CHIANG MAI – Less than a decade ago, Wan Kuok Koi, alias “Broken Tooth”, was incarcerated in a purpose-built top-security detention facility in Macau on charges of involvement in an illegal organization.
Today, he freely runs an apparently highly profitable business empire across Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Palau and Myanmar, including the mysterious and controversial Shwe Kokko new city being built in a remote area on the Moei river bordering Thailand.
But those fortunes could soon come crashing down, at least if the US government has its way. On December 9, the US Treasury Department designated Chinese national Wan as “a leader of the 14K Triad, one of the largest Chinese organized crime organizations in the world.”
The statement noted 14K engages in “drug trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, human trafficking” as well as “bribery corruption and graft.”
It accused Wan of “corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gains, and corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources.”
Asia Times was not immediately able to contact Wan for this article. The US Treasury sanctions blocked any holdings Wan may have in the US and blocked all transactions with him by US nationals as per the Global Magnitsky Act.
14K Triad is the second-largest triad in Hong Kong with an estimated 20,000 members and 30 loosely affiliated subgroups with criminal activities and operations including drug trafficking, money laundering and contract murder worldwide.
Yet the US government’s underworld accusation against Wan perhaps most clearly points to his involvement in Shwe Kokko, where he has invested untold millions of dollars in the local casino industry and related enterprises through the Hong Kong-based Dongmei Group. The Treasury statement says Broken Tooth is the “key investor” in the zone.
Nominally, the Shwe Kokko enclave is controlled by an ethnic Karen warlord, Chit Thu, who has made peace with the Myanmar military and converted his armed units into an officially recognized Border Guard Force.
In return for putting down arms, he enjoys near-absolute power over Shwe Kokko, which is now brimming with Chinese restaurants, beauty salons, karaoke parlors and gambling dens to support Chinese customers as well as – at least before Covid-19 – day visitors from Thailand.
The emerging enclave has become a haven in particular for wayward Chinese investors in gambling and related online fraud operations, many of whom were forced out of Cambodia by law enforcement agencies with help from official Chinese counterparts tasked with assisting the crackdown.
Because gambling is illegal in China, entrepreneurs have set up casinos – both physically and virtually – in countries with laxer controls such as Cambodia and the Philippines. Online gambling often provides cover for various kinds of fraud, including through the burgeoning trade in cryptocurrencies, and money laundering.
Although developers of the reported US$15 billion Shwe Kokko project have claimed in online statements that it is part of President Xi Jinping’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese Embassy in Yangon said in an August 25 statement that it is a “third-country” investment and has “nothing to do with the Belt and Road Initiative”
The statement added: “Chinese capital is not allowed to invest in foreign casinos, Chinese citizens are not allowed to participate in foreign casino operation, and foreign casinos are not allowed to attract Chinese citizens to gamble.”
It is not clear exactly how Wan and his Dongmei Group became involved in Shwe Kokko, but his local and regional contacts date back several decades from when he was running junket tours in Macau with affiliated money-lending services.
To say the least, Wan has humble roots. Born in the slums of Macau in 1955, he joined at an early age one of the many youth gangs in the then Portuguese territory.
He reportedly still bears scars from his street-fighting days: he was shot twice in gangland-style violence and was once attacked and severely wounded by a rival gang armed with meat cleavers. He lost nine teeth in another fight, a beat down that won him the nickname “Broken Tooth Koi.”
He later rose through the gangland ranks to become a full-fledged member of the 14K Triad and eventually became the boss of its Macau chapter.
His first fortune was reputedly made through controlling VIP rooms in Macau casinos, while at the same time running a band of several hundred young ma jai, or “horse boys”, which ran various street-level protection and extortion rackets that at times exploded into gunslinging turf wars with rival gangs.
In that gangland incarnation, Wan also headed several charities and even organized gala concerts with well-known singers from Hong Kong.
He became so high-profile at the time that a Hong Kong-produced movie, Casino, was made about his life as a triad boss living the high life, with his ma jais even acting as extras in the film he had a hand in producing.
Outlandishly dressed in a striped suit, boldly designed shoes, flashy silk shirts and with at least one mobile phone attached to his belt, he famously gave interviews to international news publications like Time and Newsweek.
