who may be trapped in the SEZ.
Police Lieut. Gen. Torsak Sukwimol, assistant to the Thai police commissioner, told reporters in late February that the case was similar to a previous human trafficking case.
“We believe that this case is no different. There might be many other groups of Thai workers on the Lao side,” he said.
Thai media reported Tuesday that the four remaining Thais flew back to Thailand that morning.
One of the four said their rescue happened suddenly.
“We were told to take our clothes and other belongings, then we were on a plane back to Thailand, without having to pay for it,” the rescued Thai citizen said.
One of the first group of escapees, under condition of anonymity, told RFA that there are many Thais still trapped in the SEZ.
“One of my Thai friends told me there were at least 90 Thais working in her company,” the escapee said.
The Golden Triangle SEZ is run by Zhao Wei, chairman of the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, with Zhao’s firm holding 80 percent interest and the Lao government holding 20 percent.
Located where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, the Golden Triangle area got its name five decades ago for its central role in heroin production and trafficking.
In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department declared Zhao Wei’s business network, centered on Kings Romans Casino, a “transnational criminal organization” and sanctioned Zhao and three other individuals and companies across Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong.
Zhao’s business “exploits this region by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans Casino located within the GT SEZ,” a Treasury statement said.
Laos, which has been under U.S. pressure for years to crack down on trafficking, last year remained at tier 2 in the annual State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, avoiding cuts to certain types of foreign aid that are imposed on tier 3 countries.
The 2021 report said Laos increased its overall efforts to combat trafficking, but fell short in victim identification and screening procedures, and failed to adequately investigate suspected perpetrators of sex trafficking.
RFA reported in December that many Lao women go into debt to work in the SEZ as “chat girls” in the same capacity as the 15 Thais. One source in that report said that sales quotas are set impossibly high so that the women will fail to meet them, and the companies can more easily sell them into the sex trade.
Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.