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In Thai villages, Chinese gangs recruit desperate for phone scams | Business and Economy News



Bangkok, Thailand – The brokers arrived with promises of high-paying online sales jobs in Poipet, a Cambodian border town just an hour’s drive from Teerapat and Dao’s home in eastern Thailand.

After more than two years of pandemic-induced poverty, Teerapat and Dao were willing to take virtually any work away from their remote, rural village.

But by the next day, the couple began to realise they had made a terrible mistake.

After being driven deep across the border to the crime-ridden Cambodian beach town of Sihanoukville, Teerapat and Dao allege that they were ordered to stay inside a guarded 12-storey compound where Chinese “bosses” laid out their instructions via an interpreter.

Their “job” quickly revealed itself as a scam, according to interviews with the pair and corroborating police information.

Instead of online sales, Teerapat and Dao say they were directed to make unsolicited phone calls posing as customs officers, policemen or potential investors looking to secure a bank transfer.

The couple allege they were each expected to scam at least 500,000 baht ($15,000) every month along with dozens of others at the compound, all the while facing the threat of being sold to another gang if they failed to make the numbers.

“I normally don’t trust people easily,” Teerapat told Al Jazeera, speaking under an alias for fear of reprisals.

“But we were both desperate for money so when the broker said we could make up to $2,000 a month – with everything paid for, transport and room and board – we were convinced.”

“Had I known that my job was to scam other Thais, I would have never gone,” Teerapat added.

Thai police say there could be more than 1500 Thais trapped in Sihanoukville, held against their will by the scam gangs.

Two dozen of them were rescued on Sunday from a 10-storey townhouse sealed behind razor wire and covered by security cameras, according to Thai authorities, following a long negotiation between Thai police who travelled to Cambodia and a group of Chinese men.

Thai police with alleged victims of Chinese scam gang
Thai police say they have recused 700 Thai nationals from criminal gangs in Cambodia [Courtesy of the Royal Thai Police ]

“With our Cambodian counterparts we have managed to rescue 700 Thais in total so far,” Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn, a senior Thai police officer, said in a statement. “We’ve issued human trafficking warrants for international organised gangs as well as prosecuted brokers who smuggled Thais through illegal border crossings into Cambodia.”

Media reports from across Southeast Asia allege hundreds of Malaysians, Filipinos and Indonesians have also been lured to Cambodia by organised crime groups based in and around Sihanoukville, a city notorious for its lawless reputation, casinos and Chinese criminal gangs.

In Thailand, it is normal for brokers to travel between poor villages offering locals jobs, especially once the harvest is over and underemployment is rife.

Many farmers seek their fortunes in better-paying jobs, sometimes overseas. But others end up working on fishing boats and factories operated by criminal syndicates that pay little – or even nothing at all.

Phone scam gangs are relative newcomers to the game.

“Most of the kingpins are in China but they employ people all the way down the line in neighbouring countries,” Police Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Police, told Al Jazeera.

About 700 Thais have been repatriated so far from Cambodia, a majority of whom were forced into debt bondage with price tags of several thousand dollars on their freedom, according to the police.

“When the Thai recruits learn that their job is to scam their fellow Thais, they don’t want to do it any more,” Krissana said. “But they can’t leave so they have to keep working for the gang.”

Authorities say the fraud has been carried out on an industrial scale, scamming Thais out of millions of dollars since the pandemic began.

Teerapat and Dao say they escaped after 10 days. After Dao tested positive for COVID-19, her rattled captors allowed Teerapat to ring around his village to borrow the $3,000 “fee” for their release to seek medical help outside the compound.

“Everyone wants to leave,” Dao said. “But most can’t find enough money to pay off their bondage.”

“My dad had to borrow money to get us back, now we’re all in a lot of debt and we’re still unemployed.”

Fateful phone call

Mon, 37, can remember the exact date and time it was – 11am, January 24 – when she picked up the phone call that would ruin her life.

The man on the line said he was calling from the headquarters of Thailand Post and had received a complaint from police in Bang Lamung, Chonburi, that a suspected money launderer had been caught with five ATM cards, three bank account passbooks and nine passports in her name. He told a panicked Mon the call would be transferred to the police station handling the case.

Another man who identified himself as a superintendent at Bang Lamung station – whose name Mon confirmed with an internet search – then told her it was standard procedure to make a transfer into a police account to prove she was not linked to the money launderer. The money would be returned a few hours later, she was told.

“So I  transferred all of my money … around 200,000 baht,” Mon told Al Jazeera.

The money was never returned. Mon was just one of the seven people in Phuket who had been scammed that week, one of whom transferred 400,000 baht (nearly $12,000).

