Forget the heady and romantic dream that marriage may conjure up. It is impossible not to feel sorry when the heart-breaking stories of young women who became victims of bride trafficking were revealed publicly by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in March and in The New York Times in August 2019, drawing attention to these human and gender rights violations going on in Myanmar's Kachin and Shan states in relation to China.
“Trafficking survivors said that trusted people, including family members, promised them jobs in China, but instead sold them for the equivalent of US$3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families. In China, they were typically locked in a room and raped so they would become pregnant,” according to the HRW recent report.
TRAFFICKING OF SHAN AND KACHIN GIRLS
The first story setting is in Mongyai, northern Shan State, titled: “Teenage Brides Trafficked to China Reveal Ordeal: ‘Ma, I’ve Been Sold’” reported by Hannah Beech of the Human Rights Watch in The New York Times in August 17, 2019.
Nyo and Phyu, who were only identified by their nicknames as they are minors, are from a small village in Mongyai Township in northern Shan State. After finishing school last year they decided that they wanted more than the impoverished village with only a little more than an army outpost, with soldiers and families sheltering in metal-roofed shacks on dirt lanes, wrote the story.
According to the report, a neighbour Daw San Kyi promised them waitress jobs. The connection with another villager Daw Hnin Wai, who had the nicest home in the village, much fancier than anyone else’s, made the offer carry weight.
“We trusted them,” Phyu, now 17, said.
The two girls were picked up in Mongyai one early morning in July 2018. As the mountain road made Phyu carsick Daw San Kyi gave her four pills, one pink and three white, to help her cope with the nausea. After consuming the medication Phyu's recollection of events became fuzzy, although she could still recall that someone injected her arm with something. A photo taken of her during that time shows her face puffy and eyes dazed.
“Before this happened, Phyu was so happy and active,” said Daw Aye Oo, her mother. “But they gave her something to make her forget and trigger her sexuality. They beat her. She doesn’t know she is ruined,” the narrative goes.
Nyo, also now 17, refused pills. Her memory is clearer but nevertheless confused. The narrative included stops at guest houses along the border, heavy rain closing the restaurant where they were supposed to work, and a boat ride and more travelling by car.
After more than 10 days with the prospect of working as waitresses in a restaurant fading, the two girls tried to run away twice but were caught as they had no idea of where to go. The traffickers locked them in a room where their phones had no signal. But neither of the girls remembers a border crossing, but suddenly they were in China.
When Chinese men came to see them and made gestures of choosing one or the other by pointing at the girls, Phyu started to realize the situation.
“I had a sense I was being sold, but I could not escape,” Phyu said.
Later, the girls were split up, each paired with a supposed husband, although no marriage paperwork was ever filled out to their knowledge.
After a long train ride, Phyu thought she had ended up in Beijing but actually it was in Xiangcheng County in Henan Province. The man who had bought her was Yuan Feng, 21.
She at first refused communication with Mr. Yuan when he tried to communicate through his phone translation device, which prompted him to lock her up in a room with a television. In the evenings he would come, inject her arm and force her to have sex, she revealed.
“I felt numb,” Phyu said. “He smelled sour. He smoked,” adding agony to the forced sex she had to endure.
She eventually pretended to be happy and the injections stopped. She learned the passcode to her husband’s phone, and when he was drunk at night, she called her mother through a social media app.
The conversation was heart-breaking and moving at the same time when the mother Ms Aye Oo said: “I was glad to see her, but she didn’t look like herself. She said, ‘Ma, I’ve been sold.’”
Although Nyo didn't know, she was also in Xiangcheng County like her friend Phyu. At first, Gao Ji, her husband, also locked her in a room without any internet. He beat her, Nyo said. But as the days passed, he began to trust her and allowed her to use social media, including WeChat, the Chinese social media platform.
In a typical surrogate mother-style arrangement Mr. Gao's mother, who lived with them, fretted that Nyo was too thin to bear children and fed her rice porridge, thick wheat noodles and steamed buns.
