Sold to be ‘wife’

Human trafficking at the China-Burma border: Resumption of war in Kachin state fueling human trafficking, IDPs targeted

Lee Yu Kyung  in Kachin State (Northern Burma) 

Je yang camp, located a 30 minutes drive on often unpaved or rocky road from Laiza – the rebel’s capital in Kachin State, Northern Burma –, accommodates some 8,000 Internally Displaced Persons (or IDPs). The wild landscape around the camp suggests the scenery would have been far more stunning without presence of humans. But resumption of civil war in Kachin state has dragged thousands of IDPs to this picturesque nature, right next to the border with China. Kachin Independence Organization (or KIO) has been engaged in an ongoing battle against the Burmese army since a 17 year old-ceasefire broke down in June 2011. More than hundreds of thousand IDPs have been displaced. Of them, about 80,000 have taken shelter in the area controlled by KIO without proper international aid. KIO has fought for broader autonomy since 1961. Its military wing is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)

Fueling trafficking

Roi Ja (named changed) living in Je Yang camp is a sweet eighteen. Her family is from Northern Shan state, where Kachins along with Shan ethnics are historically found. There are military posts of Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA) – the military wing of Palaung State Liberation Front (or PSLF) – and Kachin Independence Army (or KIA)’s 4th brigade in Northern Shan state. These two allied groups are the only armed groups that have not signed a cease fire with the Burmese government as of April 2014.

Kachin Independece Organization (or KIO) has organized 'Ethnic armed organizations'  Conference' in Laiza late 2013 to discuss on 'nation-wide ceasefire'. KIO's armed wing KIA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA) – the military wing of Palaung State Liberation Front (or PSLF) are the only armed groups that have not signed a cease fire with the Burmese government as of April 2014. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

Kachin Independece Organization (or KIO) has organized ‘Ethnic armed organizations’ Conference’ in Laiza late 2013 to discuss on ‘nation-wide ceasefire’. KIO’s armed wing KIA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA) – the military wing of Palaung State Liberation Front (or PSLF) are the only armed groups that have not signed a cease fire with the Burmese government as of April 2014. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

Two years ago, when clashes between the rebels and government were about to begin, Roi Ja’s family fled and 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, where she has acquainted an age friend. One day the ‘friend’ had asked her if she wanted to work in China for better money.

“My father couldn’t work because of illness and my mother was house wife. And I’m the eldest. This situation was haunting me while I was considering of going to China.”

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 (approx. $16 USD) in her pocket.

The “friend” and she were going to meet in Yin Jiang, the border city on the Chinese side, to which Kachin can legally cross with  border pass. Thanks to her mobile with Chinese SIM, which most of Kachins in the rebel territory use, she met a ‘friend’ and also a Chinese man in Yin Jiang without any trouble.

“From now on, this ‘gentle man’ would help you because you don’t have proper document. You just accompany with him” said a friend, adding that he would follow them too.

Next morning, Roi Ja and the ‘gentleman’ arrived at Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in Southern China. There, another man at his 30s showed up. The ‘gentle man’ handed her over to the ‘second man’ 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. There were his extended family including his wife”

The man gave Roi Ja a small room. For the first few days, women in the village in turn have watched Roi Ja’s every movement. They gave Roi Ja 10 Yuan (approx. $1.6 USD) a day for daily expense as well as food. One day, she heard a chilling announcement by the ‘second’ man.

“Hello people, we have a girl from Burma at our house. If anyone needs bride…”

It 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 have learnt that I was sold for 30,000 Chinese Yuan [$ 4,842 USD].”

That amount might have been divided into three for : ‘gentle man’, ‘second man’ and the ‘friend’.

“If anyone needs bride…”

According to the report by Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (or KWAT) in 2008, “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 neighbor Kachin state, where refresh of conflict has been reiterating, has fueled the trafficking even worse.

Apart from it, ‘Gender disparity’ in Kachin society has helped feed trafficking, said KWAT’s report last year. It stated : “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 authority, on its side of findings, said 102 cases of human trafficking reported last year. Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (ATTF) – a special unit of the Burmese police force – said 59 cases involved trafficking to China. More than half of the cases resulted in forced marriage.

“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” said Nhkum Bawktawng, a KWAT researcher in Maijayang, a small town of the KIO-controlled. “In many cases, it is a friend, relatives or even family member of the victim, who allured victims in the first place” she added.

Yin Jiang is border city in China side. It’s the first transit spot for human trafficking to China. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

Yin Jiang is border city in China side. It’s the first transit spot for human trafficking to China. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

Indeed. Naw Kwang, a 18-year-old Kachin man living in Je Yang camp, received a phone call from his relative last August who said then “there’s a good job for you”. Naw Kwang soon crossed the border to Yin Jiang where he met three brokers whom the relative put him touch with. One of the three and his Kachin wife accompanied Naw Kwang traveling to Khongsi, a small city in Shanxi province – north east in China -. It took four days by bus and train. Naw Kwang met there seven men from various ethnicity including Kachin, Shan and Palaung in Burma. As soon as he arrived at Khongsi, he called his mother who’s in Je Yang camp.

