Laos state media has reported a large COVID-19 outbreak in the Tonpheung District of the northeasterly Bokeo Province, home to the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) and the notorious Kings Romans Casino.
The casino is operated by alleged crime figure Zhao Wei, whose business empire was once described by the US Treasury Department as a “horrendous transnational criminal organization.”
According to CNN and the state-owned English-language newspaper, The Vientiane Times, officials are linking the epidemic to foreigners who are being transported into the region by locals in violation of COVID-19 restrictions.
The landlocked southeast Asian Communist state closed its borders last year in an effort to halt the spread of the pandemic. But cases have surged in recent weeks.
The Golden Triangle refers to the area where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers. The semi-lawless region is one of the largest producers of heroin and methamphetamine in the world.
Zhao is said to run the GTSEZ like his own private kingdom, where he is known as “Tu Haungdi,” a Chinese phrase that means “local emperor.”
While the GTSEZ is not mentioned in The Vientiane Times story, the Tonpheung District is economically reliant on the zone, its casino, and the foreign tourists they bring.
One source, described as a former travel agent, told CNN that locals were illegally transporting tourists and Thai casino employees across the Mekong River into Laos from Thailand.
According to the Treasury Department, Zhao’s operations “facilitate child prostitution and sex slavery” and “exploits this region by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans Casino, located within the GTSEZ.”
He is also involved in “the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, and other narcotics for illicit networks, including the United Wa State Army.” The Wa is the largest of many militia groups based in the area, mainly across the border in Myanmar.
The US Government imposed sanctions on Zhao and the Kings Romans Casino in 2018 for their alleged role in the drugs trade and other alleged crimes. This barred Zhao from the US financial system, while any funds he held in US banks would have been frozen.
CNN reported in December that Zhao was expanding his operations and was in the process of building a port in the GTSEZ, 12 miles upriver from the casino.
Zhao has denied the US Treasury’s allegations, describing himself a legitimate investor who wants to turn the area into a major tourist destination.
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