A TrustLaw Correspondent
BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Trafficking along the China-Myanmar border has increased, fuelled by large-scale migration and the country’s current economic crisis, with little recourse to justice and assistance to victims and families, according to a report from the Palaung Women’s Association (PWO).
One of the greatest areas of growth in trafficking has been among ethnic women from Palaung areas of northern Myanmar’s Shan State, according to “Stolen Lives”, the PWO report released this week, which found the migration is a direct result of policies of the regime governing Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Faced with a surge in troops and militia in the area, which have imposed higher taxes on agriculture and trading, young Palaung women are abandoning traditional tea farming and are looking for work in China, leaving them greater exposed to trafficking.
Of the 72 documented cases of human trafficking along the China-Myanmar border, mostly during the past six years, “the majority of those trafficked (95 out of 110) were young Palaung women from tea farming communities in Namkham, Namhsan and Mantong townships,” the report said. The main destination is Yunnan province.
One out of four were sold off as brides to Chinese men where the country’s strict one-child policy had led to a higher ratio of men versus women, while 10 percent were forced into the sex trade, PWO, which runs a crisis centre for women, said.
One woman recounted the gruesome experience of finding out she was to become a live feed for leeches, reared for medicinal purposes in China. Many were lured with the promise of well-paid jobs on farms and in factories.
A disturbing trend is in child trafficking – PWO uncovered 11 cases involving children younger than 10.
For Chinese men who cannot afford the expense of a wedding and dowry, young women from Myanmar are very cheap, said Lway Moe Kham, PWO’s principal researcher for the report.
“And after they got one child, they can re-traffick or re-sell the women to other Chinese men,” she said.
The gender roles in traditional Palaung society, where daughters are uneducated as sons are prioritised and women are seen as caretakers and homemakers, also play a role.
With little knowledge or understanding of the outside world, women are extremely vulnerable to traffickers, who often are women because parents and victims tend to trust them more.
“Lack of job, lack of information put women into many horrible situations,” said Khawng Seng Pan of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, which has also documented Kachin women being trafficked to China as brides.
While Myanmar enacted a law against human trafficking in 2005, Pan said not only does the law fail to address the political and economic root causes that fuel the crime but it also puts women in more vulnerable situations.
“According to the law, women under 25 years old cannot travel alone by themselves,” she said. “Therefore they have to travel without proper documents or put trust in other people they don’t know.”
NO RECOURSE TO JUSTICE
Few of the perpetrators are brought to justice, the report said, and even when they are arrested or jailed, many were let go after bribing the local authorities or paying compensation to the families’ victims.
“Unfortunately, in no cases have any of the authorities or organisations, including the anti-trafficking units, been able to trace people once they have been trafficked beyond the China-Burma border,” said the report.
PWO said only in 11 cases were trafficked persons able to escape, some after years of forced marriage. And even then female victims find their lives irrevocably changed.
Not only are they depressed and uncomfortable visiting public places or participating in community events, they also face discrimination by their own communities, said PWO’s Kham.
“In the Palaung community people think trafficking survivors have been working as sex workers and they must have sexually transmitted diseases and sometimes they are marginalised to the extent that they are forced to locate to another village,” she said.
Such stigma, fear of retaliation and targeting by the Myanmar military, along with the very nature of human trafficking as a clandestine criminal activity, made statistics and cases on victims very hard to come by, PWO said.
“The findings in the report are only just the tip of the iceberg on human trafficking cases that are happening across Burma,” said Lway Aye Nang of PWO.
“The work that we can do is very limited. Everywhere there are military troops in the country and it’s so difficult to get information.”
She added, “We don’t know when the women are trafficked, we only know when they escaped or contacted their friends or family members. (The documented cases) are the information we got from those brave women who dared to tell their stories and the stories of their friends and family members.”