The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos is a haven for criminal activities including prostitution, scamming and drug trafficking, but Lao authorities are essentially powerless to stop it, workers in the zone and police told Radio Free Asia.
The zone is a gambling and tourism hub catering to Chinese citizens situated in Bokeo province along the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. It has been described as a de-facto Chinese colony.
Due to the special nature of the zone, Lao authorities have limited access to it, and they require permission from officials at the Chinese-run Kings Romans Casino, the zone’s crown jewel, which is owned by the Hong Kong-based Dok Ngiew Kham Group. The group holds an 80 percent interest in the 3,000 hectare (11.6 square mile) zone, while the Lao government has a 20 percent stake in it.
“Suppose workers have a problem in the zone,” one such worker told RFA’s Lao Service. “They have to call authorities from the zone only, and Bokeo police cannot help them because they aren’t in control.”
A Bokeo police official confirmed that Lao and foreign workers employed in the zone who need help must contact authorities within the zone, as it is effectively under their control only.
“Normally there are special economic zone units, and they are the ones who solve problems on the inside. If there are serious cases, they report to higher level authorities inside the zone,” the police official said.
“Transnational criminal organization”
The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, was established in 2007 and is run by the Dok Ngiew Group and its Chinese Chairman Zhao Wei. SEZs are business areas that are exempt from most national-level economic regulations, and often receive tax breaks and are governed by different labor laws.
In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department declared Zhao Wei’s business network 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 [Golden Triangle] SEZ,” a Treasury statement said.
The Golden Triangle area got its name five decades ago for its central role in heroin production and trafficking in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, and the SEZ and the surrounding area is still rife with drug-related crimes, Chanphonephet Khamsy, the deputy police chief of Bokeo Province told RFA.
In the past 12 months, Bokeo province police arrested 393 drug smugglers, seized 23 million meth pills, 866 kilograms of crystal ice, and 60 kilograms of heroin, Chanphonephet Khamsy said. In the previous 12-month period, police seized 49 million meth tablets.
“More and more drugs are being trafficked in the region; it’s very challenging for us,” said a Bokeo police officer on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
He said smugglers move their drugs into and out of the area in large trucks and in increasingly larger amounts.
“They smuggle the drugs from [Myanmar] into [Bokeo] and then to the capital Vientiane,” the officer said, adding that there are so many routes, including through thick jungles that are not easily accessible to authorities.
A member of the Bokeo anti-narcotics unit confirmed on condition of anonymity that the drugs come mostly from Myanmar, from armed ethnic groups that fight the country’s military junta. Laos is a more attractive route than Thailand, because recently Thai authorities have been cracking down harder on drug trafficking, he said.
A Bokeo resident said the Golden Triangle SEZ was one of the main destinations for the drugs because Lao authorities do not have access to it.
Last week, Lao, Thai and Myanmar law enforcement officials met in the northern Lao town of Luang Prabang to discuss anti-narcotics cooperation. Thai officials confirmed to RFA that the meeting was limited to tackling the drug problem, but said Thai authorities also offer their cooperation in human trafficking cases.
Recently, companies inside the zone have lured workers from Laos, China, and other countries using a bait-and-switch scam in which they promise well-paying call center jobs.
But once the workers arrive in the zone they rack up debt to their employers for their travel expenses and training, and their bosses set impossibly high sales quotas designed to make the workers fail, according to several RFA reports.
Some workers caught in the scam have escaped but at great personal risk, and often without help from any authorities.
Another Lao worker inside the zone told RFA that even though foreign governments are privy to the scam and do what they can to help their citizens in the zone, the problem still persists.
“There are still call centers and they’ll never eradicate them all. There are many companies that recruit Lao, Thai and other foreign workers,” the individual said. “They recruit everyone. There are Indians, Malaysians and others.”
A third Lao worker in the zone said that the call center scam involves cheating investors but the Lao police can do nothing to crack down on them. “The police cannot fine or arrest them because outside authorities cannot enter the zone,” the worker said. “So they can’t investigate anything.”
Residents living near the zone said they wanted authorities to more effectively deal with rampant crime inside it, but they doubt it is a high priority for Laos and its neighbors.
“Many Laotians want the government to crack down on all the crime … but they have been ignoring it for years,” a resident living near the zone said.
On Oct. 1, Zhao, the Chinese chairman, received a medal of courage from the Lao government, saying it recognized his contributions to national defense and public security within the zone.
The surrounding governments just “talk and talk,” said another resident. “If they really wanted to crack down on crimes, why would the Lao government award a medal of courage to Zhao Wei … and praise him publicly?”
“The whole world knows [Laos] won’t crack down on him.”
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