(Irrawaddy) —Thi Thi Win reminisces about a time when she wore traditional Burmese clothes and walked around her village at sunset. For the best part of her childhood, she considered herself to be lucky—she had two loving parents and food was plentiful.
Until one day when her family was pushed out of their farm by the Burmese army to make way for a highway. One of eight siblings, she knew she had to find work to help her family.
While she was selling some of her families clothes in the local bus station, a man approached her saying he could find her a “factory job” in China. With high hopes, she packed her bags and left for Burma’s booming neighbor.
“He told me I would no longer have to sell my family’s belongings and could buy presents for them within a month,” said Thi Thi Win, who asked that The Irrawaddy not use her real name.
She said her trip to the border was full of excitement. As she looked out the bus window, paddy fields flew past ,and she dreamed of her new life in China. At the bus station, she was greeted by a Chinese man who took her to a teashop where she was given noodles, which she quickly ate.
“The next thing I remember I was in a small room with Burmese girls—they had drugged me,” she said.
“The next couple of hours I spent chatting with the other girls, and they all had the same story. Then they led us out into a room, in front of lot of Chinese men —one man pointed at me.”
That was the moment that the man “bought” her, and without delay or discussion, she was taken to his farm in rural China to be his wife. At first, she refused, and his family was furious. They beat her until she couldn’t take the suffering anymore, and finally gave in.
Like thousands of girls who are trafficked from Burma to China each year, what followed her forced marriage was a life of hardship. The family forbade her to leave the house, and her days were spent housekeeping and cooking, as a way to “repay” the fee they had paid for her.
One day, after a year with the family—what she says felt like a lifetime—the police came to the home and took her into custody. Treated as an illegal immigrant, she was thrown in prison for three months, without an interview or assessment.
Treatment of trafficking victims is a major concern for NGOs that work in the region. They say that China is not doing enough to identify foreign women who have been forced into marriage. Lacking interpreters and proper screening processes, many trafficking victims end up in jail.
Despite the lack of attention to foreign victims, more work has been done to curb domestic trafficking in China.
With most of the trafficking is related to urban migration, the government has spent large sums educating farmers about the dangers of trafficking. China has a total of 1,351 Relief Administrative Centers located at provincial, county and city levels which work with trafficking victims.
Various counter-trafficking training courses have been held for media, trainers, police and key government officials in collaboration with UN agencies and international NGOs. Legal aid for victims has increased with more centers being opened across the country, and China is attempting to improve its prosecution procedure.
Last year, the public security ministry launched a special crackdown. Police across the country rescued 3,455 children and 7,365 women from April to the end of December last year. A total of 1,684 human-trafficking groups were identified and 2,895 trafficking cases were solved with 19 out of 20 suspects arrested.
In March, China’s police chief, Meng Jianzhu, called for greater effort in halting trafficking of women and children, saying the crime “grossly violates human rights.” Meng vowed zero tolerance for trafficking cases, asking local governments to address economic and social problems that are at the root of rampant human trafficking.
Unfortunately, all this has done little to stop the flow of Burmese women being sold for between 10,000 and 40,000 yuan (US $1,500 to $6,000) into forced marriage. Local grassroots organizations working along the Sino-Burma border believe that more and more women are trafficked across the border each week.
With increasing cases of land confiscation and what the Kachin Woman’s Organization in Thailand calls the Burmese regime’s “mismanagement of the economy,” more and more women are leaving for China to survive.
“They have to work so hard in Burma and make very little. When people tell them about jobs in China they are ready to leave the next day,” one KWA worker based on the Sino-Burma border told The Irrawaddy.
Also to blame is China’s one-child policy which has left many of the rural areas with an overwhelming proportion of men. Faced with a life alone, many men jump at the opportunity to buy a Burmese wife and fulfill their dreams of having a child.
Woman support groups report that in many cases the Chinese men only see their newly acquired Burmese wives as a means to continue their family line. The coordinator of one underground woman’s group told The Irrawaddy that once a women gives birth they are often “passed on.”
“All Chinese men want is to have a baby, once the girl has given birth she is often neglected, and we’ve heard many cases where she is sold on to another husband for the same reason,” she said. “Sometimes they are sold on three of four times.”
It’s still very hard for the NGOs to work on the border and most do so clandestinely, especially at this moment of increasing pressure by local authorities.
A US trafficiking reported stated: “Factors that continue to impede progress in anti-trafficking efforts include tight controls over civil society organizations, restricted access of foreign anti-trafficking organizations and the government’s systemic lack of transparency.”
Working underground, NGO workers receive countless calls from parents asking them to find their daughters or from the victims themselves, who are often impossible to reach.
There have been public attempts by the Chinese authorities to work with Burma to prevent trafficking. In line with a bilateral framework agreement signed in Kunming, liason offices have been set up along the border at Ruili and Zhangfeng.
When the Chinese authorities correctly identify a woman to be a trafficking victim, their treatment is reported to be good. However, women are normally returned without rehabilitation and problems often arise when they ask the Burmese border officials to pay for transportation home.
Burma has made some efforts with the passage of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Law in 2005. Burma is also in the process of drafting a national-level five-year plan of eliminating human trafficking. Burma signed a memorandum of understanding involving the six-member Greater Mekong Sub region against trafficking in persons in 2004.
Julia Matrip, the head of the Kachin Woman’s Association in Thailand, believes the regime is mainly involved in pleasing the international community rather than actually dealing with the problem.
“The number of girls coming across is increasing and if the SPDC really cares, they need to address the root causes of this problem which is economic desperation as a result of their poor management of Burma’s economy,” she said.
To curb the number of girls being trafficked into China, the Burmese authorities have restricted under-18 girls from travelling unaccompanied. However, walking around Ruili’s many massage parlors its clear that many children work in the premises. The women’s group recent report titled “Eastward bound” says that 25 percent of trafficking victims are under 18.
Many of the women and children are never heard from again and may never be found as they slowly accept a life of solitude and are unable to communicate with anyone. Those who are rescued risk going back to a life of shame in their villages where their forced marriage in China makes them undesirable as wives.
For Thi Thi Win, she knew she couldn’t return to Burma, because she couldn’t face her village again. Instead, she remains in limbo on the border working as a sex worker to fuel her methamphetamine addiction.
Thi Thi Win picked up a wedding album of probably the most depressing wedding photos ever taken. A Burmese girl, lost and scared, standing with a stunned gaze next to her Chinese “husband.”
“Whatever happens after we escape, we all suffer inside for the rest of our lives,” she said, as she turned the pages of a wedding album of a forced marriage.