FORCED LABOR, CHILD SOLDIERS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN MYANMAR

FORCED LABOR IN MYANMAR

The Burmese military has used forced labor, known as "government servants" or "ghosts," to build roads and dams, harvest sugarcane and other agricultural products, sweep for mines, build military bases, lay railroad tracks, restore tourist sights and clear land. Human Rights Watch has recorded cases of Burmese citizens being abducted and forced to works as porters, carrying army supplies and weapons, and act as human shields with battles against ethnic insurgents in "malaria-infested war zones."

Forced laborers can be seen at road construction sites breaking rocks with pick axes, sledge hammers and small hammers under the hot midday sun. Hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" were put to work on the Mong Kwon electric power station, a railroad in southern Burma and a Western-financed natural gas pipeline. Involuntary "donations" have been coerced to bring computers to schools.

Myanmar is one of 19 nation criticized in a 2002 State Department on slave trading. The report on the issue said laborers are forced to work 60 days a year without pay and are required to bring their own food. Forced prison laborers clad in loincloths and chains are required are to work every day under the eye of rifle-toting soldiers.

According to a U.S. State department report hundreds of porters were thought to have died in 1994 alone "from disease and overwork.” “Reports of mistreatment and rape were also common....When porters are wounded, ill or unable to continue their work, some have been reportedly left unattended to die."

According to a United Nations Human Rights Commission report: "Even children are forced to do this kind of work. On May 29, 1988, troops are reported to have forced to work 10 to 15 boys, between the age o 14 and 16 to work at military bases. They were not fed, and were even beaten up by the soldiers." The use of forced labor is so widespread that the International Labor Organization (ILO) expelled Burma from the ILO for the regime’s widespread use of forced labor.

The International Labor Organization said in 2003 that in the central part of Myanmar forced labor was no longer used to build canals, airports and railroads but reported that in Myanmar’s border regions the military required farmers to carry supplies, clean barracks and build roads without pay. Refugees in Thailand gave similar reports. According to the ILO, Myanmar government efforts to tackle the forced labor problem at the time in the ethnic states consisted of little more than translating decrees into minority languages.

More recently Humantrafficking.org reported: “Military and civilian officials have for years systematically used men, women, and children for forced labor for the development of infrastructure and state-run agricultural and commercial ventures, as well as forced portering for the military. Some observers estimate that thousands of children, including boys as young as 11 years old, are forced to serve in Burma’s national army as desertions of men in the army continue. Government authorities use various forms of coercion, including threats of financial and physical harm, to compel households to provide forced labor. Those living in areas with the highest military presence, including remote border areas populated by ethnic groups, are most at risk for forced labor. The regime’s treatment of ethnic minorities makes them particularly vulnerable to trafficking. One study found an acute problem in Chin State where 92 percent of over 600 households surveyed reported at least one episode of a household member subjected to forced labor, including being forced to porter military supplies, sweep for landmines, or build roads, with the Burmese military imposing two-thirds of these forced labor demands.[Source: Humantrafficking.org ]

Forced Labor in Mandalay

In 1994, the 500,000 residents of Mandalay were told that would have to work without pay five to ten days every few months. The work often began at dawn and continued past sunset. Many of the "volunteers" complained it took them days to recover from the labor.

In Mandalay forced laborers were required to leave their normal jobs and dredge out the 11-foot-deep moat around the old imperial palace with their bare hands in 95°F temperatures. We are angry that we are being ordered to do this terrible work, a 50-year-old Mandalay shopowner working on the moat told the New York Times. "It's dangerous for me to say this but I am so upset I do not care. We must use our hands to take this filthy, smelly dirt from the bottom of the moat. I have seen women collapse from the heat. And for this, the Government pays us nothing."

The tea shopowner told the New York Times, "The Government is creating trouble for itself by making the people in Mandalay so angry."Much of the forced labor in Mandalay began as an effort to get the city's tourist sites ready for "Visit Myanmar Year in 1996."

The government refers to the forced labor as its "self reliance" projects. What is particularly tragic is that much of the work can be done easily with a machine. The efforts expended by a thousand people carrying muck out of the moat could easily be done with one forklift. One woman whose head was wrapped in rags to absorb the sweat told the New York Times, "The trucks and the machines use gas, but we are free.”

Government Position on Forced Labor

The Myanmar government has the laborers accused of being forced laborers are volunteers and defends the action on the basis of the Burmese tradition of contributed labor in the construction of pagodas, monasteries, roads and canals. According to the Myanmar government: "A belief exists that doing this leads to mental and physical well-being. Those who can afford to donate money do while those cannot donate their labor."

There may be some truth to this in regard to religious monuments. One woman who worked at a temple in Pagan told Smithsonian magazine, “No one forced us to work in the temples. We Burmese enjoy doing meritorious deeds as a way to escape suffering...We clean and restore temples so we can have a god life in the future.”

Burmese can get out of their forced work obligations by paying someone else to take their place or paying a monthly fine of $6 (a weeks wage for an average worker). Many military families were exempt from the free-labor requirements.

In 2000, The International Labor Organization (ILO), an affiliate of the United Nations, called for stiff measures to be taken against Myanmar for its forced labor policy. The move was unprecedented. But although most of th 175 member nations of the ILO said they would enact sanctions against Myanmar over the practice but not a single one did. Why? Myanmar is a member of the World Trade Organization and the kind of sanctions that ILO called for violated WTO rules.

