The wave of cybercrime arrests in Myanmar is a sign of its improved relations with China, which has been working with the ruling junta and armed ethnic groups in the country’s north to crack down on the problem, according to observers.
Isolated Myanmar has been trying to rebuild its ties with the world, while the operation’s success also places Beijing in a positive light by showcasing China’s ability to contribute to security measures in the region, they suggested.
More than 1,200 fraud suspects were handed over to the Chinese government from northern Myanmar on Friday, with state news agency Xinhua calling it a “major result” for China’s efforts to crack down on criminal online scam operations.
The handover followed the arrest of 269 other suspects involved in Myanmar-based cyber scams earlier last week, in an operation that brought down 11 bases operating in the northern region which is largely controlled by armed ethnic groups.
Htwe Htwe Thein, associate professor of international business at Curtin University, said the results of the operations showed that China and Myanmar appeared to be collaborating well.
“It does tell you something about a stronger and closer relationship between China and the military regime in Myanmar,” said Thein, whose research is focused on the troubled country which has been embroiled in political crisis since a coup in 2021.
“Right now, given how short of friends the Myanmar military is, this presents an opportunity to strengthen these ties and a small chance to improve its standing in the region.”
The unrest since the military seized power has left Myanmar largely isolated, with most countries in the region – including its fellow Asean members – condemning the escalating violence.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations excluded Myanmar’s military rulers from its summit this month and said it was “gravely concerned” about the lack of progress on a road map that had been agreed on by the junta.
The Myanmar leadership instead held meetings with envoys and military figures from China, Thailand and India to discuss defence cooperation and trade.
China has sought to maintain friendly relations with Myanmar, with observers earlier suggesting that former foreign minister Qin Gang’s visit in May signalled warming ties between Beijing and the regime.
Qin described the two countries as “brothers who share the same mountain and water” during the rare visit to Myanmar, which included a meeting with the military junta chief.
He also promised economic help for the country’s key infrastructure projects and expressed Beijing’s hope that the international community would respect Myanmar’s sovereignty.
Benjamin Ho, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ China Programme, said the cooperation of the Myanmar government had been crucial to the success of China’s cybercrime crackdown.
“Myanmar has few friends internationally so it has little choice but to rely on China,” he said, adding that this was particularly so as the two countries have “shared strategic interests as being anti-Western”.
Beijing ramped up its cybercrime offensive amid growing concerns about overseas telefraud in China, especially after the cyber scam-related film No More Bets topped the box office over summer, sparking discussions about the issue.
Amara Thiha, researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said China’s accelerated efforts to quell cybercrime cases had come in the wake of a growing number of Chinese nationals falling prey to telefraud.
Evidence that the issue is high on Beijing’s agenda includes the efforts of its special envoy to Myanmar Deng Xijun since his appointment last year, Thiha said.
The “first thing” Deng did after his appointment was discuss how to crack down on the problem with leaders of armed ethnic groups from Myanmar’s autonomous regions, where the cybercrime bases are concentrated, he pointed out.
Thiha said China has also been pushing its Global Security Initiative, which includes a priority to strengthen cooperation among the Mekong region countries, according to a paper published by the Chinese foreign ministry in February.
The relative success of China’s operations was a “showcase” of its initiative, and signalled that China was “filling a security gap and showing its leadership” in the region, he said.
The United States launched its own Mekong-US Partnership in 2020 to expand cooperation with the region – which includes Myanmar – in combating trafficking and cybercrime.
Curtin University’s Thein said the joint operations could benefit the ruling junta by granting some stability in the autonomous regions where Myanmar’s military has “very limited influence or power”.
The operations are a “good show” that the collaborative efforts between China and Myanmar are working well, and that could help boost Myanmar’s standing in the region, she said.
According to Thiha, the series of arrests indicated the growing cooperation between China and Myanmar and that there was “some kind of trust” between them, even as other countries in the region refuse to work with the junta.
Thiha said the arrests would be viewed by China as a “successful diplomatic mission”, which involved Chinese officials not only working with Myanmar’s military leaders but also with the representatives of various autonomous regions.
“This is a kind of good sign for the Chinese to implement more regionally and to showcase it can perform regional security (initiatives),” he said. – South China Morning Post