InvestigationA major beneficiary of the new Silk Roads, Cambodia also inherits their deleterious effects, as in Sihanoukville which attracts major projects but also illegal casinos that look like forced labor camps.
Cambodians call it “Chinatown”: eleven bars of eleven floors each, in the shape of a giant “U”, located less than 200 meters from Otres Beach, in Sihanoukville, famous for its white sand. Tourists are used to sharing trays of seafood, when dusk comes, on plastic seats rented for a few riel, Cambodian currency, from a traveling merchant. But, since the health crisis linked to Covid-19, picnickers are rare. Sihanoukville, with its barely drawn four-lane roads, is littered with unfinished construction – there are 100 buildings under construction. In the midst of these black skeletons, Chinatown looks like a fortified base. At the entrance, guards watch two large gates equipped with cameras.
Chinatown is just one of a dozen resorts specializing in underground online gambling and scams based in Cambodia. There’s also White Sand 3, with its entrance worthy of a labor camp and grim barred windows; Victory Hill, of which several unfinished towers surround large buildings. Other similar centers also exist on the borders with Thailand and Vietnam. In their enclosures live and work tens of thousands of people, under the rule of Chinese bosses in conjunction with gangsters from various backgrounds.
The “dish where you bleed the pig”
These “investment parks in digital industries”, according to their official designation, employ – often under duress – a predominantly Chinese workforce. Covid obliges, they have diversified, enlisting Khmers and foreigners, in order to penetrate new “markets”. “My mission was to find “clients” in five countries in Europe, including France, Spain and Italy ”, explains Sem Chakrya (a pseudonym), a 27-year-old Khmer employed in Chinatown, in the mysterious Otres complex, in the summer of 2021. “I had four smartphones, each with a different profile, but with the same photo: that of a pretty European-type girl”, she continues. The young woman in the photo, whose nationality she does not know, was on site, coordinating activities with the Chinese manager, discussing by videoconference with the “clients”, if necessary.
Chakrya is only one link of what is called in Mandarin the sha zhu pan, that is to say the “dish where you bleed the pig”. The victim is first harpooned in dating sites, then encouraged to participate in lotteries and other online games, or even to invest in cryptocurrency. It is a question of baiting her by letting her first earn small sums, to fatten her “piggy bank”, before ruining it by emptying her account. To fight against these scams, which have become a scourge in China, Beijing has stepped up repressive measures, leading to the relocation of these activities to poorly regulated countries in Southeast Asia. A Chinese arc of online crime has thus developed, stretching from the Philippines to Burma, passing through Laos and Cambodia, and of which Sihanoukville is considered the “capital”.
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Cambodia: in Sihanoukville, the “forbidden cities” of Chinese organized crime