“I won’t get my money back but I want these scammers to face justice,” Mon said. “I take care of my parents and child. I’ve got bills, car payments every month … now I have to take out loans and do extra work.”

At about the same time that Mon was targeted, Teerapat and Dao were being recruited as participants in a scam network in Sihanoukville some 1,500km (932 miles) away.

Teerapat and Dao say they never learned the names of their two Chinese bosses, or the Chinese interpreters who issued their instructions in Thai and eavesdropped on phone calls to make sure they stuck to the script.

Chinese gangs compound Cambodia
Teerapat and Dao say the scam call centre they were forced to work at employed some 120 people [Courtesy of Sai Mai Will Survive Facebook group]

The couple say the call centre was split into three “lines” totalling 120 people. The first group was tasked with digging through the internet for contacts to call, collecting Thai ID numbers, bank balances, addresses, and account details to put together a convincing scam.

The second line – theirs – was in charge of posing as customs officers or postal workers to make the first call and set the bait for the scam. The third group were the “closers” who would impersonate police officers to persuade the victims into transferring the money.

“The company makes around 10 million baht ($300,000) a day,” Teerapat said.

“They scam thousands of Thais each day and these guys own four different branches of this call centre in Cambodia,” Dao said.

Police officials say many victims never come forward, while the proceeds of the scams are well hidden, including through the use of cryptocurrencies.

As soon as a scam is exhausted, gangs will invent another one to take its place, said Kridsana, the police spokesman.

“These scam gangs are like mushrooms … new heads keep popping up with different colours and shades,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities pay little attention to crimes committed far from their shores that do not target their nationals, Krissana added.

In debt and out of work but back home, Dao is grateful she and her husband made it back to Thailand at the start of February.

“But I still have dreams about sitting in that room, the phone keeps ringing,” she said.

For Mon, the biggest cost has been the persistent anxiety and damaged self-esteem.

“People ask ‘why would you believe them?’” she said. “I tell them you can never understand until it happens to you.”

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‘Shattering the palace’: Young women take up Thailand reform call | Protests News



Bangkok, Thailand – Tawan Tuatulanon glanced out of her vehicle’s rear window and noticed that state security forces were following dangerously close. She began recording a Facebook live video on her phone as she and her fellow monarchy reform activists discussed how they might evade the threat.

“The police are following us again,” 20-year-old Tawan told her live audience on Facebook last month. “This is not okay,” she murmured as the vehicle raced down a highway in the capital Bangkok.

Minutes earlier, the team of activists had been involved in a small scuffle at a protest where demonstrators were openly criticising the royal family near a royal motorcade. Three underage demonstrators were arrested, including a 13-year-old. During the attempted arrest, Tawan was hit in the eye by police and bruised her wrist and arm as she tried to protect the protesting children.

Already accustomed to the almost constant surveillance from intelligence officers, plainclothes police were now in pursuit of her team. The group pulled off the expressway and drove into a residential area. They then decided to get out of their vehicle and confront the apparent undercover officers.

“Why are you following us? Why don’t you come out and talk to us face to face?” Tawan barked at the police who hid inside their large black truck, and as a crowd of onlookers gathered. Eventually, the officers left.

Days after the incident on April 19, Tawan was arrested for allegedly violating her bail conditions in an ongoing royal defamation case related to a public poll she organised in February that questioned the Thai monarchy. Criticising the king, or ‘lese-majeste‘, is an offence punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Royal defamation under the Thai criminal code is referred to as Section 112, or as the public calls it simply “112.”

Changing tactics

Tawan is part of the underground anti-monarchy group, Thaluwang, a name that translates to ‘Shattering the Palace’.

It is made up mostly of young people in their 20s, using performance art, provocative stunts and other unusual tactics to question the king’s immense hold on power, actions that were taboo until only a couple of years ago.

A portrait of Maynu with pink hair and wearing a black face mask
Maynu wanted to be a game developer but joined  Thaluwang because she thinks Thailand needs to be reformed to give young people the opportunities they crave [Maynu via Facebook]

Also in the group is 18-year-old Supitcha ‘Maynu’ Chailom.

Maynu caught the country’s attention when she was photographed raising the three-finger salute in front of hundreds of university students in a symbol of defiance taken from the Hunger Games movie that has since come to define opposition to authoritarian regimes across Southeast Asia.

Now one of the prominent faces of a movement that wants to modernise the country, it was the group’s focus on intersectionality and gender equality that initially appealed to her.

“Thaluwang also supports gender equality and women’s rights, so this is one reason why I became involved in the organisation,” Maynu told Al Jazeera. Before joining the anti-government movement, Maynu had dreams of becoming a video game developer and designer. But now she says there are more important things to do.

