More than 250 Thai nationals trapped in northern Myanmar by fighting between the military junta and ethnic resistance groups were scheduled to return to Thailand yesterday after being evacuated via China, according to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
According to a Bangkok Post report, the ministry said that a group of around 260 Thais and an unspecified number of Filipinos and Singaporeans had been evacuated from Laukkai in northern Shan State to the Myanmar-China border with help from the Myanmar authorities. From there, they crossed the border with the consent of the Chinese authorities and traveled to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, where they were scheduled to depart for Bangkok on two chartered flights last night.
The announcement came a day after 41 Thai nationals returned from Shan State to Thailand via the Tachileik-Mae Sai border crossing, after being transported south to Kengtung, with the assistance of the Myanmar military and the United Wa State Army, which controls a large territory to the south of Laukkai.
Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of foreign citizens have been trapped in Laukkai by Operation 1027, the major resistance offensive that was launched late last month across northern Shan State.
Operation 1027, which was launched by an alliance of ethnic rebel groups and pro-democracy fighters on October 27, has made rapid progress, overrunning more than 150 junta outposts, cutting important highways to China, and capturing several towns, including two border crossings with China. The resulting fighting has also displaced tens of thousands of people across Shan State.
According to the Thai government, most of the Thai nationals who have been repatriated are victims of human trafficking, who have been forced to work the phones in the notorious online scam centers that are based in Laukkai, under the protection of its junta-friendly authorities.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tens of thousands of people have been trafficked by the criminal gangs that operate these centers, often lured by promises of legitimate work.
One of the apparent objectives of the offensive is the capture of Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ), which the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), one of the members of the Alliance, governed prior to 2009.
Since then, under the control of a Border Guard Force aligned with the Myanmar military, Laukkai has become notorious as a hub for casinos, online gambling operations, and scam businesses controlled by prominent Chinese crime families. Hundreds of foreigners are believed to be trapped in the town after being released from these centers, as the MNDAA’s forces close in.
Late last week, the MNDAA said that it had surrounded Laukkai and was on the verge of retaking the city, waiting only to ensure the safety of those civilians who have been unable to flee. One of the publicly declared goals of Operation 1027 is the closure of the scam centers in Laukkai, a goal that has seemingly turned to win the support of the Chinese government, which has tried in vain to push the Kokang authorities to crack down on crime within the zone.
The Thai Foreign Ministry stated that the evacuees would undergo screening for human trafficking and any criminal records, to ensure that no members of criminal syndicates slip through the net. Incidentally, three of the 41 Thai nationals repatriated on Saturday afternoon via the Tachileik-Mae Sai land border were subsequently found to have outstanding arrest warrants.