Home / Politics / News /  Trafficked: How a job scam lured Indian men to lawless Myanmar

NEW DELHI : A few thousand kilometres from home, on a boat meant to take him to his new workplace in Thailand, with two armed men in military uniform for company, T. Ramakrishna Raju Namburi’s uneasiness was slowly turning to anxiety. “We started getting a bit nervous as we were already too close to the border with Myanmar," he said.

On the phone, his recruiter was reassuring: Of course, they were headed to Thailand. The office was just across the Moei river in a rural area of Thailand – just as the job description had said.

Only a few weeks ago, Namburi, a 33-year-old computer science graduate from Hyderabad, and three of his friends had been recruited to work for HaoTai International Group, a company operating a “blockchain digital currency" in Thailand. Their recruiter was an Indian, who went by the name of Srinivas or Sree, and had reached out to Namburi on Telegram. The pay was good—$2,000 a month, food and accommodation included. And so, they made the journey from Hyderabad on 25 August—first to Bangkok, and then via a long car ride over 500-600 km to Mae Sot, a city by the Moei river.

But just as they crossed the river and docked on the other bank, a message popped up on Namburi’s phone: “Welcome to Myanmar".

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Namburi and his friends had been trafficked—to one of the most lawless regions of Myanmar, a country in the grip of conflict. They were not alone.

Sohail Khan (Siwan, Bihar) was also trafficked to Myanmar
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Sohail Khan (Siwan, Bihar) was also trafficked to Myanmar

Thousands of men and women from countries like China, Indonesia, Japan, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, Kenya, and South Africa have also reportedly been victims of similar hiring scams, making it a global trafficking problem of sorts. In the last three months or so, several Indian men were lured into Thailand for high-paying jobs but were trafficked to Myanmar upon arrival, according to various news reports. Some of the victims told Mint that there were hundreds of Indians. On 5 October, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson tweeted about the rescue of 13 Indians (from Tamil Nadu) who had been trapped in Myanmar; 32 Indians had been rescued earlier. Mint spoke with six victims and their affected families from Telangana, Odisha, Maharashtra and Bihar who shared similar experiences.

Trapped

After two hours of driving in an SUV, past large swathes of maize fields, Namburi and his friends finally reached the “campus". But there were no signs that they were at a workplace owned by HaoTai, which had ostensibly hired them. The entry and meal passes bore the name of KK International. Their phones were taken away and formatted. There appeared to be GPS jammers on the campus, as their phones did not show their location. As Namburi later found out, the campus was in Myawaddy, a district in Kayin (Karen) state, Myanmar.

While there are several enterprises with HaoTai in their names, Mint could not find HaoTai International Group on the company registry of Thailand and Myanmar, suggesting that it could be a fake front. Namburi said he had asked his recruiter why he could not find the firm’s website online. He was told that crypto companies, as a norm, preferred confidentiality.

On his first day of work, 28 August, Namburi was told that there was no vacancy in the IT department, and that he would have to settle for either an HR or sales job. He said he wanted to leave in that case, but his bosses, or abductors, demanded 2.5 lakh to release him. He had no option but to stay back. Namburi’s task was to recruit more people from job groups on Facebook or Telegram.

In the first week of his job, he hired a 22-year-old man from Odisha for a sales role. “But I didn’t know what went on in sales," Namburi claimed.

“It’s no sales, but full-on scamming," said Avinash Kumar, a 31-year-old commerce postgraduate from Bihar who was also hired for HaoTai and then made to work for a crypto company called Devil. A 30-year-old MBA graduate from Mumbai, who also worked at the same campus for Devil, had a similar story. The salespersons had to pose as women on Facebook or Instagram, and reach out to users from the US and Canada. “Once someone comments on your post, you start DMing him, with the conversation often involving sexual content. You then try to get him on WhatsApp, where you start talking about crypto investment plans. Once he looks ready to invest, the team leader takes over. A link to a fake crypto ‘exchange’ is sent, to invest in currencies like Bitcoin, Dogecoin and Ethereum. After the purchase is made, coins would show on his account, but he won’t be able to sell/trade them. You will then have to block the person from every platform," the Mumbai professional, who did not want to be named, said.

The sales staff were made to work 15 hours a day, with an hour’s break—at times more if they could not meet the day’s target.

“I was forced to work even when I was running a high fever," said the 30-year-old from Mumbai. “One night, they let me leave only when I almost fainted," he added. Victims said they were often threatened with physical torture such as being locked up in private prisons on the campus, or given electric shocks, etc.

Their phone access was limited: just 10 minutes every night. At first, many victims did not confide in their families as they wanted to earn on the job and pay for their release. Only when it became too much to bear did they reveal that they were being held captive.

China-linked militia economy

How is it possible to run such a huge racket from one place, with almost no consequences? Mint spoke with experts, activists and journalists of the Southeast Asia region to understand the complex political and economic factors behind it.

The buildings in Myawaddy, Myanmar, are part of a campus where Indians were forced to work, according to one of the victims who shared the photograph. Mint hasn’t been able to independently verify the authenticity of the photograph.
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The buildings in Myawaddy, Myanmar, are part of a campus where Indians were forced to work, according to one of the victims who shared the photograph. Mint hasn’t been able to independently verify the authenticity of the photograph.