“This country lacks space for young people’s dreams, games are still demonised in the press and blamed for many issues without looking at how parents raise their children and how this country does not support young people,” Maynu said. “So all of this combined has contributed to where we are now, and a few problematic institutions are still holding back Thailand, and they are powerful and scary to confront.”

Thaluwang has moved away from mass protests and speeches delivered to large crowds, instead adopting tactics that legal experts say are difficult to define as illegal. The approach is intended to make activists less vulnerable to legal harassment, but the crackdown has continued.

“We have observed that Thai authorities have increased undue restrictions on the right to protest,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, told Al Jazeera. “During the last few months, authorities have charged, detained and imprisoned activists, including children, denying them their right to bail or imposing harsh bail restrictions on them. Activists have reported surveillance and harassment.”

Faced with a lese-majeste charge – the latest in a long line of monarchy reform activists who have come under legal pressure – Tawan told Al Jazeera that she is not afraid.

“Especially regarding 112, my case really highlights how problematic the law is in Thailand,” she said. “Many people see us as young people who are just expressing our opinions. So I don’t see how doing this by definition is an insult to the monarchy. And if it is, then this will make people understand that this law needs to be abolished even more.”

Thaluwang runs a questionnaire on the street in Bangkok, asking passers-by to show their opinion
Thaluwang has turned away from traditional street protests to try other ways of getting its message across [Ginger Cat/Al Jazeera]

Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that authorities are merely upholding the law.

“We were carrying out arrest warrants as they were wanted for violating serious laws,” said Kissana, referring to the arrest of Thaluwang activists in late April.

“We respect their rights as stated by the constitution. We are committed to protecting the people and believe in human rights. But if you violate the law, we have no choice but to enforce the law by our legal means.”

Years of resistance

For the past two years, protesters have been calling for former coup leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, and for new elections to be held. But it is their calls for royal reform that have sent shockwaves through the country.

Calling for public scrutiny of the Thai king broke longstanding taboos surrounding the monarchy in 2020, and mass protests sparked heated public debate over the role of the royal palace in the country’s politics.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016, is often criticised for his lavish lifestyle with estimates of his wealth starting at about $30bn. But critics say he is also bringing back absolute monarchy and controls the country’s military-backed leaders, a system that a new generation of Thais argues must be reformed for the nation to move forward.

For years, researchers have documented intimidation and surveillance of government critics at home, in the workplace and on university campuses.

But even with the democracy movement’s main leaders arrested, rights groups say the authorities have carried out surveillance, legal harassment and arrests of critics at an unprecedented level.

In interviews with more than 12 Thai activists over the past six months, Al Jazeera has documented allegations of surveillance and harassment, with some even speaking of physical torture or assault for demonstrating.

“Apart from using legal means to harass activists, the state authorities also harass citizens who simply post their opinions on Facebook,” said Wannaphat Jenroumjit, a lawyer for Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who works directly on ‘112’ cases in relation to activists calling for royal reform.

“They [the police] do so by following them or approaching them directly, or intimidating their family, or neighbours, telling them they are on the police watch list. But this sows suspicion among the community against them.”

Tawan, in a black t-short with red print gives the three-fingered Hunger Games salute which has become a symbol of resistance in Asia
Tawan makes the three-fingered Hunger Games salute, which has become a symbol of resistance among pro-democracy groups from Myanmar to Hong Kong [Ginger Cat/Al Jazeera]

Tawan and Maynu both say they have experienced intimidation.

Maynu has been followed by security forces and was verbally abused when she spent a day in detention.

Tawan says she has been pursued by police on numerous occasions. On one occasion, she told Al Jazeera, 10 officers entered her home and tried to convince her parents to force her to stop. Another day, two men on motorcycles almost ran her off the road, she claimed.

‘Costs for society’

According to THLR, at least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in the Thai protests from 2020 to 2022. The group has documented at least 173 cases where people were charged with royal defamation over the same period.

Pikhaneth Prawang, another lawyer for TLHR, warns the approach could have broader implications for the country.

“Since the resumption of the use of ‘112’ at the end of 2020, the number of cases rose sharply,” Pikhaneth said.

“We’re seeing it used not only to target leaders, but now we’re seeing common people targeted as well. We are worried about how far this could go. Such a campaign could lead to high costs for society.”

Such costs could include a system where public trust is undermined, particularly in the judicial system. A continued erosion of trust could,  Pikhaneth fears, “lead to chaos in the future.”

Days after speaking to Al Jazeera in April, multiple Thaluwang activists were arrested.

Maynu has been released on bail, but Tawan is still in detention and on hunger strike.

