Accessibility links

Breaking News

Q&A: Peace Institute Official Discusses Rising Transnational Crime in Myanmar

Jason Tower, the U.S. Institute of Peace country director for Myanmar, speaks via Zoom with VOA on March 4, 2024.
Jason Tower, the U.S. Institute of Peace country director for Myanmar, speaks via Zoom with VOA on March 4, 2024.

In a recent interview with VOA via Zoom, Jason Tower, the U.S. Institute of Peace country director for Myanmar, discussed escalating transnational crime in that country, particularly following allegations of nuclear materials being traded from Myanmar.

Despite recent moves by China to end some of the cybercrime in border areas, Myanmar has become the world's most criminalized nation, according to the recent Global Index on Transnational Crime. Tower views the ruling junta in Naypyidaw as the key enabler of transnational crime and warns the problem cannot be resolved while it remains in power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: An alleged member of the Japanese yakuza [organized crime] is being prosecuted in the United States on charges of trying to trade nuclear materials for weapons for an ethnic armed group from Myanmar. Can you put this into the larger regional context of transnational crimes in Myanmar?

Jason Tower, U.S. Institute of Peace country director for Myanmar: If you go back to the period before the coup from 2016 to 2020, Myanmar was on a trajectory of dealing with a lot of issues around transnational crime and criminality in the country, and you were seeing some significant improvements in terms of efforts to deal with money laundering, and in terms of international cooperation to try to check the narcotics trade.

Now, after the coup, Myanmar has emerged as the most criminalized country in the world. A new report came out recently called the Global Index on Transnational Crime. It ranks Myanmar as number one in criminality in the world. All of the various factors that would keep the country resilient to crime have been systematically undermined by the Myanmar military since the coup.

First and foremost, the Myanmar police force has been mobilized to oppress and attack the Myanmar people, leaving no space to deal with issues around crime. Then, of course, the Myanmar military's ongoing assault on, really, every corner of the country, has led to a situation where everyone needs arms. Everyone needs to find means of protecting themselves to fight back against this military.

We’ve seen many new issues with arms flows, with ethnic armed organizations trying to obtain more sophisticated equipment so that they can protect themselves. This makes Myanmar a magnet for transnational criminal groups like the yakuza and Chinese triad groups increasingly coming in and building more influence in the country.

The broader context here is a pattern of growing levels of criminality — more dangerous sorts of criminal activities. Myanmar, for the first time in its history, is now a destination country for human trafficking, essentially modern slavery. Now, these new issues are emerging around involvement in nuclear materials.

VOA: Considering the statements made in U.S. court regarding the possession of nuclear raw materials by the RCSS, the Shan ethnic armed group, what potential impact could this have on regional dynamics, particularly in terms of security and geopolitical considerations?

Tower: If you look at the position of the RCSS following the coup, until very recently, you saw much more alignment between the RCSS and the Myanmar military. The RCSS has actively been trying to capture more and more territory in the northern part of Shan state. Then you saw, in the post-coup period, ongoing fighting between the two Shan armies, the Northern Shan and the Southern Shan, involving some of the other northern armed groups in Shan state, as well.

More recently, the RCSS has begun to pivot a bit, and we’ve started to see more of a move toward Shan unity — particularly as you've seen the Myanmar military get pushed out and be defeated on the battlefield in northern Myanmar. I think that was a signal to the RCSS that leaning on the military junta as a security umbrella was no longer a viable strategy. So, we saw it start to pivot a little bit more.

I think one challenge around this case, and these new revelations about RCSS involvement in criminal activity, is that it could affect efforts toward building more unity between the two Shan groups — particularly given that the SSPP, the northern Shan group, is under a lot of pressure regionally to deal with transnational crime. If the RCSS is increasingly involved in these different forms of transnational criminal activity and has relationships with major organized crime groups, that might pose challenges to efforts to work in that direction.

Then, of course, there's the issue of how the Myanmar people, especially the people of Shan state, are going to see all of this. The RCSS recently announced its own forced conscription in response to the military’s moves around forced conscription, and this is creating a lot of tensions at a societal level in Shan state. So, all of this is going to have implications for neighboring countries, including Thailand, Laos, and China. The extent to which these countries want to deal with these sorts of threats from transnational crime, they're going to have to look much more closely at the involvement of some of these different actors with these transnational crime groups.

VOA: In light of reports on Chinese cybercriminal gangs, how do these groups exert influence and dominance in Myanmar, and what are the implications for transnational crimes in the area?

Tower: We've seen some pretty significant moves to crack down on the scam centers, particularly on the China-Myanmar border. We finally did see the Myanmar military — under massive amounts of pressure — hand over some of the wanted Kokang border guards force leaders, such as Bai Suocheng, Liu Zhengmao and Liu Zhengxiang, to Chinese police. We’ve seen some ongoing efforts, now that the MNDAA [the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, a resistance group] has taken over its territory, to try to capture some additional criminals who might still be there, and to set free some individuals that are still held in slavery inside of some of those compounds.

There have been some further crackdowns on the China border, but the vast majority of the criminal groups had inside information about what was going to happen, so many of them left and moved to the Thai border where these problems are becoming larger and larger. A lot of them have moved to places like Cambodia and Laos now where, once again, this criminal activity has risen up in a very big way.

In Myanmar's case, the focus is on the Thai-Myanmar border as well as on the movements of criminal groups inland to places like Yangon and Mandalay — and even Naypyidaw [the military-built capital], where the Myanmar military can continue to provide protection to these groups. This crisis is far from over. There have been some moves on the China border, but it's led to the spillover of problems on other borders, because there hasn't been a global effort to try to combat what is very much a global issue.

VOA: What, in your opinion, are the current challenges in addressing transnational crime, particularly within the context of Myanmar and its neighboring countries?

Tower: The number one challenge is the Myanmar military, which is the enabler of all of this criminal activity, as well as the cause of the massive escalation of criminal activity and the influence of transnational crime.

What's very interesting is that you only really saw a crackdown on transnational crime and on criminal activity in Kokang on the China border when the MNDAA defeated the military and pushed it out. That's ultimately what led to the disruption of those 300 scam centers that were in the Kokang territories. That's ultimately what enables at least some of the Border Guard force leaders that were directly operating all of these large-scale scam centers. That's what led them to finally being handed over to law enforcement, and finally there being some accountability for that criminal activity.

It was only when the Myanmar military was removed from that territory could you finally start identifying solutions, and I think that that's really the key lesson learned here. You're not going to be able to address these issues as long as the Myanmar military continues to attempt to dominate the political space in the country.

It's terribly unfortunate, but you're seeing the Myanmar military increasingly on the Thai-Myanmar border area weaponize what's going on around transnational crime. To give an example of this, there's a recent case of a very large number, as many as 450 people from Uganda, that were trafficked into Myanmar. The exact number of individuals is unknown; some of them may have been trafficked elsewhere. This led to the Ugandan parliament raising some questions about this, and the Ugandan government trying to investigate it.

The Ugandan government, just like many other governments, go and try to get the Myanmar military to address the problems. Rather than doing anything constructive to address the problems, the Myanmar military instead deflects blame and points to the resistance or tries to even use this issue to its advantage in different ways to gain legitimacy. I think that that's terribly unfortunate, but that's ultimately what the obstacle is to dealing with these problems. The Myanmar military has no capacity, no desire to govern and is not going to be able to address any of these issues effectively.