In the last months of 2016, teenage sisters Aung Zin (14) and Win Kyaw (16) noticed that their mother was getting closer to a neighbour woman, who worked as a food hawker selling pork stews.
Word spread that the neighbour was moving to Yangon—Myanmar’s former capital and most populous city with over five million residents—a place with significantly more economic and educational opportunities than Aung Zin and Win Kyaw’s hometown in Mandalay province.
“My mother told me and my sister that this lady was to take us to Yangon with her, so that we [could] get education at a pagoda,” Win Kyaw says.
The two sisters sit on a desk next to each other on a table, at the entrance of an old building with high ceilings, which functions as the office of a local NGO. They’re both dressed and groomed neatly. The short-haired Win Kyaw wears a businesslike squared shirt with black trousers. The younger Aung Zin sports a long, polka-dotted dress and her hair is styled in a pigtail with colourful hair bands. But her playful sense of style doesn’t give any clues about what she and her sister have been through.
A “hotspot” for human trafficking
Plagued with unemployment and poverty, the sisters knew their family was struggling. Even though they sensed they would miss their hometown and family, they were still excited about a new life in Yangon, which would give them better prospects.
However, once they arrived in Yangon with their neighbour, it hit them that there was no school, pagoda or education in their new city. The sisters had not been brought to Yangon for prospects, but for profit.
“When we arrived in Yangon, we realised our mother sold us to her for 1 lakh (USD66) each,” Win Kyaw says, looking at her hands resting on a wooden desk. “For the next six months, we were domestic slaves.”
Since 2016, Myanmar’s human trafficking rating has steadily declined, putting the country on the list of “worst offenders” in 2018
They soon understood that their mother and their neighbour had a commercial arrangement: the neighbor had paid an initial lump sum and a smaller monthly fee for each girl, in exchange for exploiting the girls’ labour to serve different households, performing duties like cleaning and manual work.
“There was little food and sleep,” Win Kyaw says of her life as a domestic slave, “but a lot of violence and abuse. She made us clean other people’s houses to make money [out] of us.”
The sisters’ hometown of Mandalay, which has historically been at a crossroads for trade, is dubbed as a “hotspot” for human trafficking, with girls from poorer families at a higher risk.
Worsening rating for human trafficking
According to the US State Department, Myanmar has one of the poorest ratings in the world for human trafficking. With ongoing ethnic conflicts in the Rakhine and Kachin states, people from marginalised backgrounds have become increasingly vulnerable to human trafficking. Since 2016, Myanmar’s human trafficking rating has steadily declined, putting the country on the list of “worst offenders” in 2018. The 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted that the Southeast Asian nation has subjected hundreds of thousands of displaced Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities to exploitation, forced domestic labour, sex slavery, and child soldier recruitment.
“There are various laws and regulations about human trafficking, but few are enforced,” says Thazin Aye, a lawyer and a programme manager at United Women Mandalay, an organisation that works against gender-based violence.
There are no absolute figures on how many people from Myanmar have been trafficked, but Thazin Aye feels the numbers have been rising steadily over the past several years. There’s an unprecedented demand for “brides” from neighbouring China, she explains.
China’s demand for “brides”
Effective between 1979 and 2016 with the aim of curbing the rapid population growth, China’s controversial one-child policy created the “most serious” gender imbalance in the world. A traditional patriarchal preference for sons had pushed millions of families in China to pursue sex-selective abortions for almost four decades, resulting in births of up to 121 boys for 100 girls.
Fast forward to 2019: there are now around 30 million single men in China. In search of life partners, many resort to range of options, from expensive matchmakers to going to “marriage markets”. But some choose a darker solution: trafficking a bride from neighbouring Myanmar—often with collaboration from their parents, and perhaps even incurring massive debts.
In 2017, the Burmese government reported that it was investigating 185 trafficking cases—almost double the number from the previous year. Most of the cases involved sex trafficking or the involuntary domestic servitude of Burmese women through forced marriages to Chinese men. (22 were cases of forced labour.) Between January and October 2018, 136 out of over 170 trafficking cases reported to the Myanmar police were forced marriages.