He seemed untouchable until May 1, 1998, when a bomb exploded in a minivan belonging to António Marques Baptista, nicknamed “Rambo”, then the new crime-busting head of Macau’s police force.
That same evening, Broken Tooth Koi was picked up while dining with his bodyguards in Macau’s flashy Lisboa Hotel on suspicion of being behind the apparent assassination attempt.
No evidence of his involvement in the attack was ever revealed in court. Instead, he was brought up on old charges of intimidating employees at the Lisboa casino, loan-sharking and suspicion of being a member of “an illegal organization”, or, in plain language, a triad.
After a lengthy and complicated trial — where one witness after another was seeming struck by sudden bouts of amnesia — he was nonetheless sentenced to 15 years in prison and had all of his assets confiscated in November 1999.
Among his many outlandish ventures made public by jurists during the trial was a weapons business in Cambodia, where he allegedly sought to trade in rockets, missiles, tanks, armored vehicles and other kinds of heavy military equipment in the then civil war-wracked country.
He was eventually granted early release in Macau’s transition from Portuguese to Chinese rule. A month after the verdict was announced, Macau was reverted to Chinese sovereignty and became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, similar to Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous arrangement.
At the time, after spending some 13 years behind bars, few envisioned he would ever re-emerge as a gang boss, but that is exactly what happened shortly after his release on December 1, 2012.
Leveraging old connections, Wan quickly nestled himself back into the VIP room business at Macau’s casinos. Five years later, he became part of an outfit that launched a cryptocurrency called Dragon Coin that some observers and investigators suspect aims to cover the financial tracks of illicit transactions and activities.
According to the US Treasury Department statement, Wan soon after established three entities which were also designated on December 9: the World Hongmen History and Culture Association in Cambodia, the Hong Kong-based Dongmei Group and the Palau China Hung-Mun Cultural Association.
Hongmen, or Hong Mun, is the name of the original underworld triads founded in the 18th century. The US Treasury Department statement also says that Wan is a member of the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied that was the case at a news conference in Beijing on December 10. But there are clear indications Wan has connections where it matters in Beijing.
The US Treasury Department says that Wan, behind the façade of running a cultural association, “managed to co-opt elite figures in Malaysia and Cambodia.”
“This continues a pattern of overseas Chinese actors trying to paper over illegal criminal activities by framing their actions in terms of China’s BRI, the China Dream, or other major initiatives by the CCP,” the statement said.
The Cambodia-based World Hongmen History and Cultural Association is spreading its influence across Southeast Asia, the Treasury statement says. That is where Shwe Kokko comes into the picture.
Despite the crackdown in Cambodia, which forced some Chinese investors to relocate to the banks of the Moei River, Wan himself appears to be spending most of his time in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. According to a June 4, 2018 article in the Macau Business, Wan claims to be involved in the establishment of schools where people can learn more about “Chinese culture.”
International public and private investigators tracking his activities are not convinced of the reputed benevolent nature of Wan’s enterprises. According to the US Treasury Department: “their leadership has links to criminal networks or actors involved in illicit activities in other parts of Southeast Asia as well as China; they have pre-existing organizations engaged in casinos and cryptocurrencies.”
It remains to be seen how Myanmar’s government, which has grown increasingly dependent on Beijing’s largesse and loans, including under the BRI, will handle what some view as an emerging hub of criminal activity in a peripheral ethnic area Naypyidaw doesn’t clearly control.
Myanmar lawmakers have raised the issue in the parliament while authorities have established an investigative task force to look into the enclave. China’s Embassy in Yangon has expressed its “support” for the task force, saying in a statement China is “strengthening law enforcement and security” with Myanmar “to crack down on cross-border illegal and criminal activities such as illegal gambling and telecommunications fraud.”
But it’s not clear yet that Beijing has any intention of pursuing the well-connected Wan on any of the various accusations made by the US Treasury Department. Wan’s broken teeth may have been fixed long ago, allowing him to smile confidently upon his transnational business empire. But his bid to mask his activities through charities and legitimate businesses are now being openly frowned upon and punished by the US.