Frustrated by a lack of local marriage prospects, Chinese farmers are now turning to an easy, illegal tactic for finding wives: going online and ordering them from neighboring Burma.
In China, where a longstanding one-child policy and sex-selective abortions have led to an unequal balance of men and women in the population, the demand for foreign wives is high. Male farmers, in particular, often struggle to marry local women because they cannot afford to pay the traditional dowry, and trafficking brides from Burma appears to be a more affordable alternative.
“Getting married to Chinese women is too expensive,” Yi Heliang, a Chinese farmer who bought a Burmese wife six years ago, told The Irrawaddy last week. “Burmese brides are cheap, so we [farmers] like to buy them.”
According to a report by the Burmese government last year, about 70 percent of trafficking in Burma was “committed solely with the intention of forcing girls and women into marriages with Chinese men.”
Yi Heliang lives with his Burmese wife and their daughter in a village near the Burmese border. He says he paid 5,000 yuan (US $800) for his marriage, compared to the traditional dowry price of 10,000 yuan for a Chinese bride.
He didn’t use a trafficking website, but as rural farmers continue to gain access to the Internet, this strategy seems to have become more common.
A recent online search by The Irrawaddy for “Burmese brides” yielded hundreds of results, including a website called “Burmese Bride Matching” which is not shy about advertising its purpose.
“Hello, bachelors!” the website’s home page reads. “Are you struggling to start a family? Are you getting frustrated by your nonexistent sex life? Want to be loved by someone?
“Even if you’re poor and a farmer, Burmese brides will be delighted to stay with you forever.”
‘Cheaper, Prettier and Easier’
Like many bride-trafficking websites, “Burmese Bride Matching” includes photographs of women for sale. The photos are posted on a page called “Product Display,” with contact information available for interested buyers.
When called by The Irrawaddy, a man facilitating the transactions said it was possible to purchase one of the women from the photos.
“You need to pay 8,000 yuan for an introduction [to the woman], and another 5,000 yuan to her family as a dowry,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another trafficker, associated with a separate website, quoted similar prices.
“Burmese wives are much better” than Chinese wives, said the trafficker, who called himself a “Chinese bachelor saver.”
Some websites will only sell to men who meet certain requirements. On “Burmese Bride Matching,” for example, customers must be “single, honest and good tempered,” with “no natural prejudices” or bad habits such as gambling.
In practice, however, activists say forced marriages often lead to a system of modern slavery.
“Once the Burmese women become wives, they are forced to bear children for their husbands,” said Moon Nay Li, coordinator of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), which has spent years studying human trafficking in Burma’s northernmost Kachin State.
She said husbands often restrict the movement of their wives, adding that “in some cases, the women are forced to work during the day and become sex slaves at night.”
In China’s Yunnan Province, most trafficked wives were between the ages of 14 and 20, according to Li Shunqiong, who leads the province’s anti-trafficking team. The oldest trafficked woman was 57 years old, he said, while the youngest was only 11.
Sometimes women are pulled from prior marriages in Burma. In a report by the KWAT in 2008, the last year the group released a study on this issue, more than 10 percent of trafficked women were already married.
The group is set to release an updated report about human trafficking next month.
Chinese demand for foreign wives is widely believed to result from Beijing’s one-child policy and the practice of aborting female fetuses.
“This has caused a shortage of women to marry, and men are paying up to $3,500 to traffickers for wives,” said Moon Nay Li of the Kachin group.
Chinese government figures released in June showed the East Asian country of 1.3 billion people had about 117 men for every 100 women. By 2020, single Chinese men could number 30 million, it said.
For bachelors in remote parts of the country, marriage prospects seem especially poor.
“My father is a farmer and my mother is a farmer, and Chinese women won’t marry me because I can’t afford a nice car and a house,” said a man who claimed to have bought a Burmese wife two year ago.
According to the United Nations, Burmese women are often trafficked to the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Fujian, Henan, Sichuan and Anhui. Others are taken to eastern provinces, particularly Shandong, according to reports by nongovernmental organizations.
In addition to forced marriages, some Burmese women choose to travel abroad to China, hoping to escape tough living conditions in Southeast Asia’s poorest country.
Last year, in a report on human trafficking around the world, the US Department of State reported that some trafficking cases “may have involved Burmese women voluntarily working with brokers to attempt to cross into China, with the understanding that they would be married to Chinese men.”
In other cases, women went to find jobs in China and were then sold against their will to Chinese men for marriage.
“More and more Kachin women are migrating to China in search of work, and are ending up as forced brides of Chinese men,” the KWAT said in its 2008 report.
Lack of Transparency
It is unknown exactly how many Burmese women are trafficked into China annually.
According to the US report last year, the Burmese regime said it investigated 173 cases of trafficking in 2010 and convicted 234 offenders.
However, the report said international organizations and nonprofits could not verify this information. In Burma, “limited capacity and training of the police, coupled with the lack of transparency in the justice system, make it uncertain whether all trafficking statistics provided by authorities were indeed for trafficking crimes,” the report said.
Moon Nay Li said it was becoming more difficult to identify how many Burmese women had been trafficked, due to ongoing fighting between the Burmese government and ethnic rebels that has displaced thousands of people internally. “But the number is definitely growing,” she said.
In 2009, the Chinese government signed a memorandum of understanding with Burma’s former military regime to tackle the problem, but Moon Nay Li said efforts to stop trafficking required more funding and support.
Also, in 2009, China’s Ministry of Public Security set up special offices in Yunnan Province to combat the cross-border trafficking of women and children.
KWAT says these efforts are not sufficient.
“The Chinese government has sentenced some traffickers to life in prison, and that’s a good sign,” said Naung Latt, a coordinator of the Kachin group.
“But to really make an impact, China needs to deal with its corruption problem,” Naung Latt added, saying traffickers could bribe Chinese police officers if they were caught.
“There’s also an urgent need [for Burma’s government] to provide support for community-based initiatives to raise awareness about trafficking, and to provide services to women and girls who have been trafficked from Burma.”