The Golden Triangle SEZ in Laos is mired in scandal and criminality, but the silence from SEZ authorities on the matter is deafening.
In February 2022, authorities raided the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Laos, freeing dozens of Chinese women from forced prostitution.
For years, the Golden Triangle SEZ has been home to numerous illegal industries including human trafficking, wildlife smuggling and drugs production. Despite this, the zone has announced significant expansion plans.
SEZs are business parks or cities that have been granted exemptions from most national-level economic regulations. They often enjoy tax breaks, different labour laws, special visa rights, import/export exemptions and streamlined regulations. There are more than 7,500 SEZs in 100 countries worldwide. The overwhelming majority of SEZs are legitimate centres of industry. They play key roles in the global tech, manufacturing, supply chain, logistics and tourism industries. However, a small minority of SEZs, such as the Golden Triangle, have been implicated in serious issues that threaten the credibility of the entire industry.
The shame of the Golden Triangle SEZ
Authorities have now rescued 50 Thai women from the Golden Triangle SEZ, although, according to Laotian authorities, there may be up to 200 more women of other nationalities still trapped there. Some of the women have reportedly been enslaved there for up to a decade. In 2012, 50 women were rescued after similar complaints led to a similar bust.
Laotian authorities are powerless to act – the Golden Triangle’s status as an SEZ means that authorities cannot enter in the absence of a formal complaint. The zone is run by the Chinese-owned Kings Roman Corporation, based out of Hong Kong.
On 29 January, the second-largest drug seizure in Asian history occurred right outside of the Golden Triangle SEZ. Authorities caught four men in a nearby village attempting to smuggle 36 million pills of methamphetamine to Thailand. Authorities speculated that the meth was produced in the Golden Triangle SEZ, and was ultimately destined for lucrative markets such as China and Australia. An Australian federal police official stationed in the area estimated that between 60% and 80% of all of Australia’s methamphetamine came from the Golden Triangle region.
The World Wildlife Fund also warns that the Golden Triangle SEZ is a hotbed of wildlife smuggling. Endangered species such as tigers, elephants, bears and pangolins are sold and butchered there for use in Chinese traditional medicine. The number of illegally held animals has significantly increased since the beginning of 2022.