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People smuggling is endemic on Burma’s porous northern border with China. In northern centres such as Lashio, Shan State, girls as young as 14 are being stolen from their families and trafficked over the Chinese border, where they are sold into slavery or forced into marriage.
Women are being bought by Chinese men for around US$3,500. An extra payment is often made if the woman becomes pregnant.
In one high-profile case stemming from Naryama, a rural village on the outskirts of Lashio, one family has made progress in their fight to bring back their girl.
“My sister-in-law has two children. She was taken from our village recently,” said one family member. “We didn’t realise at first. After 3-4 days, we approached a woman and a Chinese man that we suspected might have kidnapped her.”
She enlisted the help of the village chief.
“The Naryama village headman asked them, and he was informed that she was in China,” she said. “So the headman sent me to China. I tried to ask where she was and tried to get there. I met her. She was with a Chinese husband. She said she was forced to marry him.”
“I couldn’t rescue her myself. I had to return home.”
The market for Burmese women in China is growing. Women among the 120,000 people displaced by the ongoing civil war in Burma’s north are exceptionally vulnerable, as are women from families gripped by poverty, who are often tricked by the promise of a well-paid job in China. Lashio’s representative in Naypyidaw, Sai San Min, said that while the region faces an urgent trafficking problem, it is not being addressed as other problems — like the drug trade — take precedence.
“The trafficking problem gets bigger and bigger,” said Sai San Min of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. “But the trafficking issue is not treated as seriously as the drug trade. This needs to change.”
The Palaung Women’s Organisation (PWO) says the threat to girls pervades every village in a state gripped by war and a rampant opium trade. They said, however, that local law enforcement does seem to be improving.
“This year we have exposed nine cases of forced marriage and one case of forced labour coming out of Lashio,” says San San Htay, a local police officer and member of the Lashio branch of the state anti-trafficking task force.
“Among those cases,” she continued, “we arrested eight male suspects and 20 female suspects. A total of 28 people have been charged.
“The majority of trafficking victims are women and children,” she confirmed. “Trafficking to China represents around 80 percent of cases. Internal trafficking accounts for four percent. About 16 percent are trafficked to Thailand.”
Year after year, Burmese authorities at the state and national level report human trafficking cases in the hundreds. However, according to women’s rights groups such as the PWO and the Women’s League of Burma, the number of women stolen away to China each year could be much higher.