Over the last two weeks, three other women who represent Thaluwang have also been detained without bail, including a 17-year-old girl. In response, dozens of protesters demonstrated in front of the United States embassy on May 11, handing in a petition calling on the US to urge Thailand to release political prisoners and stop the use of 112.

Before she was arrested, Tawan told Al Jazeera that despite the pressure, she would not be deterred.

“We have been followed by police and it makes us feel unsafe,” Tawan said. “But with Section 112, I’m still not afraid. If anything, it makes me feel that I need to fight even more, and I’ve mentally prepared myself to soon be in jail. So you could definitely say that I am a very different Tawan than I was before.”

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Bolsonaro gov’t threatening Brazilian democracy, jurists tell UN | Elections News



Legal experts urge UN special rapporteur to visit Brazil to report on president’s attacks on Brazilian judicial bodies.

Brazil’s democracy and the independence of its judiciary are under threat from the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, a group of lawyers and legal experts have said in a petition to the United Nations, as the country prepares for elections in October.

The group of 80 jurists and legal researchers on Wednesday appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan, to visit Brazil and report on attacks on the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court that oversees elections.

The courts face an unprecedented campaign of distrust and public threats to judges who decide against the government’s agenda, they said in their petition.

“Moreover, without any evidence, Bolsonaro publicly claims that the Brazilian electoral system can be and has been rigged, and has even claimed that the TSE judges are behind such alleged frauds,” the petition to the UN rapporteur read.

Facing a drop in popularity, Bolsonaro over the past several months has repeatedly claimed – without providing any evidence – that Brazil’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud.

Critics and judicial experts have rejected his claims as baseless, accusing Bolsonaro of planning to use his fraud claims to contest the election results, similar to former United States President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro has emulated.

Earlier this month, the president said his party would seek an audit of the voting system before the election. He has also suggested that the armed forces, whose current and former members are employed throughout his government, should conduct their own parallel vote count.

On Wednesday, the president’s son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, said Brazil could face political instability if the electoral court did not provide more transparency about its voting system.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s petition said that Bolsonaro uttered a series of direct threats to the Supreme Court in a speech to a crowd of thousands of supporters in September of last year.

“The Brazilian Judiciary is under siege. Judicial independence in Brazil is facing challenges that are unprecedented since democratization in the 1980s,” the letter said.

Bolsonaro is facing a stiff challenge in his re-election bid from former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who recently launched his presidential campaign and holds a clear lead over Bolsonaro, according to recent polls.

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HRW documents ‘apparent war crimes’ by Russian forces in Ukraine | Russia-Ukraine war News



Leading US-based rights group says Russian forces had subjected civilians to summary executions, torture and other grave abuses in two regions.

A leading human rights watchdog has accused Russian troops of carrying out summary executions, torture and other grave abuses in two regions of Ukraine, as it published a report documenting further cases of “apparent war crimes” by the invading forces.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report published on Wednesday documented 22 apparent summary executions, nine other unlawful killings, six possible enforced disappearances and seven cases of torture from late February through March.

Twenty-one civilians told HRW about unlawful confinement in inhuman and degrading conditions during the period the Russian forces controlled much of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, it said.

HRW called for the alleged abuses to be “impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to the Reuters news agency requests for comment on the HRW report. Russia has denied targeting civilians or involvement in war crimes and has accused Ukraine of staging atrocities to smear its forces.

Asked more broadly about war crimes allegations against Russian forces in Ukraine, Peskov told Reuters, “We consider it impossible and unacceptable to throw such terms around.”

“Many of the cases that Ukraine is talking about are obvious fakes, and the most egregious ones are staged, as has been convincingly proved by our experts,” he said.

Global outrage

There was a global outrage dozens of bodies, some with their hands bound, were found in towns, including Bucha, near the Ukrainian capital after invading Russian troops retreated from the area.

HRW said it had visited a total of 17 villages and small towns in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions and interviewed 65 people between April 10 and May 10, including former detainees, people who said they had survived torture, families of victims and other witnesses.

The report went further than a statement issued in April in which HRW said it had documented “several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations” in Russian-controlled regions such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv.

“The numerous atrocities by Russian forces occupying parts of northeastern Ukraine early in the war are abhorrent, unlawful, and cruel,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses against civilians are evident war crimes that should be promptly and impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted.”

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” aimed at weakening its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and capturing what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

A Kyiv district court on Wednesday began hearing its first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier who took part in Moscow’s February 24 invasion. The soldier, who is accused of murdering a 62-year-old civilian, told the court he pleaded guilty.

Ukraine has said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes in total.

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