YANGON (AFP) – Fighters from a Myanmar ethnic minority said on Tuesday they had surrounded a town controlled by pro-military militia near the China border where hundreds of foreigners are feared to be held working in online scam compounds.
Fighting has raged across Myanmar’s northern Shan state for more than two weeks after an alliance of groups launched a surprise offensive against the military.
One of those groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said its fighters had surrounded the town of Laukkai in Shan state, around three kilometres from the China border.
“We have surrounded Laukkai and soon will retake it,” the MNDAA said in a statement, without indicating when it would try to do so.
MNDAA spokesman Li Jiawen separately told AFP no date had yet been set as they wanted to ensure the safety of civilians in the town.
Myanmar’s current junta chief Min Aung Hlaing made a name for himself as a regional commander in 2009, prising the MNDAA from Laukkai. Run since by a pro-military militia, analysts said it is home to online scam centres where trafficked foreign citizens are forced to work scamming their compatriots online.
The scammers typically target their compatriots and groom them for weeks before cajoling them into ploughing money into fake investment platforms and other ruses.
Last week Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said 166 Vietnamese citizens had been rescued from Myanmar’s northern border areas, without specifying exactly where.
It said their repatriation was being hindered by ongoing fighting.
Thailand said this month that more than 160 of its citizens had been rescued from scam centres but were currently stranded in Laukkai as fighting rages in the remote region.
The United Nations’ human rights office said this year that at least 120,000 people could be being held in scam compounds in Shan state and elsewhere in Myanmar.
Myanmar junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Tuesday there had been fighting in northeastern Shan state, but did not give details. The offensive launched by the MNDAA, the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) on October 27 has seized a vital border hub with China and blocked trade routes to Myanmar’s biggest trading partner.
Analysts said it is the biggest military challenge to the junta since it seized power in a 2021 coup.