Thazin Aye believes that new technologies such as social media have accelerated the risks and made it easier for traffickers to target young women online.
“Sometimes these traffickers add these young women on Facebook using a fake profile,” she says. “They charm them and ask [them] out on a date. But it’s a trap and then they kidnap them into China.”
“Every year some girls disappear”
Seng Myat, a 21-year-old woman from the Kachin State, witnessed some women from her community being kidnapped into China.
Kachin, the northernmost state of Myanmar which shares borders with India and China, has been plagued on-and-off by armed conflict since the 1960s, making the conflict the longest running civil war in history. Some have called this decades-long war a “slow genocide”.
Many had hoped that the conflict would cease after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016. Instead, there was a surge in ethnic tensions and violence, particularly in the Muslim Rakhine and Christian Kachin states. The United Nations described these human rights violations as the “most harrowing” and of an “extremely cruel nature”.
Many had hoped that the conflict would cease after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016. Instead, there was a surge in ethnic tensions and violence
The war in Kachin State has devastated communities. In April 2018 alone, some 4,000 Kachin people fled their homes due to rising violence. Many more remain in conflict areas near the border with China, where many traffickers operate.
“We had a beautiful home in a mountainous area,” says Seng Myat, who is the oldest of her six siblings. But her family left as the civil war between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army came closer to their village in 2011. She says they fled their homes overnight; there hadn’t even been time to pack their belongings.
Even though the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims have been in the spotlight, decades of civil war has displaced over 100,000 ethnic Kachin people within their own state. Most live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) along the border with China. Seng Myat’s family relocated to one of the 165 IDP camps, where thousands live without access to basics like hygiene, nutrition or education.
“[Houses in the IDP camps] are small huts made of plywood,” Seng Myat says. “It’s always cold and uncomfortable.”
Neither Seng Myat, nor her siblings were able to get a formal education during their years in the camp. Still, Seng Myat considers herself lucky as she was able to attain some education, albeit informal, facilitated by a French NGO that operated in the IDP camps.
“IDP camps aren’t safe places for young women,” says Seng Myat. “Every year, some girls disappear.”
An escape through China
Spending around six years in this camp between 2011 and late 2017, Seng Myat was tired of living in fear of being trafficked to China and having no future prospects. She gathered all her courage to ask a person from the French organisation if they could help her escape the camp. Much to her relief, the organisation had some contacts in Yangon and they were willing to assist her.
Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, is 1000km north of Yangon. But travelling overland wasn’t an option for an IDP like Seng Myat, particularly with the ongoing conflict and military barricades in the way. To leave the camp and start a new life in Yangon, Seng Myat had to take an indirect route in and out of China as a smuggled passenger.
“Many [girls from the IDP camps] tried to take that journey and didn’t make it. They were drugged in the buses, kidnapped and trafficked into China,” Seng Myat recalls.
The escape route took her from her IDP camp on a loop through China’s Yunnan province before entering Myanmar again via the border town of Mong La in Shan State—a journey of at least 48 hours. Unable to speak English or any Chinese languages, she had to navigate changes of buses and vehicles by herself.
“I knew I shouldn’t fall asleep in this journey,” she says. Seng Myat believed that if she fell asleep, she’d be more vulnerable to trafficking. “They said the buses were full of traffickers looking for new victims.”
“I heard of a girl,” she continues, “a lady shared some food and drinks with her in the bus. They drugged her and kidnapped her. So I knew I shouldn’t eat, drink or fall asleep.”
It wasn’t safe even after she entered Myanmar again. The border town of Mong La, known as the “Burmese Las Vegas”, is also a notorious spot for traffickers, gambling and sex work.
It was only once Mong La was behind her that Seng Myat began to feel safe, taking a long breath of relief. Once she arrived in Yangon, she found the small restaurant that the French NGO had put her in touch with. She moved into a small shared accommodation and started to train as a waiter in the restaurant, in a big city where she was able to blend in. A few months later, she talks to New Naratif while on her lunch break.
