A remote, city-like compound owned by U.S.-blacklisted tycoon Try Pheap is housing online scam operations of thousands of workers rife with forced labor, detention and unexplained deaths, trafficking victims and rescuers allege.
Those who have managed to escape the MDS Thmor Da Special Economic Zone, near the Thai border in Pursat province, have reported being trafficked from China to the compound, where even local police and officials say they have little access.
One 23-year-old Chinese national from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, speaking in a series of interviews including at a hotel where he has been staying since his rescue, told VOD that he had been enticed to come to Cambodia by a friend he met through online games.
In March, he was told he could earn $2,000 a month plus bonuses through promoting games, and bought a flight to Guangzhou city in July. From there, his online friend paid for a flight to Phnom Penh. He had known the friend for five years, and trusted him, he said.
Upon arriving, he was greeted by a woman holding up his name on a sign. After quarantining at Sokha Hotel, he and three others were driven to Pursat.
There, for 15 to 16 hours a day, the man was made to flirt with women online based on a script the company gave him. He was not allowed to leave his building, and wasn’t getting paid. He estimates there were 1,000 people working in the same company across two buildings in the compound.
“I started seeking help from the second day I arrived,” he said. “I didn’t want to do the work but I couldn’t say that out loud.”
His family reported his case to authorities in China. He reached out to local media in Cambodia and other individuals aiding in rescue efforts. “I was constantly seeking help,” he said.
He contacted the Chinese Embassy, which helped him contact police, but there was no action.
He was miserable, and lost 10 kg due to stomach problems, he said. At one point he swallowed a fistful of medicines, which he bought from a clinic inside the compound, to try to kill himself.
“I felt really hopeless,” he said. “I almost went crazy during that time. I was sick and couldn’t work and they threatened me every day and said they would sell me [to another scam company].”
After three months, in desperation, he posted to the Facebook page of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
National Police said in a statement that its “quick reaction team” responded immediately after receiving information about the post on Hun Sen’s Facebook page.
“I was so scared and helpless. I hope the prince can save me,” a translation of the post in the National Police statement said.
The police statement continued that officers had carried out a “handover” of the Chinese national with cooperation from the Thmor Da SEZ.
On the morning of Monday, November 8, 2021, the Pursat specialized force inspected and completed relevant procedures and received in a handover the 23-year-old Chinese victim … in the Thmor Da Special Economic Zone located in Thmor Da commune, Veal Veng district, Pursat province.
The above transaction was coordinated and participated by the prosecutor of Pursat Provincial Court and a representative of the SEZ company.
The above victim was handed over to immigration experts to implement professional measures in accordance with the procedures.
Emails and phone calls to the Try Pheap Group were not answered this week. At its headquarters on Phnom Penh’s Norodom Blvd., a man who said he was the company’s head of security, but declined to give his name, said no administrators were available to answer questions. He said questions about the Pursat SEZ should be answered by administrators in Pursat, but said he did not know how to contact them. He told reporters they should go ahead with publishing an article on trafficking allegations at the SEZ.
Pheap, among the country’s most notorious tycoons, is the sole director of the MDS Thmor Da SEZ.
Pheap was long known for timber trading, and has been accused of running multimillion-dollar illegal wood smuggling operations. He has been an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and in 2019 was sanctioned by the U.S., which alleged he had bought protection from the government and the military.
His Pursat SEZ has 2,265 hectares of land in Pursat, split between agroindustry and commercial compounds, according to the Try Pheap Group’s website. Satellite imagery of the compound shows rows of several large buildings near National Road 55.
Sangkum Thmei Village
The 23-year-old was not the first rescue from the SEZ, and hardly the only suspicious incident in the area in the past three years.
On July 19, 2019, a 22-year-old Chinese national working for “some online company” in Sangkum Thmei village died after jumping from a building’s third floor, Fresh News reported.
On June 29, 2020, a 29-year-old Chinese man from the same area was rushed to a Thai hospital after cutting into his own neck, according to Khmer Breaking News.
On August 29 this year, two Chinese nationals were killed when struck by a car at high speed “in front of a Chinese company building.” The driver escaped, Fresh News said.
Local authorities say they understand little about what’s happening inside the MDS compound.