“She would always say, ‘chi, chi,’” Nyo said, using the Mandarin word for “eat”.
With her phone, Nyo secretly filmed what she could to determine her whereabouts: a drive on the back of Mr. Gao’s scooter, the license plate of the family car, the entrance to their two-story house. She geotagged each video and photo.
Through a Shan woman who has helped rescue girls sold into sexual slavery in China, Mr. Myo Zaw Win started corresponding with Nyo on Mr. Gao’s WeChat account, pretending to be her brother.
Then the policeman, who had been in communication with the Chinese authorities, made his move. Mr. Gao had become suspicious and asked who Mr. Myo Zaw Win really was. He responded with a single word in English: “Police.”
Two months after the girls arrived in Xiangcheng, the Chinese police knocked on their husbands’ doors.
Mr. Yuan and Mr. Gao, the girls’ husbands, were detained for at least 30 days, as mandated by the law, said Niu Tianhui, a spokesman for the Xiangcheng police bureau. He said he did not know whether they spent further time in detention.
“The families of the husbands are mad about the case because they spent a lot of money but lost their wives,” Mr. Niu said.
A Chinese man, Zhao Moumou, was arrested following accusations of forcing the two girls into sexual servitude.
It would be weeks before the two girls returned to Mongyai. First, they were sent to a Chinese police station, where they were charged with illegal immigration. Then they journeyed south by train to a shelter for trafficked girls in northern Shan State in Myanmar.
“When I saw Burmese letters on the signs, I was so happy,” Phyu said of the moment they stepped back into Myanmar.
The second story is part of the Human Rights Watch comprehensive documentation report of March 2019 titled: “Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go: Trafficking of Kachin ‘Brides’ from Myanmar to China”.
The 112-page report documented the selling by traffickers of women and girls from Kachin and northern Shan states into sexual slavery in China.
As the title suggests, this story portrayed the Kachin girl from Kachin State being used as surrogate mother.
The fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) and the Myanmar military in 2011 made Seng Moon and her family flee their homestead and end up in a camp for internally displaced people. Seng Moon was 16 and in her fifth grade in 2014, when her sister-in-law lured her for a job as a cook in China’s neighbouring Yunnan province. At first she was reluctant but the family decided that she shouldn't let the opportunity slip pass.
During the journey in the car of Seng Moon’s sister-in-law, she was given medication to prevent car sickness which made her fall asleep immediately. “When I woke up my hands were tied behind my back,” she said. “I cried and shouted and asked for help.” By then, Seng Moon was in China, where her sister-in-law left her with a Chinese family. Several months later her sister-in-law came back and told her that she had to marry a Chinese man and took her to another house.
She was left at the house and the agony began.
“The family took me to a room. In that room I was tied up again. … They locked the door – for one or two months. When it was time for meals, they sent meals in. I was crying…Each time when the Chinese man brought me meals, he raped me.”
Two months later they dragged her out of the room and the father of the Chinese man said: “Here is your husband. Now you are a married couple. Be nice to each other and build a happy family.”
Her “husband” continued to be abusive and seven months later Seng Moon found she was pregnant. She eventually gave birth to a baby boy, after which she asked to go home. The husband replied: “No one plans to stop you. If you want to go back home, you can. But you can’t take my baby.”
As Seng Moon wanted to escape with her son she waited and after over two years of being trafficked to China, she met a Kachin woman in a market who gave her some financial help of 1,000 yuan (US$159) to help her return home. With the help of a Chinese woman she crossed the border and managed to make her way home. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Seng Moon, she was back in the internally displaced persons camp, hiding. “I’m afraid,” she said, that “the Chinese family will try to find me.”
CONFLICT AND VULNERABILITY
The accounts of trafficking survivors highlight the plight and crisis for women and girls in Myanmar’s Kachin and northern Shan states.
It is linked to the long-running ethnic conflict war, including those displaced since 2011, which in turn created financial desperation for many affected ethnic families in both states, driving many to seek work in China.