Before the ILO move, Myanmar formally banned forced labor but is believed to have continued in practice. Later the ILO set up a liaison office in Yangon and called for “concrete steps” to be taken to end forced labor. At one point the military regime said that it would stop cooperating with the ILO on the issue of forced labor. According to Humantrafficking.org: “The Burmese Government has taken little to no law enforcement action against the military for forced labor. In fact, the government continued to incarcerate four individuals who reported forced labor cases involving the regime to the ILO or who were otherwise active in working with the ILO on forced labor issues.”

Child Soldiers in Myanmar

Children have been conscripted into the Myanmar army and ethnic insurgencies. Children conscripted by rebel units have sometimes been given Buddhist charms that have been purported to protect them in combat. Some children have reportedly intentionally drawn fire to see if the charms worked. Poverty has driven many children into joining the army, where they sometimes participate in "combat operations against drug producers or ethnic groups." Others have been abducted against their will.

According to Child Soldiers International: “Children in Myanmar have been widely used in armed conflict by both state armed forces and non-state armed groups. Despite a minimum age of 18 for military recruitment, over the years many hundreds of boys have been recruited, often forcibly into the national army (Tatmadaw Kyi) and deployed to areas where state forces have been fighting armed opposition groups. Border guard forces, composed of former members of armed opposition groups and formally under the command of the Myanmar military, also have under-18s in their ranks.[Source: Child Soldiers International *]

Human Rights Watch reported: “The U.N. secretary-general has identified Burma's armed forces as a consistent violator of international standards prohibiting the recruitment and use of child soldiers, listing the Tatmadaw Kyi in four consecutive reports since 2003. Several armed opposition groups have also been listed for recruiting and using child soldiers. The U.N. Security Council has stated repeatedly that it will consider targeted sanctions, including embargoes of arms and other military assistance, against parties on the secretary-general's list that refuse to end their use of children as soldiers, but so far has taken no action in the case of Burma. Given the abysmal record of the SPDC and some non-state armed groups in this regard, such action is clearly warranted. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

Child recruitment and use by armed opposition groups is also reported. These include: the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Karenni National Progressive Party/Karenni Army (KNPP/KA), Shan State Army South (SSA-S), United Wa State Army (UWSA). The KNU/KNLA and KNPP/KA have sought to conclude action plans on child soldiers with the UN, but the U.N. has been prevented from doing so by the Government of Myanmar. *

Child Soldiers in the Myanmar Army

Human Rights Watch reported: “By the time he was 16, Maung Zaw Oo had been forcibly recruited into Burma's national army not once, but twice. First recruited at age 14 in 2004, he escaped, only to be recruited again the following year. He learned that the corporal who recruited him had received 20,000 kyat, a sack of rice, and a big tin of cooking oil in exchange for the new recruit. "The corporal sold me," he said. The battalion that "bought" him then delivered him to a recruitment center for an even higher sum-50,000 kyat. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007. This report updates the information presented in the comprehensive report "'My Gun Was As Tall As Me': Child Soldiers in Burma," published by Human Rights Watch in 2002. ///]

“When his aunt learned that Maung Zaw Oo had been recruited a second time, she and his grandmother made a long trip to his battalion camp to try to gain his release. The captain of the battalion company offered to let Maung Zaw Oo go, but only in exchange for five new recruits. Maung Zaw Oo said, "I told my aunt, 'Don't do this. I don't want five others to face this, it's very bad here. I'll just stay and face it myself.'" By age 16 Maung Zaw Oo seemed resigned to his fate. When his unit went on patrol, he would volunteer for the most dangerous positions, walking either "point" at the front of the column, or last at the back. He said, "In the army, my life was worthless, so I chose it that way." ///

“In Burma, boys like Maung Zaw Oo have become a commodity, literally bought and sold by military recruiters who are desperate to meet recruitment quotas imposed by their superiors. Declining morale in the army, high desertion rates, and a shortage of willing volunteers have created such high demand for new recruits that many boys, some as young as ten, are targeted in massive recruitment drives and forced to become soldiers in Burma's national army, the Tatmadaw Kyi. ///

On his his initiation to combat one child soldier said, "I can't remember how old I was the first time in fighting. About 13. That time we walked into a Kareni ambush and four of our soldiers died," he told the group, referring to rebels of the Karen ethnic group. He became frightened and tried to run away, but his captain threatened to shoot him if he did, he said.

“For over a decade, consistent reports from the United Nations (UN) and independent sources have documented widespread recruitment and use of children as soldiers in Burma. At the beginning of 2004 the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), responded to international criticism of its child recruitment practices by establishing a high-level Committee for Prevention of Military Recruitment of Underage Children. However, close scrutiny reveals that the Committee has taken no significant action to redress the issue. Instead, the Committee's primary role appears to be to denounce accounts of child recruitment as false. ///

Factors Behind the Recruitment of Child Soldiers

Human Rights Watch reported: “After the army's violent crushing of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, the ensuing program of rapid army expansion was at odds with a dramatic drop in the number of volunteers. Rather than employing the Conscription Act to secure new soldiers, recruiters began using intimidation, coercion, and physical violence to gain new recruits and maintain the appearance of a volunteer army. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

