RANGOON — Burma’s Ministry of Labor has begun an inquiry into allegations made in an investigation by The Associated Press that hundreds of Burmese nationals in Indonesia are living slave-like existences to supply the global seafood industry.
The international news wire reported last week that hundreds of men, mostly from Burma, were being held against their will on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina, which serves as the base of operations for a trawler fleet that fishes in the area.
Khin Nway Oo, director of the local and overseas employment subdivision of the ministry’s Department of Labor, said she had been in contact with Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other relevant government bodies to determine the validity of the AP claims.
The Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), a Thailand-based organization, said Thailand’s Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) was helping to rescue the men, making several trips to the island.
Sein Htay, chairman of MWRN, said Tin Mu, the mother of a man who was sold to a trawler from Thailand, had been contacted by her son on Wednesday morning. She asked the NGO to help the man, 27-year-old Wai Lin Soe.
“He [Tin Mu’s son] said his trawler is in hiding now. We couldn’t contact his phone back,” Sein Htay said.
“I also heard that the Burmese government has also started an operation to help the men.”
Sein Htay said the missing man’s information and a photo were forwarded to LPN, which is now attempting to track down Wai Lin Soe on the island. He said LPN typically works to find Thai men in Indonesia facing conditions similar to those alleged by The Associated Press and bring them back home with the help of Thai police.
“This started from Thailand. The Thai government is responsible to take action in this case,” he said. “The Myanmar government will need to bring back the workers. They have done this before. They previously brought back more than 100 from Indonesia. They have known about this a long time. They have not done it [repatriated trafficking victims] effectively.”
The AP investigation found that the trawlers based in Benjina were captained by Thai nationals, though ownership of the company fielding the boats was unclear. The report said the Indonesian government was investigating the firm, Pusaka Benjina Resources.
Contacted by The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Harryansah Khairul, counselor at the Indonesian Embassy in Rangoon, said Indonesian authorities had launched an investigation following the report’s publication last week. Preliminary rescues had been primarily Thai nationals, he said, though some Burmese men were believed to be among the trafficked victims, but had been issued fraudulent identity documents indicating Thai citizenship.
The Associated Press on Thursday said officials from Thailand, Indonesia and Burma were cooperating to put a stop to the industry abuses.
“We [will] prove that we don’t want to let it happen anymore,” Ida Kusuma from the Indonesian Fisheries Ministry was quoted as saying. “I think the company who hired them should take full responsibility to bring them to their families.”
Sompong Srakaew, CEO & co-founder of LPN, said the problem extended beyond Benjina, telling a freelance Thai journalist that several hundred men who had been enslaved but escaped—among them Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian nationals—are holed up in Ambon, about 450 miles northwest of Benjina.
“This is an urgent mission,” Sompong told the journalist, who provided The Irrawaddy with the information.
The LPN leader said he planned to meet with officials from the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok on Friday regarding more than 30 men, including 23 Burmese, who are seeking repatriation from Indonesia. Sompong encouraged anyone who believes a member of their family was forcibly recruited into the fishing industry to contact his organization.
Tin Mu said her son left home in Thanbyuzayat, Mon State, in 2012 for Thailand with the help of a local human trafficker. He got a job at a seafood processing factory in Mahachai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, and worked there for a week before being sold to a fishing boat that had docked carrying fish from Indonesia. His sisters were also in Thailand but lost contact with him after he was on board. The mother came to Thailand seven months after her son left home to look for him.
“He said he didn’t want to go. He wants to come back. He doesn’t have money or a way of contacting. It’s like he’s lost his way.
“He can’t escape either. It’s like the connection is cut,” 55-year-old Tin Mu said.
Wai Lin Soe was not aware of the conditions he would face when he boarded the boat, later finding out that he could not get out of the arrangement.
Tin Mu managed to contact her son by phone one year after his disappearance. “He would call when his boat made landfall, like once every eight months.”
The last time she spoke to her son, Tin Mu said he was staying aboard a boat, docked somewhere by the owner who had moored the vessel because authorities were making arrests.
Tin Mu said she was afraid to contact any organization prior to the AP article’s publication because, like many Burmese migrants, she was working illegally and didn’t know who might be able to help her. There are about 500 Burmese men enslaved on Benjina, according to Wai Lin Soe.
“I want him to be free from that fishing boat as soon as possible,” Tin Mu said.