“On the China side, the `one-child policy´ coupled with a long-standing preference for boys helped create a large and growing shortage of women for marriage and motherhood. A porous border and lack of response by law enforcement agencies on both sides created an environment in which traffickers flourish, abducting Kachin women and girls and selling them in China as ‘brides’ with near impunity,” according to the HRW report.
The report further points out that of the 37 trafficking survivors interviewed, most were from families of Kachin State or from the neighbouring northern part of Shan State, affected by fighting between the Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The conflict has left many people in Kachin and northern Shan States struggling to survive. Their desperation is heightened because the Myanmar government has largely blocked humanitarian aid to displaced people, especially in areas controlled by the KIO. Displaced people living in camps receive food, but often not enough to avoid hunger.
Women often become the sole breadwinners for their families, as many men are taking part in the armed conflict. Desperate to support their families but with few opportunities to do so, many feel they have no choice but to seek work in China.
The traffickers who preyed on their desperation lured many by offering lucrative jobs, often through networks of friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and relatives. But while some of these jobs are real, frequently they are enticements by traffickers planning to sell women and girls as “brides” into a life of sexual slavery.
In China there is a shortage of woman population estimated by the researchers by 30 to 40 million “missing women” who should be alive today. This is due to factors including a preference for boys that leads to sex-selective abortion, infanticide, abandonment of babies, and neglect in providing girls with nutrition and medical assistance, which were rooted in the “one-child policy” China had in place from 1979 to 2015 and China’s continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
The gender imbalance is leaving many Chinese men without wives. By 2030, projections suggest that 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. Some families are willing to buy a trafficked bride from Myanmar and traffickers are eagerly cashing in, according to the report.
INVESTIGATING THE TRADE
The HRW report provides an analysis of the problems involving the sale of Myanmar women. It is based on interviews with 73 people, including 37 ethnic Kachin women and girls who escaped back to Myanmar after being trafficked and sold as “brides” in China. Some survivors escaped only weeks before they were interviewed. Twenty-four of the 37 were trafficked in 2010 or later; the most recent cases involved trafficking in 2016 and 2017. An additional 12 interviewees were trafficked between 2002 and 2009. The earliest trafficking experience described by a survivor they interviewed occurred in 1986. Their research in Myanmar took place during eight months from May 2016 through to December 2018. The report was released in March 2019.
“Twenty-two of the survivors interviewed had been held in China for a year or longer; 11 were held for three years or longer. The longest time in captivity was nine years. Twelve interviewees were under age 18 when they were trafficked; the youngest was 14. The others were ages 18 to 46. Two interviewees were trafficked twice; for figures in this report, we have used data from the most recent trafficking incident,” according to the report.
An underlying problem appears to revolve around the lack of seriousness the authorities take this issue.
“Law enforcement officers on both sides of the border–including Myanmar authorities, Chinese authorities, and the KIO—made little effort to recover trafficked women and girls. Families seeking police help to find a missing daughter, sister or wife were turned away repeatedly, and often told that they would have to pay if they wanted police to act. “
The unprofessional and heartless handling of the trafficking survivors is telling.
“When women and girls escaped and ran to the Chinese police, they were sometimes jailed for immigration violations rather than being treated as crime victims. Repatriation of victims to Myanmar was done in a chaotic manner that sometimes left survivors stranded or abruptly dumped at the border.”
The inadequate, weak law enforcement is part of the problem.
“Many survivors feared telling their stories, but those who sought justice rarely received it, as the people who trafficked them remained free, often continuing their trafficking activities. When Myanmar authorities did make arrests, they usually targeted only the initial brokers in Myanmar and not the rest of the networks in China. Police in China almost never to our knowledge arrested people that knowingly bought trafficked ‘brides’ and abused them,” the report says.
It is very difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked from Myanmar to China for sale as “brides”. The figures available almost certainly dramatically undercount the number of women and girls who are being trafficked. A Myanmar government official acknowledged this, telling Human Rights Watch, “We have very little information” about total numbers. She said the government has data on the number of people who contact a government information centre about the issue, but that figure is “just the tip of the iceberg,” the HRW report emphasized for the lack of comprehensive statistics gathering.
