Burma’s Union Parliament approved ratification on Thursday of the Asean Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP). The move was an attempt to strengthen regional collaboration in combating trafficking, as was proposed by President U Htin Kyaw.
The Convention will take effect on the 30th day after submission of the Instrument of Ratification by a sixth Asean member state. Burma is the fourth: Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand ratified the convention earlier in 2016.
Twenty lawmakers supported the President’s proposal to ratify the convention, particularly since Burma holds a unique position as a country of origin, transit and a destination in human trafficking. It is among the Tier 3 “worst offenders,” according to the United States’ Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released in July 2016. The country was on the Tier 2 Watch List from 2010 until 2015.
Included in the regional convention is an action plan. One of the US government’s criticisms of Burma in the TIP report was the country’s lack of an action plan to tackle trafficking, said U Aung Myo Min, the human rights educator and the director of the Equality Network.
“We would be able to reduce many cases of trafficking against women and children in Myanmar if we really followed the three action plans imposed, which include more controls placed on the border regions’ security, taking action on transnational crimes and regional collaboration,” he said.
U Aung Myo Min said he welcomes the move by lawmakers and shared their view that transnational human trafficking cases—often rooted in poverty and quests for jobs in neighboring countries—could be confronted with immediate action once the convention becomes effective.
Thus far there has been a lack of collaboration in cases of transnational crime, he added, but speculated that the ACTIP convention could result in more legal cooperation.
Yet both lawmakers and rights activists expressed concern regarding the implementation of the legislation as Burma lacks a strong adherence to rule of law.
Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, an Upper House lawmaker from Bago Constituency No. 3, described the role of law enforcement in advancing rule of law in the country as being as important as the government’s political will to collaborate at the regional level to fight trafficking.
She emphasized strengthened cooperation between all stakeholders in order to combat trafficking, using CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) as an example of a missed opportunity for Burma. The military government signed the convention in 1997, but there has been little implementation of its guidelines since then.
“When we ratify international and regional conventions, we must prepare to implement them with full responsibility and accountability,” Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said in the Parliament.
The lawmaker also urged the public to study such conventions, which are crucial for national development, respect for human rights and the alleviation of poverty.
“The police force and the judicial officials who are leading the programs against trafficking in persons and in victim support, as well as civil society members and business people, should thoroughly be empowered by these mechanisms and related knowledge, so that it will help them in implementation,” she explained.
Ratifying the ACTIP convention “shows the government’s political commitment to combating trafficking in persons,” echoed May Sabe Phyu, the director of the Gender Equality Network. “But we will have to see how it can help fight for it in practice [once it takes effect],” she added.
Laws alone are not enough to fight trafficking, she explained: raising awareness on existing laws and services available to trafficking victims must be done in parallel to the drafting of new legislation.
Trafficking is happening not only to women and girls, Mae Sabe Phyu also pointed out, but to men as well. Burmese men are known to have been trafficked into Thailand’s and Indonesia’s fishing industries. Burmese women who are victims of trafficking are frequently forced into domestic labor and sex work in neighboring countries; in China in particular, Burmese women have been trafficked and then sold into forced marriages.
Burma enacted a law against trafficking in persons in 2005. Maj Gen Aung Soe, the deputy minister of Home Affairs, told the Parliament on Thursday that the police department under his ministry has been reviewing last year’s law and drafting bylaws.
Despite the presence of national laws, when trafficking cases are filed, many remain unresolved, with local law enforcement often citing a lack of bylaws, said May Sabe Phyu.
U Aung Myo Min added that national level actions against human trafficking and the existence of programs in support of the victims should be expanded in order to be more effective.
In Burma, laws prohibit women under age 25 from traveling cross-border alone, forcing them to find someone who can take them, and often leading to incidents of trafficking.
“If the government creates a safe migration system,” said U Aung Myo Min, “we would be able to avoid trafficking in persons.”