“Mum, I got a job. I will send you money upon receiving my first wage.”

He didn’t realize he had been trafficked.

What Naw Kwang, along with seven other men were doing in Khongsi was logging, while his mother hasn’t received a single coin from her son for the next 3 months, which led mother to ask him : “You haven’t sent me money. Are you ok there?” When Naw Kwang asked the manager why they had not been paid for three months, the answer shocked them.

“I already paid several months’ wages to the couple who brought you.” the manager said.

It is later revealed that the Kachin wife of the broker who accompanied Naw Kwang was also victim of human trafficking. She has transformed herself from victim to be a trafficker.

From a victim to be a trafficker

Human trafficking has been 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 that traffickers are roaming around the IDPs camp, from where trafficking has been originated at times. Traffickers, who can be Chinese, Kachin or “Kachin Chinese”, have kept their eyes off 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 and four in Laiza town. These are all rebel-controlled areas. This is different from the previous report during the ceasefire in terms of ‘origin’ of trafficking. According to ‘Eastwood Bound’ – KWAT’s 2008 report – two thirds of trafficking cases took place in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state controlled by Burmese government.

The geographical position of rebel territory has also help traffickers. Most of IDPs camps in KIO controlled-area are along the Chinese border. Prime examples are Je Yang camp and Phlumyang camp. One can cross the border from the former through creek easily while the latter is connected with China by bridge. Moreover, rebel’s ability has been diminished to cope with the trafficking problem. Women groups recognized that KIO worked effectively on this epidemic problem before the war, but this is no longer the case.

“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 cease fire talks” Hkawn La (55), activist from Kachin Women Association (KWA) pointed out.

In the past if women trafficked to China escaped and reached a government-controlled border, then border forces would prison or fine escapees instead of assisting them. For this reason, escapees tried to reach rebel army, who would direct women to shelters followed by vocational training. But this practice has been weaken by the war’s resumption in 2011 June. 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. While the Chinese police were searching his location, Naw Kwang had been forced to move by brokers from Khongsi, where he was logging, to Guangdong, where he worked in a factory, then brought back to Khongsi. He was finally ‘released’ to Kunming because Chinese police called and warned brokers to release him. After twists and turns of the story, Naw Kwang has reunited with his mother in Yin Jiang in early November last year. He is now in Je Yang camp with his family.

Nja Kaw (name changed) is victim of human trafficking. She is HIV+ and abandoned in China before being handed over to Kachin Independence Organization. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

Nja Kaw (name changed) is victim of human trafficking. She is HIV+ and abandoned in China before being handed over to Kachin Independence Organization. (Photo © Lee Yu Kyung)

As for Roi Ja, who was trafficked to coastal village, she was rescued 20 days after she left home, ― luckily before forced marriage. She called her mother in Je Yang camp with help of a Shan woman in the village, who was ‘sister in law’ of the ‘second’ broker. The phone Roi Ja used was belong to the husband of Shan woman (i.e. the broker’s brother).

Roi Ja’s mother urgently informed the camp committee who then told Yin Jiang police. Yin Jiang police, being familiar with all these troubles, had traced the where about of Roi Ja through caller’s location. Police arrived at the coastal village in days to rescue Roi Ja. She was brought to Yin Jiang, two hours drive from the China-Burma border, where she reunited with her mother in tears.

Roi Ja, however, has earned a CNY3000 (484 USD) 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.

“Chinese police wouldn’t help you unless you pay them for ‘costs’.”

Shawng Shawng, KWAT’s Laiza researcher said.

Yet there’s at least one exception that Chinese police handed over a victim without demanding costs. It was Nja Kaw (name changed) who, as this writer saw her at first, continued to vomit and diarrhea in Laiza hospital. She was HIV+ and barely alive.

“It’s difficult to know what exactly happened to her. But we assume that she hasn’t taken ARV (HIV + treatment) for many days to get worse and abandoned.”

Dr. Nang Zing Bawk Wa, assistant medical advisor in Laiza hospital said.

Both KWAT and hospital authority, who occasionally deal with victims of human trafficking, said Chinese police who found her somewhere in China might have brought her to hospital to learn she’s HIV+. So they quickly handed her over to KIO foreign department.

‘Unconditional’ repatriation

In late 2013, Nhkum Bawktawng, a Maijayang researcher of KWAT has returned from Muse – another border town controlled by Burmese government. She has done awareness program of human trafficking in Muse. There, she had come across many mothers who would proudly say ‘our daughter married to Chinese man’.

“It seemed like a trend in Muse. People didn’t know it’s trafficking. Brokers came there to convince mothers who would make their daughters marry to Chinese men. Family got paid and thanked brokers, who have gone with daughters.”

** The article was made possible with support of South Korea’s Rhee Yeung Hui Foundation. The variety of it were published here and here in English, and here in Korean. 

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