The Changing Nature of the Burma-China Sex Trade

By Thit Nay Moe 7 September 2016

MUSE, Shan State — Life was hard for Ma Nyo Nyo (not her real name). After the death of her husband, she struggled to take care of her children and her elderly mother who had suffered a paralytic stroke.

When a cloth merchant from the China border area came to Ma Nyo Nyo’s small town in Irrawaddy Division, she thought her fortunes had changed.

“The cloth merchant told us jobs are abundant in Laukkai” Ma Nyo Nyo told The Irrawaddy, referring to the primary city in the ethnic Kokang region of northern Shan State. “I decided to go to Laukkai. When I arrived, the merchant told me I could get a job in China with a good salary in Chinese yuan, which would be a large amount when exchanged to kyat.”

Ma Nyo Nyo travelled with the merchant to the Chinese border town of Ruili where she was handed over to another person. After a four-day car journey, she arrived in a rural Chinese village and was placed with a local family.

“When I woke up the next morning I found the people who had sent me there had disappeared. I questioned what had happened in Burmese but the Chinese villagers just waved their hands to show they did not understand what I said,” Ma Nyo Nyo recalled.

Ma Nyo Nyo gestured to the Chinese family that she wanted to use the phone and called the person who had brought her from Ruili. The person told her to be well-behaved and to “give birth to a child as soon as possible” if she wanted to go back to Burma.

In a state of shock, she demanded to be brought back to her home country but the phone line went dead. At that moment, she understood that she had been sold to a Chinese family and married off to a complete stranger.

After a few days, the son of the family tried to sleep with her. When Ma Nyo Nyo resisted his attempts he produced papers and gestured that he had bought her with money.

“It was not a one-day thing. Eventually, I could no longer resist and I was forced to have sex with him,” she said. Her ordeal lasted for five months, until she was lucky enough to escape. She ran for a day before she was picked up by Chinese police and handed over to Burma’s human trafficking branch of the police force in Muse on the Burma-China border.

According to official statistics, there were about 400 reported cases of human trafficking from 2006 to 2015 in Muse District. Over 1,000 traffickers were arrested over this period, but police believe more than 400 are still at large.

Police major U Khin Maung Oo of Muse district’s human trafficking police squad, told The Irrawaddy that he had witnessed many cases where Burmese women had been sold into forced marriages in China.

“In most cases, Burmese women are not ‘married’ off to Chinese men in urban areas,” he said. “They are forced to marry men in rural villages who can’t find a bride. Some places are in very remote areas and it is even difficult to get to the nearest paved road. They can’t escape.”

Among the victims who have been handed over to Burma by Chinese authorities, some report that they have been raped by as many as five Chinese men and have given birth three times. They also report being forced to “marry” men with mental and physical disabilities.

“One victim was forced to marry a man who could not speak and had developmental problems. The man’s family was so desperate for a descendant that they locked the victim and their son in a room together and showed pornographic videos to demonstrate what they were meant to do,” the police major explained.

One of the challenges facing U Khin Maung Oo and his team is that the nature of trafficking is constantly changing.

Until 2008, human traffickers usually targeted girls who made a simple living by selling things at bus terminals and stations. Since 2009, however, they have targeted girls working at massage parlors, KTV bars and brothels.

“Traffickers are less frequently operating in organized groups. Some Burmese women who have been married in China for four or five years return home and persuade women to work in China by showing off their newfound wealth. As they can speak Chinese, they work together with the men in China [to traffick new women].” U Khin Maung Oo said.

“These women do the trafficking once or twice a year when they come back to Burma to visit their families. It is incredibly difficult to investigate such cases,” said U Khin Maung Oo.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko