Burma: Trafficking worsens with war's return

April 6, 2014
Internally Displaced Persons flee armed conflict in Burma's north. Photo via Lee Yu Kyang.

Je yang camp, located a 30 minutes drive on often unpaved or rocky road from Laiza, the capital of rebels in Kachin State in northern Burma, accommodates about 8000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

The wild landscape around the camp suggests the scenery would have been far more stunning without the presence of humans.

But the resumption of civil war in Kachin state has dragged thousands of IDPs to this picturesque sport on the border with China. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) has been engaged in an ongoing battle against the Burmese army since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced. Of these, about 80,000 have taken shelter in the area controlled by the KIO without proper international aid.

The KIO, representing the Kachin ethnic people, has fought for broader autonomy within Burma since 1961. Its military wing is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Fueling trafficking

Roi Ja (name changed) is an 18-year-old woman living in Je Yang camp. Her family is from northern Shan state, where Kachins along with Shan people are historically found.

In the state, there are military posts of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (the military wing of Palaung State Liberation Front), and the KIA's Fourth Brigade. These two allied groups are the only armed groups that have not signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government.

Two years ago, when clashes between the rebels and government were about to start, Roi Ja’s family fled, eventually ending up at the Je Yang camp.

None of her six family members have a proper income source. As the eldest daughter, Roi Ja had worked in a restaurant in Laiza town. One day a “friend” asked her if she wanted to work in China for better money.

After pondering a few days, she told her mother that she would go to China. In April last year, she got on the bus for China with only 100 yuan (about $18) in her pocket.

The “friend” and her were going to meet in Yin Jiang, the border city on the Chinese side, to which Kachin can legally cross with a border pass. Once there, she was introduced to a Chinese man, with whom she travelled to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southern China. There, another man at his 30s showed up.

The first Chinenese handed her over to the second and left. The second man and Roi Ja have traveled by bus to reach a small village in coastal area next day morning. “I had no idea where it was.”

The man gave Roi Ja a small room. For the first few days, women in the village watched Roi Ja’s every movement. They gave Roi Ja 10 yuan a day for daily expenses as well as food.

One day, she heard a chilling announcement by the second man, that “we have a girl from Burma at our house. If anyone needs bride...”

This was three days after she arrived at the village. “I started to cry, day and night, begging them to send me home. But there’s one lady from Yin Jiang telling me ‘give up’. I learned that I was sold for 30,000 Chinese Yuan Renminbi [$5312].”

One case of many

A report by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) in 2008 said: “Out of the confirmed trafficking cases, about 90% of the cases were forced to be brides (in China).”

China’s one-child policy has caused unbalanced demography in the country. This has caused human trafficking ― particularly of women ― to explode along the border line for decades. The deteriorating situation in the conflict-stricken Kachin state has fuelled the trafficking.

Also, “gender disparity” in Kachin society has helped feed trafficking, said a KWAT report last year. It said: “Decades of civil war and rampant drug and alcohol addiction among men have left many women as the heads of households, creating further burdens for women as the sole breadwinners for their families.”

Burmese authorities said there 102 cases of human trafficking were reported last year. The Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, a special unit of the Burmese police, said 59 cases involved trafficking to China. More than half of the cases resulted in forced marriage.

Nhkum Bawktawng, a KWAT researcher in Maijayang, a small town in the KIO-controlled area, said: “Years ago, we had cases where multiple families bought one woman to co-own, to use her for multiple purposes. It was nothing more than semi-slavery.

She said in many cases, it was a friend or even family member of the victim who facilitated their trafficking.

Naw Kwang, a 18-year-old Kachin man living in Je Yang camp, received a phone call from a relative last August who said “there’s a good job for you”. Naw Kwang crossed the border to Yin Jiang where he met three brokers the relative put him touch with.

One accompanied Naw Kwang to Khongsi, a small city in Shanxi province in China. It took four days by bus and train. As soon as he arrived, he called his mother who is in Je Yang camp.

He said: “Mum, I got a job. I will send you money upon receiving my first wage.” He didn't realise he had been trafficked.

What Naw Kwang, along with seven other men from different ethnicities from Burma, were in Khongsi for was logging.

After three months, his mother had not received any money. When Naw Kwang asked the manager why they had not been paid for three months, the answer shocked him. “I already paid several months’ wages to the couple who brought you,” the manager said.

From a victim to be a trafficker

Human trafficking has been a persistent phenomenon in Kachin state and elsewhere in Burma, regardless of any ceasefire.

However, there has been an ugly turn in Kachin state since the ceasefire broke down in 2011. Traffickers are roaming the IDP camps with their growing populations. Traffickers have kept their eyes on vulnerable populations in war-affected areas.

Out of 24 cases in the KWAT’s report last year, 15 involved people taken from inside IDP camps, four in Laiza. These are all rebel-controlled areas.

This is different from the previous report during the ceasefire. In KWAT’s 2008 report, two-thirds of trafficking cases took place in Myitkyina, which is controlled by the government.

The geographical position of rebel territory has also help traffickers. Most of IDP camps in KIO controlled-areas are along the Chinese border. It is easy to cross the border from Chin.

Moreover, the rebels suffer diminished capacity to cope with the trafficking problem. In the past, women groups recognised that the KIO was effective in helping stop trafficking, but this is no longer the case.

Hkawn La, an activist from Kachin Women's Association, said: “After the war resumed, KIO hasn’t been able to concentrate on the issue like they did before. All KIO forces have been busy with battles or ceasefire talks.”

In the past, if women trafficked to China escaped and reached a government-controlled border, then border forces would jail or fine them rather than assist. For this reason, escapees tried to reach the rebel army, who would direct women to shelters where they could receive vocational training.

But this practice has been weakened by the war's resumption. This has creating a vacuum for refugee protection.

Lack of refugee protection

Meanwhile, Naw Kwang has returned home safely. He was traced after his mother’s report to Yin Jiang police. Naw Kwang is now in Je Yang camp with his family.

As for Roi Ja, she was rescued 20 days after she left home, ― luckily before her planned forced marriage. She called her mother in Je Yang camp with help of a Shan woman in the village.

Roi Ja’s mother urgently informed the camp committee, who then told Yin Jiang police. Yin Jiang police, being familiar with such troubles, traced the whereabouts of Roi Ja and rescued her.

Roi Ja, however, has earned a CNY3000 debt because the Chinese police have claimed for “logistical costs” in rescuing her. Her family had to borrow money from the camp committee and has been slowly repaying debt.

Shawng Shawng, KWAT’s Laiza researcher, said: “Chinese police wouldn’t help you unless you pay them for ‘costs’.”

[Lee Yu Kyung is an international correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. The article was made possible with support of South Korea’s Rhee Yeung Hui Foundation.]

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