“According to a former Tatmadaw battalion commander, "Those who volunteered were people who'd failed their school exams, or had financial or family problems. Volunteers probably account for only 5 percent of recruits, but even among those many don't want to fight, they just joined because of personal problems." Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were forced to join the army, and made similar estimates that no more than 5 or 10 percent of army recruits are volunteers. ///

“A former Tatmadaw officer who had worked on recruitment matters at the War Office, the Tatmadaw's command headquarters in Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch that in 1996-1998 the army recruited 10,000-15,000 soldiers per year nationwide. Adjutant General Thein Sein's order in September 2006-reflecting the Tatmadawstaffing crisis discussed above-to recruit 7,000 soldiers per month, if implemented over the subsequent one-year period, would have resulted in rates of recruitment six times greater than rates in the previous decade. ///

These staffing trends are a major factor behind the army's recruitment of children, as noted by former soldiers who were interviewed for this report. Kyo Myint, who was forced into the army at age 14 in 1992 and remained a soldier until 2005, said his battalion was often in combat and had a high attrition rate so they received 10 to 30 new recruits every six months. Over time he noticed a steady increase in the prevalence of children among new recruits; eventually children comprised more than half of all new recruits arriving at the battalion. When asked his opinion on recent SPDC promises to stop recruiting children, a former Tatmadaw battalion commander told Human Rights Watch, ‘Even if there are orders [to demobilize children], battalion commanders will keep the children but hide them in the battalion compound or battalion farms, but they'll keep them because they don't have enough soldiers. When I was in the army we always felt we had too many officers and not enough soldiers.’” ///

Poverty as Force Behind Children Becoming Soldiers

Human Rights Watch reported: “Prevailing social conditions often work to the advantage of recruiters. Burma's economy suffers from rapid inflation in basic commodity prices, a steadily declining currency, extremely poor infrastructure, and regular shortages in basic needs. Most analysts attribute these problems to economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and the diversion of much of the country's finances and resources to the support of the military, while very little is spent on social services. The World Food Programme reports that 32 percent of children under five are malnourished and lists among the main causes for this the restrictions on the movement of commodities, regional production disparities, and weak infrastructure. School fees and expenses for school materials, even at primary level, are more than many families can afford, causing most children to be pulled out of school before completion so that they can work to support their family. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

“This social and economic environment leads many children to leave their families, either because they feel like a burden on their parents or due to family fights or their involvement in petty crime activity. Out of school and looking for work, children are alone, exposed, and vulnerable to recruiters. Lacking knowledge about the law and their right not to be conscripted into the military, many are ill-equipped to resist recruiters' threats and coercion. ///

“Myin Win, who was recruited twice as a child, before finally escaping in 2005, described the first time he was taken into the army at age 11: I come from a very poor family. My father died when I was very young, and my mother is unemployed. I'm the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters.... I never went to school, and at age seven or nine I started working, tending herds of buffalos and cattle. I was born in 1989, and in 2000 I went to Rangoon to sell some garden produce like ginger. On the way I lost my travel pass from the Ward leader, and at Bago railway station some soldiers came on board and asked everyone for ID cards. I realized I'd lost my recommendation letter, and they took me. The same day they sent me to the Mingaladon Su Saun Yay in handcuffs. ///

Brokers Supply Child Soldiers to Myanmar

In October 2007, Nora Boustany wrote in Washington Post, “Burma's military government has been forcibly recruiting child soldiers through brokers who buy and sell boys to help the army deal with personnel shortages, which have been exacerbated by desertions and public aversion to its brutality, Human Rights Watch concludes in a detailed report being released today. "The brutality of Burma's military government goes beyond its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. "Military recruiters are literally buying and selling children to fill the ranks of the Burmese armed forces." [Source: Nora Boustany, Washington Post, October 31, 2007 <<]

“Military recruiters and civilian brokers have been collecting cash and other forms of compensation for each new soldier, ignoring questions of health and age, the study found. Army expansion and unprecedented desertion rates have driven the process, it said. Recruiters target children at train and bus stations, markets and other public places and threaten to arrest them if they don't join, Human Rights Watch said. Senior generals and recruiters in Burma, which the military junta calls Myanmar, condone and engage in this traffic, it said. <<

One boy told Human Rights Watch that he was only 11 when he was forcibly recruited despite his height, 4-foot-3, and weight, 70 pounds. Enlistment records are often falsified to claim children are 18 or older, the report said. "They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said I was 16, I was slapped and he said, 'You are 18. Answer 18,' " another Burmese, Maung Zaw Oo, told Human Rights Watch, recounting a 2005 incident. "He asked me again and I said, 'But that's my true age.' The sergeant asked, 'Then why did you enlist in the army?' I said, 'Against my will. I was captured.' He said, 'Okay, keep your mouth shut then,' and he filled the form." Requests to go home or make a phone call were refused, according to his testimony. <<

Describing being recruited for the second time in 2003, at age 14, Myin Win told told Human Rights Watch: “When we reached Toungoo railway station a lance corporal approached me. He asked for my ID card and I told him I had a pass letter. He said no, an ID card is required, otherwise you'll go to prison. I was afraid so I said, "I'll give you money." He said, "I don't want money." I said, "I'll call my mother and she can vouch for me." He said, "I don't want to see your mother or father and I don't want money. I want you to join the army." I said no but he dragged me to a cell at the police station and told the police, "Detain him for a while" but without any charge. I think they had connections. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

