For some it is a playground where one between gambling sessions can order stir-fried pangolin, an anteater-like endangered species that has been called the most trafficked animal on earth. For others, it is an alternative way to develop Laos' northeast.
But according to a January 30 press release by the US Treasury Department, which issued sanctions last week, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT-SEZ) is probably just what it looks like — a parcel of wild Laotian territory on the banks of the Mekong River used for criminal purposes.
Officially named a “special economic zone” but better known as Kings Romans Casino after its largest attraction, a gambling establishment mimicking classical architecture, the 10,000-hectare property belongs to Zhao Wei, a billionaire from northeastern China. It is effectively a personal fiefdom in which it is difficult if not impossible to find anyone speaking Lao — even the uniformed security is ethnically Chinese, hired from neighboring countries.
Speculation that something about the GT-SEZ was fishy was always in the air, but the extent of the accusations leveled from Washington is staggering. US officials describe Zhao as the leader of a group that engages in “an array of horrendous illicit activities, including human trafficking and child prostitution, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking.” The press release also alleged bribery to facilitate money laundering, among other offenses.
Three other individuals were named in connection with the economic zone — Zhao's wife Guiqin Su, an Australian, Abbas Eberahim, the casino’s chief of security, and Nat Rungtawankhiri, a Thai national, in three jurisdictions including Hong Kong, Thailand and Laos.
The US government has frozen the suspects’ assets and prohibited US individuals from doing business with them. Su and Rungtawankhiri, a director, are accused of moving money illegally for the operation.
The businesses in Laos are said to have taken off in 2007, when Zhao's Hong Kong-registered Kings Romans Group obtained a 99-year lease for a patch of land in Bokeo Province. There, they launched plans for a luxury estate featuring restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, a zoo and a casino. Zhao himself told the media his project would foster development, while a short video posted on YouTube claims the gambling industry has had an “expensive impact” on the local economy and has provided “employment opportunities for the local people.” The ad features images of tourists and limousines, along with — ironically — scenes featuring police on motorbikes.
Over the years, the entrepreneur promised billions of dollars in investments. More than US$1 billion had been spent by 2015, the company claimed, with an additional US$1.2 billion to be disbursed in the future. There were even plans for an international airport to bring visitors in.
Although independent observers put the investment numbers in millions rather than billions, the fact remains that plenty of money whose origin is unclear arrived quite literally in the jungle. Bokeo Province is one of the least developed in Laos, a part of the notorious golden triangle, which comprises parts of eastern Myanmar, northern Thailand and western Laos and is one of the world's main drug producing regions.
The heroin and methamphetamines manufactured here are transported around the region, creating serious concerns. In Thailand, for instance, the spread of ya ba — “crazy drug,” the local nickname for methamphetamine — has long been an emergency. Like other drug routes, this one can be bloody, with a serious incident taking place in 2011, when 13 Chinese sailors believed to be transporting illicit substances were killed in a controversial attack just north of the special economic zone.
In what has become known as the “Mekong River Massacre,” it was said to be the deadliest modern attack on Chinese abroad, impelling the Chinese to suspend shipping on the Mekong. That gave rise to a joint declaration with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to patrol the river jointly, raising concerns about a Chinese takeover of the other countries’ sovereignty. Ultimately Thai authorities arrested nine Thai soldiers who subsequently were said to have "disappeared from the justice system.” The Chinese government hunted down four gangsters who were subsequently tried and executed by the Chinese government despite the fact that the crimes didn’t take place in China.
That may help explain why among other items, the Treasury Department has brought forward the accusations of drug smuggling. In recent years, the US has aggressively gone after international crime, forging mutual legal assistance treaties known as MLATS with 50 countries. In a celebrated takedown, in 2017, the treasury department’s FinCEN unit shut down the notorious FBME, a rogue bank based in Cyprus whose money-laundering activities were widespread from Africa to Russia.
“Operating largely through the Kings Roman Casino, the Zhao Wei TCO facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, and other narcotics for illicit networks,” officials said in the statement, claiming that Zhao is in league with the United Wa State Army, Myanmar's largest ethnic armed group. The organization has been targeted by the United States, with Wei Hsueh-Kang, one of its prominent members, wanted for drug violations.
Another issue with the SEZ is wildlife trafficking. A 2015 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based environmental crime watchdog, dubbed the area a lawless playground. According to the authors, within the SEZ “sellers and buyers are free to trade a host of endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears poached from Asia and Africa, and smuggled to this small haven for wildlife crime.”
When Asia Sentinel visited in 2017, the trade had gone underground, possibly because of the report. But it had hardly ceased. As the owner of a local restaurant put it, pangolin had to be ordered in advance, but there was no question it could be obtained. The zoo attached to the property, which EIA reported could serve as a breeding ground for tigers, was still operating, with plenty of animals kept in dismal conditions. Rows of caged bears, tigers and deer piling against the fences were all on show.
However, there were very few people there to see them. The zoo's only customers were a group of workers struggling to regain a mobile phone stolen by a monkey. Few cars dropped by the casino, where one employee argued business was bad — most customers were Chinese and traveled all the way to Thailand and then to Lao, an inconvenient route if one was only interested in gambling, he said. The newly built shopping alley, designed to resemble a traditional Chinese town complete with a garden and carp pond, was also deserted. Girlie bars and massage parlors were some of the few establishments open after dark.
Yet construction continued unabated. Financial taps were still open and migrant workers from China and Myanmar were busy hammering on empty apartment blocks. Was this a sign that the operation was a shell for more sinister operations? There is no clear answer yet. Nor is it known whether sanctions imposed in Washington will have a drastic effect on the enterprise.
“The next move surely has to be by the authorities in Laos under the Prime Minister's anti-corruption drive,” said Debbie Banks, a senior campaigner with the EIA. “The US step is the first one in putting the squeeze on the criminal network, but other countries need to do their bit too.”
Michele Penna is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He visited the casino region last year.