The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) in Laos, home of the notorious Kings Romans Casino, has been declared the worst of its kind in the entire world.
Corporate intelligence consultancy firm the Adrianople Group said this week that the zone was an “embarrassment to the global special economic zone (SEZ) industry” and called for its condemnation.
Thibault Serlet, the firm’s director of research, said GTSEZ, in Laos’ remote Bokeo province, had become a center for “human trafficking, wildlife smuggling, and drugs production.”
It is “built on stolen indigenous land, workers are routinely unpaid and forced to work against their will, and the zone regularly dumps toxic waste into local streams,” he added.
‘Horrendous Criminal Organization’
The zone is run under the de facto sovereignty of Chinese gambling kingpin and real-life Bond villain Zhao Wei.
Zhao has been sanctioned by the US government for running a “horrendous” criminal organization. He is accused of exploiting the 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,” according to the US Treasury.
What’s a SEZ?
SEZs are areas that have been granted exemptions from economic regulations. That means they usually enjoy tax breaks, different labor laws, special visa rights, and import-export exemptions, according to the Adrianople Group. There are more than 7,500 SEZs in 100 countries worldwide.
GTSEZ was established 15 years ago by Laos’ notoriously corrupt totalitarian government with the help of Zhao’s investment. Through bribery and promises of further investment, the billionaire is largely left to run the zone as he pleases. He has transformed it into a “lawless playground” for wealthy Chinese visitors.
Escape from the SEZ
In January, eight women escaped from the zone by climbing underneath a wire fence. They had been lured by the promise of lucrative jobs as telemarketers for the Kings Romans Casino. But they were unable to reach impossible performance targets and were kept against their will to work as prostitutes or in the casino’s laundry service.
The escape prompted a rare Lao police foray into the GTSEZ, which resulted in the rescue of six more women pressed into servitude. Radio Free Asia claims that “hundreds” more women are trapped in the zone.
Generally, “Local authorities are barred from entering, and international inspectors are routinely turned away,” according to the Adrianople Group,
Millions of Meth Pills Seized
Also in January, Laos police seized 36 million methamphetamine pills from a village just outside the GTSEZ, according to the United Nations. It was the second-biggest drug bust in Asia.
Authorities believe the meth was cooked in the GTSEZ and was destined for markets like China and Australia.
Despite US sanctions, Zhao is expanding his operations. In 2020, he began building a $50 million port development on the Mekong River, just upstream from the GTSEZ.
According to Radio Free Asia, he is also in discussion with local officials about the possibility of developing an airport to service the GTSEZ. In return, he has promised to invest in several agricultural and tourism development projects. Some reports in Thai media say construction on this project has already begun.