But despite what many will see as a fortunate end to her ordeal, Seng Myat shows many signs of trauma and debilitating anxiety. While initially enthusiastic to share her story and the abuses her community has suffered, she never makes eye contact and speaks quietly, her hands shaking occasionally. She can’t recollect some details of her journey.
But many women haven’t made it as far as Seng Myat have, particularly as armed ethnic conflict and sectarian violence shows no signs of abating in Myanmar.
“The rise of ethnic tensions and human trafficking are directly linked,” one civil society leader tells New Naratif. (They only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity to avoid the risk of repercussion as religious and ethnic persecution soars in the country.) “The army doesn’t have money now. Military officials are heavily involved in trafficking women into China. It’s a big source of income for them. Cross-border trafficking wouldn’t happen without the army. It happens, because they facilitate it.”
They point to the abuse and sexual violence that thousands of women from ethnic minority backgrounds suffer at the hands of the military. “In fact,” the civil society leader continues, “the more [ethnic minority] women they rape or sell, the higher rankings they get in the army. They reward the rapists and traffickers.”
Bleak prospects for survivors
Six months after arriving in Yangon, internally trafficked sisters Aung Zin and Win Kyaw had cleaned dozens of houses. However, one day, the owner of the house they were cleaning proved to be inquisitive and asked them some questions.
“You are trafficked,” she told the sisters, “that’s not alright. You should escape and report this to the police.”
Up until that point, the sisters hadn’t even heard of the term “trafficking”—but they knew there was something extraordinary about the abuse they had endured and the abrupt stoppage of their education.
One day, they sneaked out of the house, taking nothing with them, and shyly approached a taxi driver. They asked him to take them to the nearest police station; the driver was happy to help the girls at no charge. It marked the end of their lives as domestic slaves. The police took the sisters under their protection and helped them get back to their hometown.
Seng Myat, Aung Zin, and Win Kyaw might have left some of the most difficult moments of their lives behind, but their stories are far from ending happily ever after.
The police investigated the crime but concluded that their mother and the trafficker had a commercial agreement and that Aung Zin and Win Kyaw hadn’t been sexually abused. There was no prosecution of either party. In a culture where family is considered sacred and any disobedience towards parents is frowned upon, Aung Zin and Win Kyaw decided to not press further charges against their mother. They continue to live in a way that makes them vulnerable to other harm: without a stable home, they sleep on a thin mattress in a NGO’s office. Every now and again, they also spend nights with their aunts and relatives.
On the other hand, with her relative financial freedom and new life in a big city, Seng Myat is an exception for an IDP woman, not the norm. She still struggles to fit in and doesn’t feel entirely safe. Her restaurant, which also hires other people from marginalised backgrounds, faces constant harassment and random checks from the police. She’s worried they might eventually shut the place down, leaving her both jobless and homeless. She doesn’t know a single other person in Yangon who would give her a job.
These three young women come from different religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds, but they’re all scared of the future they have to face alone. They also continue to grapple with the demons of trauma and mental health issues.
Seng Myat feels overwhelmed by a sense of “survivor’s guilt” for leaving her loved ones behind. She grieves for her lost homeland; she knows she probably won’t be back anytime soon. Amidst the traffic fumes and humidity of Yangon, she longs for the clean mountain air of Kachin.
Win Kyaw suffers from nightmares. When she and her sister were domestic slaves, their trafficker used to kick them out of the bed at 5am every day. Many mornings, she still jerks awake at 5am with terror and anxiety.
“But then I realise I don’t have to do that anymore,” she says.
On those mornings, she drinks a glass of water, calms herself down and reminds herself that she is back in Mandalay. She then goes back to sleep on the concrete floor in someone else’s house, huddled against her younger sister.
Didem Tali is a journalist covering the global economy, culture, gender, and displacement issues around the world. See more her stories at www.didemtali.com and follow her on Twitter @didem_tali.