Myanmar’s Kokang Rebels and the Fall of Laukkaing

Myanmar’s pro-democracy ethnic armed organisation (EAO) has successfully pushed out the Junta forces from the entire Kokang region in the Shan State, bordering China’s Yunnan Province. The EAO’s main goal was to take control of Laukkaing, the principal township of Kokang. Since October 27, Myanmar’s Brotherhood Alliance has been fighting against the military, particularly in snatching away strategic areas along its border with China and India. The EOA in the Shan State has been grabbing key trading towns with China, with Myanmar’s longest border along the Shan State.

The fall of Kokang, particularly Laukkaing, is not just due to China’s anger at the Junta guns injuring its nationals in Yunnan. The Chinese establishment’s readiness to back the EAO in the Shan State rather than the Junta to take control of Kokang is because Laukkaing had become a seedy town, which the Asian giant would prefer not to have on its southern border. Over the years, Laukkaing has proved to be a curse for many people from China and other South and East Asian nations.

The China-backed fall of Laukkaing may also bring home hundreds of Indians trapped in that township. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Kokang-based militia, took control of Laukkaing from the Junta forces on January 4. The other two EAOs are the Arakan Army in the Rakhine State and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in the northern part of the Shan State. This recent attempt by MNDAA to take over Laukkaing was its second since 2015.

Peng Jiasheng, also known as the ‘king’ of Kokang, was a Chinese-born leader who passed away in February 2022. He was a prominent figure in the 1980s as a leader of the Burmese Communist Party before breaking out to build his own militia, the MNDAA. Peng was remembered as the prime peddler of opium in Kokang, where residents made a living by growing poppy.

Peng’s death dealt a significant blow to the MNDAA, with his loyalists organizing a lavish funeral in Mong La, where he had passed away. The funeral attracted high-ranking military officials from various Myanmar military forces, Chinese government representatives, and the top commander of the Kengtung-based Golden Triangle Command.

Peng is particularly remembered in Kokang for making Laukkaing a major gambling hub. He transformed Laukkaing from a poor, dusty settlement along China’s Yunnan Province into a major gambling destination, attracting gamblers from other Asian countries. Peng’s militia also spread its tentacles to other lucrative businesses across East Asian nations like Laos, Cambodia, and illegal mining.

However, around 2009, Peng fell into trouble when he had to temporarily flee to China after falling out with Myanmar’s Junta for refusing to support pro-democracy forces, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing ordered raids at Peng’s house in a drug trafficking case, and Bia Suocheng succeeded in snatching away Peng’s multi-crore casino business. Despite this, many MNDAA leaders continued their support for an ageing Peng. Under Bia, Laukkaing became notorious for money laundering and human trafficking, not just from China but from several Asian nations, including India.

China supported the MNDAA in seizing Laukkaing, a gambling hub in Myanmar, due to the warlords controlling the area’s online scam centers. Over time, these warlords expanded their operations to include internet fraud, attracting hundreds of IT professionals who were illegally detained and forced to work at casinos and carry out online frauds worldwide. Those who resisted were subjected to beatings, torture, and even death if seen fleeing.

China had previously put diplomatic pressure on Myanmar’s Junta to clamp down on criminal elements, but its deep links with the warlords at Laukkaing prevented drastic action. As a result, China’s dominion over the gambling hub and the lawless region is now assured.

Several top family members of Laukkaing’s top scamsters and casino owners have been handed over to Chinese authorities by the local administration. One warlord of Chinese descent is said to have committed suicide. The Laukkaing scamsters have also been conning people from other Asian nations, as reported by the United Nations Human Rights Office in August 2023.

The UK has also sanctioned 14 individuals and entities connected to Southeast Asia’s expanding online scamming industry, including Myanmar. In November, dozens of Thai nationals trapped in Laukkaing pleaded online to be saved from their masters’ clutches, and their families approached the Chinese embassy in Bangkok to come to their rescue.

166 Vietnamese nationals were rescued from casinos in Myanmar, while Sri Lanka is working to free dozens of its nationals held in the Shan State. Indians have been lured into Myanmar to commit similar online crimes under detention. Between February and March 2023, 21 Indian nationals were rescued, and in October 2022, 130 were brought back home. In July 2023, Union minister V. Muraleedharan reported 414 Indians being illegally held by internet scamming firms in Myanmar.

Around 50% of the cybercrime complaints the Union government’s helpline receives everyday originate from China, pockets of Cambodia, and Myanmar. With Laukkaing’s fall, there is hope for the remaining Indian nationals trapped there and for a change in the number of internet frauds committed worldwide.

ChinaKokang RebelsLaukkaingMyanmarMyanmar Kokang RebelsMyanmar's Kokang Rebels and the Fall of LaukkaingSouth AsiaSoutheast AsiaYunnan Province