“Since 2017, organized transnational criminal groups from China and Cambodia have developed zones along the Myanmar-Thailand border specifically to host illegal online gambling operations, and a full range of illicit activities. These criminals sought spaces with unclear sovereignty and control," said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director of United States Institute of Peace.

Myawaddy, being a conflict region, served the purpose. It was also out of the reach of Chinese authorities.

“The (casino) industry was pushed online in the pandemic, and some pivoted and diversified activities into fraud and scam centres," said Rebecca Miller, regional programme coordinator, human trafficking, at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Myawaddy is primarily under the control of Karen Border Guard Forces (K-BGF). Under its leader Saw Chit Thu, K-BGF split from an ethnic armed organization and was assimilated into the Myanmar Army in 2010. Since the coup in 2021, with the military junta at the helm, K-BGF has become more powerful.

Media and academic experts say K-BGF leaders have direct stakes in companies running illicit businesses in these zones; Thu is likely to be a major beneficiary too. Smaller ethnic armed groups in the region might also be involved in these Chinese-invested scam ventures.

The military junta does not appear to have much leverage over K-BGF on this count. “Myanmar army, since the coup, has doubled down its deployment to try to crack down on the democratic resistance in urban areas, and has zero bandwidth to deal with this issue happening near the border," said Tower. “I’ve heard of multiple complaints from governments whose nationals are trafficked being unanswered by the army junta and its state administrative council," he added. A Frontier Myanmar article argued that the army has little incentive to act against K-BGF because it has been supplying frontline soldiers as “cannon fodder" to the army in its battle against other armed ethnic groups.

Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher and journalist who has worked in Myanmar for 15 years, links the presence of illicit businesses to the perverse political economy in Myanmar. “Unable to deter armed political opposition, the army has for decades adopted a strategy of giving economic concessions to ethnic armed organizations, letting them run pockets connected to corrupt businesses," he said.

Another ambiguous bit of the puzzle is the inaction of the Chinese state. Even though millions of Chinese are adversely impacted by these gambling dens and tens of thousands are trafficked to Myanmar and Cambodia, the majority of the perpetrators are Chinese nationals. Broken Tooth is a prime example. “There seems to be limited interest by the Chinese government in going after the higher-level players," said Tower.

Diplomatic dead end

Despite the reports of some Indians being rescued with the help of Indian embassies in Myanmar and Thailand, many found no such support in trying to return. Namburi managed to return to Hyderabad on 6 October after spending 1.8 lakh and forfeiting his salary for September. He got his visa back on 3 October only after paying the ransom of 1.2 lakh. He was escorted by armed men until Mae Sot on 5 October, with one of his friends and two Mongolian nationals.

Now back in India, he is helping the 22-year-old man from Odisha he had hired. A ransom of 5-6 lakh is being demanded to release the 22-year-old, his sister told Mint over the phone.

Namburi has registered a grievance for this young man, and seven other people from Bihar and Tamil Nadu, on the ministry of external affairs’ MADAD portal. The current status of all these grievances is “under review", which has not changed in the last 15-20 days. Mint emailed the office of the MEA spokesperson and the Indian embassy in Yangon, asking about a timeline for rescue and what “under review" implied, but got no response.

Kumar and four other men from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh also had a disappointing experience with the portal. Their grievance status is still “under review", while four of them, including Kumar, returned to India on 26 October, after paying varying amounts to their abductors. The 30-year-old man from Mumbai, who left the campus with Kumar, has been detained in Mae Sot, Kumar told Mint.

M.A. Shakil from Hyderabad, whose brother-in-law was held captive but has been currently detained by Thai police in Bangkok, claimed that he is in touch with around 20 victims who are still stuck in Myawaddy.

Mint reached out to the Indian embassy in Yangon, but it did not reveal the estimated number of Indians still trapped in Myanmar. “Since the issue is still being worked on, it would not be possible for us to share operational details," it said, when asked about the steps it has taken to rescue Indians.

“Simply speaking, there is not anything that the Indian government can do, except work the backchannels with Myanmar military, and put pressure on local commanders of K-BGF," said Angshuman Choudhury, associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. The Indian government should also hold bilateral discussions at the highest levels with the Thai government to ensure that the cross-border trafficking network is stopped and the traffickers apprehended, he added.

Indian embassies in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia have issued online advisories and released a list of agents complicit in this racket. However, that alone may not be enough. “There are still agents in India who are hiring for Cambodia," said Raju Roy, a 33-year-old victim from Uttar Pradesh.

Ads are also active on the job portal Placement India, offering sales and Chinese language interpreter roles in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia at HaoTai (the one which cheated Namburi, Kumar and others), Huilong Technology and 9 Games International Corp. An email sent to Placement India went unanswered.

For the victims who made it back, other challenges remain. A number of them had taken loans to pay their recruiters. They also had to pay a ransom to return, setting them back by a few lakhs of rupees and pushing some into debt. They have no option but to move on, and look for jobs abroad. Kumar is in talks with a Dubai-based company for the job of a “storekeeper". Namburi is also looking for another job, and is open to working overseas. This time, though, he wants to be absolutely sure before he sets off on another long journey.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tauseef Shahidi

Tauseef Shahidi has been with Mint since September 2020. He writes both data-based stories and longform features across beats. As he could not make up his mind to pursue one discipline, he became a journalist to dabble in everything.
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