Commune chief Pron Ngorn said there were at least 2,000 people inside, the majority of them Chinese.
“I do not know what they are doing, and I also have doubts about it too,” Ngorn said. “I do not know what kind of business they do to earn, because I do not see them going outside and they only stay inside the buildings. I have nothing to say.”
He knew of two accidents in which cars crushed people to death this year. Chinese nationals had run out of the compound to escape, and there had been suicides, he said.
A local police officer, who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the MDS SEZ was the only development of note in Sangkum Thmei.
“I don’t know what’s inside. I just know that there are many Chinese nationals, so we cannot go ask them much. Each building is firmly closed, and the ones who work inside cannot go outside. They build fences to seal every building for preventing staff from going outside, and inside they sell everything, with supermarkets,” the officer said. “Inside it’s a city.”
Four Vietnamese nationals had escaped earlier this year, and told police that they had been abused. A car crash that killed two people had been handled internally by the company, they added.
“I thought about leaving every day,” recalled a 22-year-old Chinese national who was rescued from the same location.
He said he was taken from Phnom Penh to Pursat, and didn’t realize until he began the work that he was perpetrating scams.
“Then I realized there was no way to escape from that compound,” he said.
After working 14- to 15-hour shifts, he and two others convinced their boss to be briefly let outside. They managed to hire a car to take them to the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, though the driver initially tried to take them to another company, he said.
The 22-year-old said workers needed to make a payment to their employers in order to be allowed to leave, and since they had not paid, they were wanted.
“These scam companies all have a group chat with the high-level managers, so they send our pictures and information in the chat. They said if anyone finds us they will provide 365,000 RMB as a reward,” or around $52,000, he said.
One volunteer team working on rescuing Chinese trafficking victims across the country — especially in Sihanoukville — said they had so far helped around eight victims from the compound and three other locations in Pursat. A team member, who declined to be named for fear of being targeted, said there were thousands of workers there.
‘It Is Impossible’
Chou Bun Eng, vice chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said this week that scam and trafficking operations were clearly illegal, but ending them was a challenge.
“[If] they have to work to solve their debt endlessly, and they become a slave — it is a case of exploitation,” Bun Eng said. “Under Cambodian law, it is exploitation.”
“For these cases, we have done a lot, and we want it to go away,” she said. However, “it’s up to the perpetrators whether they stop or not. If the perpetrators continue to do it, the cases will continue … because the opportunistic, exploitative person always has ideas. … We cannot think what they plan to do.”
Asked why authorities rescued victims one-by-one rather than shutting down operations, Bun Eng said there could be inconsistent testimonies.
“They could infer that it isn’t only one, that there are other people, but when these other people claim that they are OK … we cannot just go to arrest everyone, so it is impossible,” she said.
Crime syndicates targeting Chinese-speaking populations with online scams are spreading rapidly throughout Southeast Asia, according to the Global Anti-Scam Organization, an advocacy and education group for those who fall prey to the scams.
The most common was the “pig-butchering” scam, where scammers exploit false online romantic relationships. The scammers cultivate relationships for months before asking for money.
The organization, which was founded in July, reports that their victims are most frequently women between 25 and 40 years old, losing an average $98,703 to scammers according to the data it collects.
The 23-year-old who posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page said he was never beaten, but he was scolded and sworn at. And he couldn’t accept taking part in a scam against innocent people, he said.
“People who haven’t been inside can’t understand what it feels like,” he said. “I was in despair every day. I didn’t know what to do.”
He said he had hoped every day to be rescued.
“My family tried to convince me [to stay strong], but I didn’t even trust them anymore. I felt like they had abandoned me,” he said. “My family would cry every time I called them. I cried too at the beginning but in the end I had no more tears left.”
Apart from Chinese nationals, there were also Indonesian, Vietnamese and Cambodian workers at the company, he added.
Two days after he posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page, his company sent him to a small police station nearby. The following day, he was taken to the Pursat provincial police headquarters, where he gave testimony and was eventually brought to the hotel where he’s currently staying.
For rescued victims, getting out of Cambodia and finally returning home has been another long road. One-way tickets from Cambodia to China have skyrocketed to more than $9,000 in recent months.
“I’m just waiting for flights now so I can go home,” the 23-year-old said.
Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen