Brides for Bachelors

By Brennan O’Connor 22 January 2015

LASHIO, Shan State — Lway Mai cradles her head in her lap. She looks exhausted after a bumpy ride from the border town of Muse to Lashio in northern Shan State.

Her uncle is sitting nearby, talking to several male friends of their family. A major crisis has been averted. There is finally time to reflect on what just happened, and how much worse it could have been.

Hours earlier, the 18-year-old ethnic Ta’ang teenager and her friend Lway Nway, 16, were being held in a hotel room in Muse. The pair had traveled from their village several hours away with a woman who promised them work in China.

At the Muse hotel, they became scared. One of the young women found a way to call her parents, who in turn contacted the Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization (TSYO). It then helped the teenagers to get from Muse to Lashio, where the organization has an office.

Mai Naww Hment of the TSYO suspected the girls had just had a lucky escape from traffickers who planned to sell them as brides to bachelors in China.

China’s skewed male-to-female ratio, exacerbated by the one-child policy and a traditional preference for male children, has meant that millions of Chinese men cannot find partners. Chinese bachelors often wind up paying marriage brokers to do it for them. Some of these entice women and girls from neighboring countries with false promises of employment in China.

In this instance the brokers lured the two teenagers away without informing their parents. The young people trusted the older woman, and why wouldn’t they? She was originally from their village. Her mother still lived there.

It is not uncommon for human trafficking rings to hire brokers from the same village as their victims, said Mai Naww Hment, in between juggling phone calls to the girls’ anxious parents and discussing plans to get them home with their uncle.

The coordinator for TSYO’s Information and Human Rights Documentation project said that this strategy had arisen after villagers began distrusting strangers as girls began disappearing.

“Now the traffickers are trying to use people from the villages who have good contacts,” Mai Naww Hment said.

The young women probably thought it was “very attractive” when the well-dressed woman arrived in their village offering them work in China, he added. “They thought that if they followed her, they would get good pay.”

In Mai Naww Hment’s own village in Kutkai Township, three women are missing.

This happened, he said, after a local man had returned from China promising work to a group of youngsters. Six youths followed him to a hotel in Muse. When they arrived he put the boys and girls into different rooms. When the boys woke up the next morning the man and the girls were gone, presumably across the border. That was at least four months ago and the families still haven’t had any contact with their daughters.

The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking estimated that 70 percent of Myanmar’s reported trafficking cases in 2010 involved women and girls being sold as brides to Chinese men. More recent reports from Myanmar’s police force provide an even higher figure, at 80 percent of all trafficking cases.

Loss of Livelihood

The Ta’ang, also known as the Palaung, have traditionally derived the bulk of their income from cultivating tea. But around five years ago, Chinese companies began flooding the local market with cheaper tea. Prices have plunged to levels so low that it has essentially destroyed the livelihood of the Ta’ang who are unable to compete with the larger Chinese firms.

As tea prices dropped, opium cultivation skyrocketed. In many regions where Ta’ang people live, government-backed militias encouraged the switch to poppy-growing.

The drug lords who run these militias often encourage workers to become addicted to yaba, supposedly because it makes them work harder and longer. Once workers are addicts, it’s much cheaper to simply pay them in drugs, Mai Naww Hment said.

As a result, drug addiction rates among Ta’ang men are spiraling out of control. A Palaung Women’s Organization report entitled “Poisoned Hills,” found that in one village surveyed in Mantong, the percentage of men aged 15 and older who were addicted to opium increased from 57 percent in 2007 to 85 percent in 2009.

To make matters worse, many Ta’ang communities have been attacked by government forces because the Ta’ang National Liberation Army has allied itself with the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic armed group engaged in renewed conflict with the Myanmar Army since June 2011. The fighting has devastated many villages in Kachin and northern Shan states and displaced around 100,000 people—mostly women and children—leaving them “highly vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking,” according to the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Lack of Government Action

The Myanmar and Chinese governments have vowed to work to combat the growing crisis of human trafficking and they recently signed a memorandum of understanding recognizing human trafficking for purposes of marriage as a major concern.

China has created an Anti-Trafficking Office under the Ministry of Public Security. Along with other ministries and NGOs it now provides temporary relief for trafficking victims at several key points along trafficking routes. However, only females and underage males are eligible for protection. Adult males aren’t recognized as trafficking victims under the office’s criteria. Eligible victims are provided with financial support and a border pass to ensure their safe return to Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the government launched a five-year National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking in 2012 with an annual operating budget of US$780,000—covered mostly by international NGOs. As part of the plan, Myanmar created an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATIPD) within the country’s police force that was designed to coordinate the activities of Myanmar’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Unit, established in 2004, as well as 26 Anti-Trafficking Task Forces based in trafficking hot spots.

There are now more than 1,000 anti-trafficking police officials either working on trafficking cases within Myanmar or stationed overseas as anti-trafficking attachés, according to the Global Slavery Index 2013. However, the 2014 TIP report noted that pervasive corruption and a general lack of accountability in Myanmar affected the enforcement of trafficking laws and that police “limited investigations when well-connected individuals were alleged to be involved, including in forced labor or sex trafficking cases.”

The report said that there were still “isolated reports” of Myanmar government officials complicit in the trafficking of women to China. In two cases, the report states, the International Labor Organization reported the alleged involvement of the wives of military officials in a human trafficking ring. But “No action was taken to prosecute the suspected offenders,” it noted.

Mai Naww Hment and his fellow TSYO members aren’t holding their breath for the government to improve the situation for Ta’ang communities. His team has organized public awareness campaigns on human trafficking and mobilized anti-human trafficking teams that can be called upon in cases like that of the two Ta’ang teenagers.

Last year, the TSYO also opened a new boarding school in Lashio for impoverished Ta’ang youth. Mai Naww Hment hopes that in the future a solid education will give Ta’ang youths like Lway Mai and Lway Nway the confidence and life skills they need to avoid being duped by human traffickers.

The names of the women in this article have been changed.

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.