Child Soldiers Recruits in the Tatmadaw “All Volunteer” Army

Human Rights Watch reported: “The unrelenting pressure to meet recruitment quotas has placed boys at constant risk of forced or coerced recruitment. Battalions and recruiting centers offer cash and other inducements to their own soldiers to bring in recruits, but are also willing to "buy" recruits from civilian brokers and the police. In 2005 the going rate for new recruits ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 kayt-representing one-and-a-half to over three times the monthly salary of an army private. Would-be recruiters watch train stations, bus stations, markets, and other public places, looking for "targets"-the easiest being young adolescent boys on their own. The boys are then induced with promises of money, clothing, status, a job and a free education, or threatened with arrest for loitering or not being in possession of an identity card and offered military service as the alternative, or they may be otherwise intimidated, coerced, or if necessary beaten into "volunteering" for the army. Some boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch told how they and others had been detained in cells, handcuffed, beaten, bought and sold from one recruiter or battalion to another, and eventually taken to the recruitment centers. As this report was going to press in October 2007, Human Rights Watch continued to receive eyewitness accounts of army units recruiting children and transporting them to training centers.[Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

“At the time of enlistment, all recruits are required to provide documentary evidence that they are over 18 years old. According to the testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, such proof is rarely requested and recruitment officers appear to consistently register underage recruits as being 18, even when the child states otherwise. Any reluctance on the part of the recruitment officers to register boys who are particularly young is usually remedied by a bribe, so that the procurer of the recruit can receive his incentive payout. One boy recruited at age 11 told Human Rights Watch that he failed his recruitment medical because he was only four feet three inches (1.3 meters) tall and weighed only 70 pounds (31 kilograms), but that his recruiter bribed the medical officer to ensure his recruitment regardless. Some soldiers interviewed noted that as the demand for new recruits grows, adherence to minimum guidelines on physical, medical, educational, and age standards has become increasingly lax. ///

“Child recruits are held as virtual prisoners until sent for 18 weeks of basic military training, where they are forced to do heavy physical work and are punished if they fail in their training exercises. Recruits who attempt escape, including children, are punished, often severely. Human Rights Watch has received consistent reports of soldiers who desert from training being beaten with sticks by as many as 200 or more trainees; injuries sustained from such punishment sometimes leave them disabled for weeks. ///

“After training, child soldiers are deployed to battalions, where they are subject to physical abuse by officers and are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labor. Some battalions keep their younger children away from combat, but in others, child soldiers may be sent into combat zones within a few days to a month of their arrival; most of those interviewed for this report had seen combat and violent death. Leave is rarely granted, and discharge is usually conditioned on bringing in several new recruits. ///

“Those who desert the army are often caught when they return home and imprisoned or re-recruited. Several of those interviewed had escaped only to be recaptured and forced to join the army a second time while still a child. Than Myint Oo, for example, was first recruited at 14, escaped the army, but was captured and sentenced to six months' imprisonment for desertion at age 15. He escaped from prison, was captured and re-recruited to the army, and eventually deserted again and reached Thailand. Now 19, he no longer dares return home.

“All of the former soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported the presence of children in their training companies. Of the 20 interviewed, all but one estimated that at least 30 percent of their fellow trainees were under age 18. The prevalence of child soldiers in army battalions varies significantly. In some infantry battalions child soldiers comprise less than 5 percent of total staffing, while former child soldiers reported that in some newly created battalions, up to 50 to 60 percent of all privates were below age 18. Given these variations and the difficulty of estimating overall staffing levels within the Tatmadaw, this report makes no attempt to estimate the total number of children in Burma's army.”

Cracking Down on Child Soldiers in the Myanmar Army

In June 2012, after protracted negotiations with the UN, the Myanmar government signed up to an action plan under which it has committed to release all under-18s present from Tatmadaw Kyi and border guard forces. [Source: Child Soldiers International *]

In 2008, AFP reported: “Myanmar's ruling junta has taken action against 43 members of the military for recruiting child soldiers over the last five years, a top general said in state media said. Major General Thura Myint Aung, who heads a government panel charged with ending the practice of forcing minors into the army, told state media that from 2002 to 2007, officials had returned 792 children from the military to their parents. The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted him as saying the authorities had "taken action" against 43 military personnel, including some officers. The paper gave no details on the punishments handed down.Thura Myint Aung urged military commanders "not to accept the minors who try to enlist themselves in the armed forces." [Source: AFP, January 30, 2008]

Human Rights Watch Becker a high-level committee created by the junta to address the child recruitment issue as a "sham." The committee largely devoted its efforts to denouncing reports on the issue, the group said. she said. In September 2007, state-run media announced that the government was working to reveal that charges of recruitment of young boys were "totally untrue." [Source: Nora Boustany, Washington Post, October 31, 2007]

According to Humantrafficking.org: “The Burmese Government has taken little to no law enforcement action against the military for forced labor or use of child soldiers. In fact, the government continued to incarcerate four individuals who reported forced labor cases involving the regime to the ILO or who were otherwise active in working with the ILO on forced labor issues.”

