RANGOON — After failing his matriculation exam and a fight with his parents, Myan Myo Myint ran away from home. At the time, he had no idea he wouldn’t see his family again for 10 years.
One of possibly thousands of people trafficked by Thai fishing boats in the last 20 years, Myan Myo Myint was among the 530 Burmese nationals who arrived in Rangoon last week after the slave trade was exposed by an Associated Press report in March.
A middle-class native of Kawthaung town, Tenasserim, the then 16-year-old crossed the border into Thailand after he left home, and was approached by a broker while sitting on a train platform in Ranong province. Afraid of being caught by Thai police after illegally crossing the border, he agreed to work on a fishing boat after meeting its owner.
Presented with a Thai language contract, he was told he would be paid 9000 baht (US$270) per month with a two-year commitment. Along with several others, he was sent in a car to Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok.
Life in the boat was miserable. Unable to quickly master the basics of fishing, he was assaulted and threatened by the Burmese supervisor of the vessel. The long shifts kept the crew in a perpetual state of fatigue, and those who couldn’t be woken to work had firecrackers thrown into their beds.
Despite his promised salary, he was told he would be earning only 1000 baht (US$30) per month. When he asked the shipmaster for his pay, he was told that his employer was saving it for the end of his contract. After a month, he asked to quit the job without his salary, and was refused again.
Taken to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, he worked for over two years before he made the decision to run away with a friend when the vessel made landfall one day.
“I couldn’t eat for four days while I ran to escape from them,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Eventually, an elderly Indonesian woman took the pair in, despite the lack of a common language. He remained there for the next eight years, helping with home repair work and other odd jobs around the village in return for food.
“If I didn’t get work on one day, I would be worried about whether I could eat the next,” he said.
His friend left the village soon after they arrived. To this day, Myan Myo Myint doesn’t know whether he is still alive.
From time to time, he reached out to the local police station. Authorities told him they didn’t have the budget to return him home. He told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese Embassy in Jakarta were aware both of his presence and that of other trafficking victims. Similarly unable to repatriate the Burmese nationals, the embassy would occasionally send bags of rice to former fishermen who had married Indonesian women and begun to raise families.
Myan Myo Myint said there were many more Burmese nationals stranded on the islands over the last two decades after they ran away from life on the boats, and the 530 to return were largely those who had been trafficked to the island in the last few years.
“We could build a town from the Burmese stranded in Indonesia,” he said. “It’s more than five hundred, it’s more than a thousand. There are still many people living in these villages.”
After arriving in Rangoon, Myan Myo Myint was able to call Kawthaung and eventually locate his parents. He returned home this week after nearly a decade away.
“My mother thought I was dead,” he said. “I have so many regrets from what I did. I promised her I would try to become a good man.”