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Vietnamese rescued from Myanmar casinos stuck in war zone

Scores of Vietnamese nationals trafficked to Myanmar and rescued by security authorities in October are stranded in a war zone near the border with China and cannot leave the Southeast Asian country, according to a video they made and to some of their parents.

The 166 Vietnamese, who say they are running out of food and want officials to help them leave Myanmar, recorded a video of themselves chanting that they are Vietnamese citizens and have been stuck in Myanmar for 40 days without food, electricity or water.  

“We are now living in cold weather, and our food is exhausted because we have run out of money,” they say on the video, which a relative of one of those stranded sent to Radio Free Asia. “Please help us to return to Vietnam as soon as possible, Vietnamese Embassy! Save us, please!” 

RFA could not independently verify the video. A reporter made multiple attempts to contact the stranded people via various messaging applications, but did not receive any responses. 

The Vietnamese had been trafficked to northern Myanmar to work for online gambling companies, where they faced harsh working conditions and abuse by their employers. 

Myanmar security forces rescued them on Oct. 20 and arranged for them to stay temporarily in an abandoned school in Shan state’s Laukkai township. 

When the group stops chanting in the video, a Vietnamese man says the Vietnamese Embassy in Myanmar informed them that it had been able to verify information about them, but no diplomats had yet visited the group or arranged for their repatriation.

“I hope the embassy and the Vietnamese government will try to save us and help us return home as soon as possible,” he said. 

Trafficked to casinos, scam rings

The trapped Vietnamese workers are among the hundreds of thousands of people who have been trafficked by organized criminal gangs to Southeast Asia and forced into working at illegal casinos or online scams, according to a United Nations report issued in August

The Vietnamese citizens, who say they were tricked into working at fraudulent gambling establishments in Myanmar, faced abuse from their employers.

RFA contacted the foreign affairs ministries in Myanmar and Vietnam for comment, but received no response.

When RFA called the Vietnamese Embassy in Myanmar on Friday, a reporter was told to contact the Consular Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An officer in the department’s Citizen Protection Call Center said the “rescue and provision of assistance to stranded citizens in Myanmar are very complicated and time-consuming as the country is undergoing a civil war.”  

An officer surnamed Lap in the consular division of Department of Foreign Affairs in Vietnam’s Kien Giang province — home to about 100 of the stranded workers — said the agency received more than 20 petitions from residents who are their relatives. The agency forwarded the petitions to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but had received no response. 

During a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry press briefing on Nov. 9, spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said officials had identified 166 Vietnamese citizens among foreigners rescued from “deceptive casinos” and took them to a safe area in northern Myanmar, bordering China.” 

But Vietnam’s access to the stranded people and effort to protect its citizens faced difficulties because of armed conflict in Myanmar’s northern border area and other places, she said. 

A man from Kien Giang province, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told RFA that his daughter was among those stranded and that she and others were being held under temporary detention while Burmese authorities conducted an investigation. 

Though several months have passed, she does not know why the investigations have not yet been completed, he said.

Local police gave him similar information, he said. 

A woman from the southern province of Kien Giang whose daughter is among the stranded group told RFA on Friday that her daughter and others were rescued by Myanmar’s army during an administrative inspection at a company with the Vietnamese name Lien Thang Group.

The 166 stranded Vietnamese are living in classrooms where the power is on for only one or two hours a day, said the woman who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

They do not have access to drinking water, though they receive two meals daily from the Burmese Army, consisting of a bowl of rice and some vegetable soup, she said. 

“It’s getting cold these days, but many don’t have warm clothes,” she said. 

Phone scams

Despite having a stable job at a local restaurant in Kien Giang, her daughter was enticed to leave for Myanmar in mid-August this year to get another job with a lighter workload and better pay, her mother said. The employer promised to pay her 21 million dong, or about US$865, monthly. 

“Things were quite pleasant in the first two weeks as they let her go shopping and eat at restaurants,” the young woman’s mother said. “Then, the company signed a labor contract [with her] and started to apply their rules and tighten everything. Even phones were not allowed.”

The employers forced the young Vietnamese woman and the other workers to use Facebook to make calls soliciting people to put money into an investment scam, giving her a daily revenue quota of 200-300 million dong (US$8,200-12,400), the mother said. 

If they failed to do so, their employers would leave them hungry in the room, beat them or apply electrical shocks.

The company forced some of her co-workers to find and entice Vietnamese people to go [to Myanmar] and work for the company,” she said.” They would be beaten and electrocuted if they failed to meet this quota, too.” 

The woman said that her daughter and a group of dozens of friends left Vietnam for Myanmar together, and they all worked for a company whose management team speaks Chinese and Burmese. They used Vietnamese translators to communicate with the workers. 

The people stranded come from various places in Vietnam, with about 100 from Kien Giang province, she said. 

In September, RFA Vietnamese reported on the plight of some of the workers who were forced to carry out fraudulent activities for long hours and were assaulted or tortured if they failed to meet sales quotas or did not follow instructions. 

After receiving calls for help from her daughter and other victims, the mother and other families sent a rescue petition to the Kien Giang Department of Foreign Affairs on Oct. 16. They also traveled to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi to submit a petition to the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They have not received responses from any of the officials, however. 

“One day, we called the agency to which we submitted our petition, and they said that Vietnam and Myanmar were negotiating with and asking China to open their border gate for stranded Vietnamese to leave Myanmar’s war zone and shelter temporarily in China,” said the mother. 

“I heard that Thai, Cambodian and Filipino citizens had been repatriated to their countries via China,” she said, referring to other foreign workers in Myanmar. “I don’t know why my daughter and her friends are still stuck in Myanmar.” 

On Friday, Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said 121 Malaysian citizens, who were allegedly victims of online scams, had been evacuated from Myanmar after being stranded due to the fighting between Myanmar forces and rebel groups in northern Myanmar. 

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.