Child Soldiers in Myanmar’s Ethnic Insurgencies

Human Rights Watch reported: “Child soldiers are also present in the majority of Burma's 30 or more non-state armed groups, though in far smaller numbers. Some of these groups have taken effective measures to reduce the number of child soldiers among their forces, but other groups continue to recruit children and use them in their ranks. Most of Burma's non-state armed groups have at least some child soldiers in their ranks, but they differ greatly in how these children are recruited and treated, and in their willingness and efforts to stop using child soldiers. These groups are much smaller in troop strength than the Tatmadaw, and as a whole have far fewer child soldiers than the Tatmadaw. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007 ///]

“Many child recruits volunteer to serve in these groups, either because their families cannot support them or because they wish to participate in the armed struggle or to defend their families and villages against the Burma army's human rights abuses. Some armed groups impose recruit quotas requiring villages or households to supply a recruit. In such cases a family often sends a child under 18 so that it can retain the older, more productive family members for the household, or because they have no children over 18. ///

“Many non-state groups have only recently begun seeing child recruitment as an issue. Human Rights Watch found that while some groups, like the Karenni Army and the Karen National Liberation Army, have taken steps to address child recruitment, other groups persist in the practice, including the United Wa State Army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and the Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front. Many are wary of engaging the international community on this issue: for example, the Shan State ArmySouth, which appears to have taken some measures on its own but is reluctant to allow outside monitoring, and the Kachin Independence Army, which considers accepting children into non-combat roles in the army as a form of foster care for vulnerable children, and prefers to deal with the issue without outside involvement. ///

“Koo Reh, recruited by the Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front in 2005 at age 13 said: “I was watching the video, and he sat and talked to me. He said if I joined I'd be happy and get a salary and uniform. I don't remember his name but he was from KNPLF. I agreed to join. He spoke to many people in the cinema, one by one, 20 or 25 people, adults, women, boys. About six people went with him. The older ones were 16 or 17, the younger ones 11, 12 or 13. I went home but didn't tell my mother, then I went with him.” ///

“Both the Karenni Army and the Karen National Liberation Army have taken measures to try to bring their practices into line with international standards, including the recent signing by both groups of Deeds of Commitment promising to end child recruitment, demobilize children in their forces, and allow outsiders to independently monitor their compliance. Although previous Human Rights Watch research found children present in the Karenni Army, our current investigation found no evidence of recruitment or use of child soldiers by the group.” ///

See Minorities. Ethnic Insurgencies

Human Trafficking and Myanmar

Myanmar is one of 19 nation criticized in a 2002 State Department on slave trading. The report said it had made no effort to stop the commerce of human being who are forced to work in brothels, sweatshops and other involuntary servitude.

According to the CIA World Factbook: Burma is a source country for women, children, and men trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation; Burmese women and children are trafficked to East and Southeast Asia for commercial sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labor, Burmese children are subjected to conditions of forced labor in Thailand as hawkers and beggars; women are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation to Malaysia and China; some trafficking victims transit Burma from Bangladesh to Malaysia and from China to Thailand; Burma's internal trafficking remains the most serious concern occurring primarily from villages to urban centers and economic hubs for labor in industrial zones, agricultural estates, and commercial sexual exploitation; a small number of foreign pedophiles occasionally exploit Burmese children in the country. The driving factors behind Burma's significant trafficking problem are the regime's gross economic mismanagement and human rights abuses. Although the government of Burma has taken some steps to address cross-border sex trafficking, it has not demonstrated serious and sustained efforts to clamp down on military and local authorities who are themselves deriving economic benefit from forced labor practices [Source: CIA World Factbook]

According to Humantrafficking.org: “Burma is a source and transit country for human trafficking. Burma’s military regime is the main perpetrator of human trafficking abuses both within the country and abroad. Burmese men, women, and children are trafficked for sexual and labor exploitation in Thailand, the People’s Republic of China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Macau, and Pakistan. Children are trafficked to Thailand for forced labor as beggars. Reports have indicated a trend in trafficking women and girls as young as fourteen to China to work in the sex industry or to become brides to Chinese men. While there are no reliable estimates on the number of Burmese who are trafficked, most observers believe that the number of victims is at least several thousand per year. [Source: Humantrafficking.org |:|]

Burma has internal trafficking from rural areas to border areas with China and Thailand, particularly areas with trucking routes, mining areas, military bases, fishing villages, and military camps. Children are trafficked internally for forced labor in agriculture and small-scale industries or as child soldiers. Trafficking within Burma continues to be a significant problem primarily due to the military’s unlawful conscription of child soldiers and the fact that it is the main perpetrator of forced labor inside the country. Burma is a transit country for Bangladeshi victims trafficked through Burma destined for Malaysia, and Chinese victims trafficked through Burma to Thailand. |:|

There are many causes of human trafficking in Burma. The military regime’s climate of impunity, gross economic mismanagement, human rights abuses, and its continued widespread use of forced and child labor, as well as recruitment of child soldiers, remain the top causal factors for Burma’s significant trafficking problem, both within the country and abroad. The lack of job opportunities and the presence of higher incomes in neighboring countries have significantly contributed to the out-migration of hundreds of thousands of people. Such a situation has created an opportunity for traffickers to lure the victims to other countries with false promises |:|