The Myanmar Department of Social Welfare provided A table and data to Human Rights Watch, in response to a request for the “number of female trafficking victims repatriated to Myanmar from China for each year from 2010 through 2017”.
Accordingly, it ranges FROM the lowest number of 100 cases in 2015 to the highest 181 cases in 2017. The total cases for eight years totalled 1,115 cases of repatriation.
In the same vein, the KIO wasn't able to give exact figures for the trafficking. However, “A KIO official said from 2000 through 2009 the KIO dealt with 20 to 30 cases of bride trafficking each year in the Laiza area bordering China, but that number had increased due to escalating conflict and displacement,” according to the HRW report.
Perhaps, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report titled: “Estimating trafficking of Myanmar women for forced marriage and childbearing in China,” published in December 2018 might shed more light where the statistics are concerned.
For the China estimates of Myanmar women in China as of 2017, the most plausible level of extrapolation is from the 20 study sites to all of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Within this prefecture, the full range of population estimates are presented, with the mid-range estimates being:
- 65,000 females from Myanmar living in China during 2017;
- 10,400 of the female migrants were married to Chinese men;
- 2,500 of the female migrants were in forced marriages, including 1,000 who have been trafficked into forced marriage; and
- 2,300 of the female migrants have been forced to bear children.
It goes without saying that if this survey only covers a couple of prefectures in Yunnan Province, then the total number of Myanmar women trafficked in one form or another to China could be sizeable.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The HRW recommendations to Myanmar and China include: to provide effective and coordinated anti-trafficking prevention, law enforcement, and assistance to victims; to develop formalized, government monitored recruitment for people from Myanmar, including Kachin and northern Shan states, to legally obtain employment in China; and to raise awareness of the risk of trafficking, detect trafficking, assist victims and potential victims, and maintain a shared watchlist of suspected traffickers.
For Myanmar and the KIO, to end the practice of jailing trafficking survivors for immigration violations and assist their return to Myanmar. Facilitate their safe return to China to assist in investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against them.
For international donors and organizations, to urge the Myanmar and Chinese governments and the KIO to do more to tackle bride trafficking; and to enhance services for trafficking victims by supporting nongovernmental organizations experienced in this work in both government and KIO-controlled areas.
While the HRW recommendations focused on legal aspects and remedy undertakings, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health publication of December 2018 pointed out the real cause of bride trafficking in its recommendations first paragraph as: “Take immediate steps to end the armed conflict in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, which has heightened levels of violence and increased levels of impoverishment, further spurring survival migration into China. The Government of Myanmar could start by declaring a unilateral nationwide ceasefire, followed by lifting existing restrictions on humanitarian access to internally displaced persons in all areas.”
CONFLICT THE DRIVER
Weak law enforcement and inadequate help for trafficking survivors are key issues that need to be dealt with but the underlying driver lies in continued conflicts in the ethnic states.
The Myanmar government, or rather the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw, announced a unilateral ceasefire from mid-December 2018 to September 2019 which included Shan and Kachin States. But it did not produce an atmosphere of peace, as the Tatmadaw and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, comprised of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta'ang National Liberation Army, repeatedly clashed despite a unilateral ceasefire declaration, with both sides blaming each other. The Tatmadaw said that the alliance didn't observe the rule of law, which is conditioned to benefit from unilateral ceasefire, while the alliance argued that it was the Tatmadaw that launched military offensives against them.
As a result of the stand-off, restrictions still exist on providing humanitarian aid and access to several areas of the Shan and Kachin states.
The sale of Myanmar women in this form is a stain on the reputation of the countries involved in large part due to the conditions that drive this trade and the failure of the authorities to compassionately deal with the victims and toughly deal with the human traffickers.
For now, there is little indication that things will get better for women at risk of being sold as brides.