Monday, June 24, 2024

A Growing Concern: A New Wave of Money Extortions

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A photograph of “a hand-grenade and a bullet”, featuring a threatening note, has rapidly gained attention on internet communication platforms like Viber.

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This growing trend of ransom demands has been reported across Shan State. Most of these cases have occurred in the vicinity of the China-Myanmar border towns, specifically Muse and Nam Kham, situated along the Htung Mao (Shwe Li river basin).

The targets of these extortion attempts are primarily commercial and business owners, including hotels, guesthouses, self-sufficient convenience stores, and construction-selling stores. The perpetrators have been utilizing various platforms such as Viber, Facebook Messenger, and phone SMS to deliver their ransom requests.

“Sending a photo of the grenade with a message demanding ransom via Viber, they requested around 200 lakhs. If the intended target refuses, there is a threat to explode the business’s property,” revealed U Nay La (false name), a small convenience store owner, describing his experience with money extortion.

Muse township Shan State Burma
Muse township, Shan State, Burma.

An unknown armed group, hiding under The People’s Defense Forces (PDF) name, has been causing distress by threatening individuals and demanding money, citing the need to purchase guns and ammunition. These incidents have gained notoriety since the military takeover, reported sources.

U Nay La is among those who have faced intimidation and extortion. He received the message requesting a ransom through his shop’s Viber number, with the demand set at 200 lakhs (20,000,000), added sources.

U Nay La revealed that seeking legal assistance and taking action against the extortionists was almost impossible amidst the current political turmoil.

“Since they have threatened to bomb our stores, we are concerned not only for the property and belongings but also for the safety of our family members and employees at the stores. We also dare not consult this matter with other people. They also warned us not to inform the military council and the police, otherwise, we will suffer a worse consequence,” shared U Nay La about his experience.

The group responsible for the extortion attempts, which involve sending a threatening letter that includes an image of a hand grenade while masquerading as the People’s Defense Force, remains unknown.

Nang Hla (a false name) received a similar extortion demand from an unidentified armed group via Viber. Nang Hla runs a self-sufficient store from her home.

Threatening Letter
Threatening Letter.

She was scared and chose not to report the incident because she was warned not to disclose the information and was uncertain about the identity of the person or group behind the threat and demand.

Nang Hla stated, “They demanded 20 Lakhs (20,000,000) MMK for my store. The letter includes a phone number to contact. We must reach out to the provided number to arrange the delivery of the ransom money at the designated location. We are compelled to comply due to the threat of potential store bombing if we refuse. In border-town areas like Muse with weak law and order, such threats are frequently real.”

In the current state of affairs in Myanmar, where there is a lack of rule of law, there have been instances of kidnapping children for ransom and using threat letters with a bullet or a picture of a hand grenade for money extortion. As a result, some affluent families have decided to move to safer areas and towns due to the widespread sense of fear and insecurity.

“I feel worried and depressed due to the threat we’re facing. We are even thinking of moving to safer towns or cities. There is a concern that if we comply with the ransom demand once, it may lead to further requests. We have no idea who is behind this money extortion; it could be anyone or any group. As of now, we haven’t been able to provide the requested money,” shared U Nay Hla, highlighting the difficult situation they are currently in.

There must have been some groups exploiting the name PDF (People’s Defense Force) for their own benefit and employing threatening notifications with images of hand grenades and a bullet as a means to extort money from the people.

According to Sai Maung from Hseni, “In a threatening letter, they imply that our lives will be in danger unless we comply with their demands. They are demanding 50 lakhs (5,000,000) and instructing us to deliver it to their designated location.”

Some individuals or groups may exploit the political instability and the trust and public support to PDF, in order to perpetrate their illicit activities. Therefore, people in Shan State are pleading with the Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations to take action against the criminal groups or individuals who are responsible for the money-extortion schemes.

Regarding the PDF, the Muse and Htung Mao region formerly operated under the People’s Defense Force_PSDA. However, on February 19, the PSDA was officially dissolved and subsequently restructured as the Muse Tactical Group, a resistance group operating within the same area.

The Muse Tactical Group was established on December 18, 2022. According to a spokesperson from the group, they have denied any involvement in the distribution of threat letters containing bullets or the widespread extortion attempts occurring in the Muse area.

“A member of the Muse Strategic Force made it clear that their organization strictly prohibits the use of threatening letters to extort money from civilians,” firmly stated the spokesperson.

Muse township
Muse township.

The economy, trade, and commercial activities in Shan State, much like the rest of the country, have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing political situation following the coup. As a consequence, people in the border areas are encountering various challenges.

The accessibility of weapons and ammunition along the borders raises concerns about a potential increase in armed robberies and weapon-related crimes in the near future, as observed by numerous individuals from Shan State.

Furthermore, the rise in resistance movements and armed organizations has led to a significant increase in taxation, nearly doubling the amount compared to the previous period. People are now obligated to pay taxes to every group.

U Nay Hla stated, “Over the course of this year, there has been a noticeable surge in the number of groups imposing taxes, with their demands persistently growing. These taxes are enforced through various methods, such as sending threat notices or letters, as well as deploying their members to collect the tax directly.”

Because people’s lives were getting worse as a result of the worsening economic situation and rising unemployment, people were going to use a variety of methods to rob and extort money or commit crimes for money.

Since August of last year, cases of money extortion under the guise of PDF have occurred often not just in Northern Shan Mong Yai but also in Southern Shan, in the Laikha region.

In the Mong Yai area, the practice of extorting money under the guise of PDF has stopped since S.H.A.N. reported those cases.

The attempt to extort money under the guise of PDF has raised concerns and left local residents puzzled.

The country’s economy appears to be contracting as a result of political unrest and crises, which will have a detrimental impact on the survival of people. In order to survive or make money, many people have turned to unlawful activities.

“The instability of the nation has a detrimental impact on the economy, leading to an increase in illicit businesses and criminal activities, such as homicides, robberies, and extortions. Particularly in recent times, the situation seems to be deteriorating,” stated a Shan political commentator.

The analyst further noted that while crimes have always existed in the country under different regimes, the absence of rule of law and the worsening situation since the coup are likely to result in a further escalation of criminal incidents.

“It seems we cannot even peacefully pursue our lawful business or livelihood activities,” U Nay La said in response to his worries. “We do not know what will happen tomorrow.. Additionally, even though we lawfully run our own business, we still have to worry that something bad might happen to us”.

The communities in Shan State call upon relevant authorities and organizations to prioritize the safety and well-being of the people. In the face of daily struggles for survival and fear of threats to their safety and lives, they long for a peaceful and stable environment to engage in lawful livelihood activities without worry.

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