Myanmar’s Women Forced to Be Chinese Brides

Some girls and young women are kidnaped and taken to China and sold as brides. David Eimer wrote in The Telegraph, “Aba was just 12-years-old when she left her hometown of Muse in Burma to visit Yunnan Province in China's far southwest. When she crossed the border, she was expecting to spend only a few hours away from home. But it would be three long years before Aba saw her family again. Like thousands of other young girls and women from Burma, she had been duped into coming to China so she could be sold into a forced marriage to one of the growing number of Chinese men who – because there are not enough girl babies born in China – cannot find wives any other way. [Source: David Eimer, The Telegraph, September 4, 2011 <>]

“During her time in China, Aba endured routine beatings, while never being able to communicate with her family or even go outside on her own. Above all, she lived with the knowledge that she was destined to be married to the son of the family that had bought her – as if she was one of the pigs or chickens that ran around their farm. "I was sold for 20,000 Yuan (£1,880)," said Aba. "I was too young to get married when they bought me. It was later that they told me I had to get married to their son. I was lucky in a way. If I had been two or three years older when I was taken, I'd be married to him now." <>

“Most people wouldn't consider it fortunate to be kidnapped as a child and sold into virtual slavery. But Aba is one of the lucky ones. Not only did she escape a forced marriage, but she was rescued and was able to return home. For most of the women from Burma who are sold as unwilling brides in China, there are no happy endings. Instead, they face at best lives of misery and drudgery. At worst, they are driven to suicide. No one knows how many thousands of women are trafficked into China each year to be the wives of the men known as guang gun, or bare branches, the bachelors in rural areas who cannot find brides by conventional means. What is certain is that it is a number increasing all the time.

Min Naing, chief of the Special Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit in Naypyidaw, told The Irrawaddy the root cause of the problem was the shortage of women in China, where decades of the one-child policy has meant there are millions more men than women in the country. Poor Burmese women living in border areas are taken in by promises of a good life, and well paid work, on the other side of the border. The official figures only include cases where Burmese authorities have been able to rescue the victim, and may only represent a fraction of the true number of Burmese women trafficked into China. [Source: Lawi Weng, the Irrawaddy, December 24, 2013]

“Thirty years of China's one-child policy has combined with the traditional Chinese preference for male children to create a devastating gender imbalance. It is estimated that 120 boys are now born in China for every 100 girls. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, that means by 2020 some 24 million men will be unable to find wives. "The one-child policy has had a considerable impact. Where you have a demographic imbalance, you have a situation where women are in demand. Sometimes, that demand is met through legitimate marriage brokers. Other times it is met by non-legitimate means," said David Feingold, the International Coordinator for HIV/Aids and Trafficking in Unesco's Bangkok office, and the writer and director of the 2003 documentary Trading Women. <>

Human Trafficking Trade Between China and Myanmar

David Eimer wrote in The Telegraph, “Desperate poverty and frequent food shortages in Myanmar make it very easy for the traffickers to trick women into leaving for China and jobs that will never materialise. Instead, the women are sold as wives. Prices for the women range from 6,000 to 40,000 Yuan (£560-£3750), depending on their age and appearance. According to the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (Kwat), a Thai-based NGO that helps trafficked Burmese women, around 25 per cent of the women sold in China are under 18. "The men always want healthy, young women who can produce babies. The women are really just regarded as baby-making machines," said Julia Marip, the head of Kwat's anti-trafficking programme in Yunnan Province. [Source: David Eimer, The Telegraph, September 4, 2011]

Once Aba arrived in Ruili, a scruffy border town in Yunnan that is the main transit point for trafficked women from Burma, she was sold to a family who owned a cotton farm in the northeast of China. Now almost 16 and pretty with a shy smile, Aba is one of three children of a casual labourer and an unemployed mother. Thankfully, Aba escaped being paraded in public in front of potential buyers, which is the fate of many trafficked women. It is a brutal and dehumanising experience. "Sometimes they'll be sold in markets that are held in parks. The traffickers will put the women in nice dresses and make-up. It's very cruel, because the women are happy to be wearing nice clothes, which they've never had before, and then they are sold like vegetables," said Miss Marip. <>

See Women, Human Trafficking and Prostitution, See Prostitution, Thailand

Human Trafficking and the Rohingya

In January 2012, The BBC reported that Thai officials have allegedly been selling Rohingya boat people to human traffickers. The BBC report said, "Thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's far west have taken to the sea in the last few months, heading east to Thailand. The BBC found that boats from Rakhine State were being intercepted by the Thai navy and police, with deals then being done to sell the people to traffickers." [Source: The Nation, January 23, 2013]

On allegations that Thai army officers were linked to Rohingya smuggling, the Bangkok Post reported. “Army officers from the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) are alleged to be involved in the smuggling of Rohingya migrants into Thailand, a police investigation has found. Army commander in chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has confirmed the officers' involvement to the Bangkok Post Sunday. A high ranking police source involved in the case said the investigation found the trafficking of Rohingya migrants - mostly from Myanmar's Rakhine state - to Malaysia via Songkhla had been going on for several years and was under the control of some military officers with ranks from major to colonel. [Source: Bangkok Post, January 20, 2013]

The Irrawaddy reported: “A Burmese monk has been arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle a group of Rohingya Muslims disguised in Buddhist robes from western Arakan State to Rangoon, Radio Free Asia reported on Monday. The monk from Mon State and the driver were charged with smuggling eight Muslim men and helping them impersonate the Buddhist clergy, the news agency reported. The Rohingya men were arrested for traveling without proper documentation. The United Nations calls Rohingya Muslims one of the world’s most persecuted groups. They are not recognized as citizens by Burma’s government, which forbids them from traveling between townships without special permission. [Source: The Irrawaddy, April 9, 2013]

Reporting from Malaysia, Julia Zappei wrote in Associated Press: “Police arrested five officers on trafficking allegations. They say their investigations revealed immigration officials took Myanmar immigrants to the Thai border and sold them for up to 600 ringgit ($170) to traffickers. The traffickers then told the migrants to pay 2,000 ringgit ($570) for their freedom, or they would be forced to work in the fishing industry, police said. Myanmar community leaders said women who failed to pay were sold into prostitution. Abdul Rahman Othman, the director general of the Immigration Department, said he was taking steps to prevent his officers from being "entangled" in trafficking syndicates. He said officers would be rotated to different posts every three years and have a buddy system to supervise each other. "Ninety-nine percent of us in immigration are good people," he said, denying the problem is widespread. [Source: Julia Zappei, Associated Press, August 16, 2009]

See Rohingya, Thailand

Thailand Secretly Supplies Rohingya Refugees to Human Trafficking Rings

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “One afternoon in October, in the watery no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar, Muhammad Ismail vanished. Thai immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold Ismail, 23, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims to human traffickers, who then spirited them into brutal jungle camps. As thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters investigation in three countries has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of dollars to release them. Reporters located three such camps - two based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor. Thousands of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews.*/*

“The Thai authorities say the movement of Rohingya through their country doesn't amount to human trafficking. But in interviews for this story, the Thai Royal Police acknowledged, for the first time, a covert policy called "option two" that relies upon established human-smuggling networks to rid Thailand of Rohingya detainees. */*

“Ismail was one of five Rohingya who said that Thai immigration officials had sold him outright or aided in their sale to human traffickers. "It seemed so official at first," said Ismail, a wiry farmer with a long narrow face and tight curly hair. "They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had been sold." Ismail said he ended up in a camp in southern Thailand. So did Bozor Mohamed, a Rohingya whose frail body makes him seem younger than his 21 years. The camp was guarded by men with guns and clubs, said Mohamed, and at least one person died every day due to dehydration or disease. "I used to be a strong man," the former rice farmer said in an interview, as he massaged his withered legs. */*

“Mohamed and others say they endured hunger, filth and multiple beatings. Mohamed's elbow and back are scarred from what he said were beatings administered by his captors in Thailand while he telephoned his brother-in-law in Malaysia, begging him to pay the $2,000 ransom they demanded. Some men failed to find a benefactor in Malaysia to pay their ransom. The camp became their home. "They had long beards and their hair was so long, down to the middle of their backs, that they looked liked women," said Mohamed. */*

“What ultimately happens to Rohingya who can't buy their freedom remains unclear. A Thai-based smuggler said some are sold to shipping companies and farms as manual laborers for 5,000 to 50,000 baht each, or $155 to $1,550. "Prices vary according to their skills," said the smuggler, who spoke on condition of anonymity.” */*

“The Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group based in Thailand, says it has interviewed scores of Rohingya who have passed through the Thai camps and into Malaysia. Many Rohingya who can't pay end up as cooks or guards at the camps, said Chris Lewa, Arakan Project's director. Thai officials might have profited from Rohingya smuggling in the past, said Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit, Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police. He also confirmed the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called "holding bays". Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the U.S. FBI, was also asked about the camps Reuters discovered. "We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand," he said, "but we are not investigating this issue." */*

Combating Human Trafficking in Myanmar

According to Humantrafficking.org:“In an effort to address the problem of trafficking in persons, the government restricts international travel for women, particularly those less than 25 years of age. This could drive some seeking to leave the country into the hands of “travel facilitators,” who may have ties with traffickers. Further, due to the authorities’ refusal to recognize members of certain ethnic minority groups (including the Rohingyas) as citizens and provide them with identification documentation, these groups are more vulnerable to trafficking. [Source: Humantrafficking.org |:|]

Although the Government of Burma took some steps to address cross-border sex trafficking, it has not demonstrated serious and sustained efforts to clamp down on military and local authorities who are themselves engaging in forced labor and the conscription of child soldiers. As such, the Burmese Government was placed in Tier 3 in the 2011 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report) for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so.

Burma’s 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law criminalizes sex and labor trafficking in Burma. The penalty for trafficking women, children, and youth is 10 years to life; the penalty for trafficking men is five to 10 years; the penalty for fraud used to traffic is three to seven years; the penalty for trafficking victims for pornography is five to 10 years; the penalty for trafficking with an organized criminal group is 10 years to life; the penalty for serious crime involving trafficking is 10 years to life or death; and the penalty for public officials who accept money related to an investigation of trafficking is three to seven years. All penalties also include the option of a fine.

While the Government of Burma reported continued law enforcement efforts against trafficking of women and girls across international borders during the year, including for forced marriages, it failed to demonstrate apparent progress in investigating, prosecuting, and convicting perpetrators of internal trafficking – particularly the military’s forced conscription of soldiers, including child soldiers, and use of forced labor.

The Burmese Government has taken steps to increase its arrests, prosecutions, convictions for cross border trafficking. In 2010, the Burmese regime reported that its police investigated 173 cases of human trafficking and convicted 234 traffickers with sentences ranging from five years to life imprisonment. The ILO reported that it submitted 354 cases to the Burmese Government for action in 2010 and that the regime resolved 161 cases; 159 cases are pending resolution and 34 cases were closed with an “unsatisfactory outcome” according to the ILO.

Prosecuting Human Traffickers in Myanmar

In February 2007, Xinhua reported: “A Myanmar district court has sentenced 33 local human traffickers to life imprisonment for trafficking dozens of young women to an unidentified neighboring country during the last three months, an official newspaper reported Monday. The 33 human traffickers, sentenced by the Yamethin district special court in Mandalay division, were among the 51 arrested by the Myanmar police force between last December and February this year with the cooperation of its neighboring counterpart, the New Light of Myanmar said, adding that 13 other foreign traffickers were also nabbed. According to the report, the human traffickers deceived 49 young Myanmar women to work in a neighboring country, promising them that they will be well paid. [Source: Xinhua, February 19, 2007 <0>]

“In September 2006, Myanmar authorities also nabbed a 30-member human trafficking gang on the Myanmar-China border in cooperation with the Chinese police force for trafficking 180 Myanmar young women to Ruili in southwest China's Yunnan Province by means of forced marriage and fake marriage, according to the Home Ministry. In August 2006, two Myanmar human traffickers -- a woman and a man, were sentenced to long-year imprisonments by a local court in Muse for respectively persuading a girl residing in Kutkai to marry a Chinese man and enticing two girls with false promise for better work in Ruili and selling them there, it said. Meanwhile, Myanmar formed the Central Committee for Anti- Trafficking in Persons in March last year to step up cracking down on such crime. <0>

“To step up the momentum in cracking down on human trafficking, the Myanmar authorities have formed nine special units to combat such crimes in nine township areas bordering China, the sources said. According to the ministry, Myanmar had exposed 748 human trafficking cases since July 2002 up to September last year, arresting 1,484 such traffickers including 669 women, and rescuing 3,694 victims including 1,790 women. <0>

Snakeheads Trafficking Chinese Through Myanmar

Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in The New Yorker, “Once Michael Chen had made his down payment in Fuzhou, China in 1991, he set off with several others from his village, travelling by bus and train to the city of Kunming, a day’s drive from China’s southern border with Burma. They stayed in a cheap hotel for a week; then, one night, snakeheads hid them among bags of rice in the back of a truck and drove them closer to the border. “At the beginning, we weren’t scared,” Chen told me. But when they reached the border they realized that their situation was perilous: the checkpoint was closely monitored by armed guards. During the night, the snakeheads led Chen and a dozen others across the border into Burma. [Source: Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, April 24, 2006 ^^]

“A forbidding mountain range separates Burma from Thailand, and the travellers bought supplies for the month- long trek. “In the daytime it was hot,” Chen said. “At night it’s freezing. . . . We could not light a fire, because if you light in the mountains people will see it.” Along the way, the group passed the remains of other Chinese who did not survive the mountains, their decomposing bodies covered with banana leaves. The smugglers’ route led directly through the Golden Triangle, where much of the world’s heroin supply is produced. Chen recalls crossing this territory at night, dodging the drug harvesters’ spotlights, which panned across the poppy fields.” ^^

“After arriving in Bangkok, in early 1992, Chen was kept in a safe house. The American crackdown at the Bangkok airport had begun, so the safe houses were uncomfortably crowded. On three occasions, Chen’s snakeheads failed to bribe local Thai officials, and the house was raided. Once, he was arrested and thrown into a Thai prison for a month, until the snakeheads could reach his parents and get them to bail him out. They had to take out a loan, and his father worked “day and night, like a machine,” to pay it off, Chen told me. He was stuck in Thailand for more than a year.” ^^

North Koreans Defectors Transiting Through Myanmar

In January 2009, CNN reported: “Nineteen North Koreans have been released from detention in Myanmar and sent to Thailand, Burmese officials told the U.S.-funded Voice of America news service Thursday.The suspected defectors were detained in Myanmar in early December while trying to flee to South Korea through China and Southeast Asia. Other news agencies said the defectors included 15 women and a 7-year-old boy. South Korean officials told Voice of America they would be welcomed in South Korea.[Source: CNN, January 1, 2009]

In December 2008, Deutsche Presse Agentur reported: “Nineteen North Korean defectors, who were arrested in Burma, are going to be tried this week for illegal entry, a South Korean newspaper reported. The North Korean group, which includes four children, was arrested in Tachilek, a town on the Burma-Thai border about 550 kilometers north-east of Rangoon after they were forced to shift their boat route from Thailand to Burma, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. Most North Korean defectors usually enter a third country like Thailand as a passage towards their final destination South Korea or the United States. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, December 2, 2008 <+>]

After their departure from China's southern province of Yunnan, they set out towards Thailand, travelling south along the Burma-Thai border, the paper said. "But the river storm forced them to change the route towards the slow-flowing Burma side of the border," one Korean resident in Burma close to their entry was quoted as saying. The North Koreans face either deportation back to China or Thailand or between six months and two years in prison. <+>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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