Part ll: A Case of Human Trafficking in Myanmar

21 Feb

Part ll: A Case of Human Trafficking in Myanmar

by Daniel Opacki

There is no way to describe what one thinks and feels
shortly after hearing that someone is missing.

After a long day of walking around the streets of downtown
Rangoon, picking the right fruits, vegetables and seafood at the afternoon
market on Maha Bandoola near 36th street, and having tasted sweets
and window shopped for several hours with my dear friend and partner, we both
arrived back to my flat in the Grand Mee Ya Hta and settled in to begin with
some tea before cooking some fresh prawns and vegetables. Her phone rang and
she spoke jokingly in Burmese for a few minutes then hung up. I asked her to
share the good news, or whatever made her laugh.
She told me her nephew called to say that Thin Thin was
missing and hadn’t been seen since 2:00 PM that afternoon. She said they
speculated jokingly on where she might be, but in any case, that it’s unusual
for her to be gone for such a long time. She told me Thin Thin had occasionally
walked to nearby shops for treats or snacks and to chitchat with other kids. But she always returned promptly, and never wandered far away.
At certain times of the day Thin Thin minded the family shop
on the stoop by herself. With well-known neighbors on both sides of her stoop
serving food, there were always known people around. Since the shop was a phone
service, where people would stop and pay to use a landline to make phone calls,
most people on Min Street and in the immediate neighborhood knew about the
shops and the people running them. Although lots of people were always in
Sanchaung, on the smaller lane called Min Street fewer strangers than on the
larger streets wandered past who weren’t somehow connected to someone on the
street.
Thin Thin hamming it up for a photo at the Inya Lake Dam one afternoon in 2011 
Sanchaung is one of Yangon’s most densely populated
townships. Its eight to ten story buildings closely house tens of thousands of
people and its many small streets intersect and crisscross the township. Its side streets are a bit confusing since they begin at sharp angles appearing out of
nothing. Navigating the distance on the straight Sanchaung Road between Pyae
Road and Baho Road is difficult since it’s easy to accidentally make a wrong
turn, or be forced onto a wrong street from the tightly packed traffic
consisting of pedestrians, bicycles, tri-shaw’s, taxi’s, private cars and light
trucks. It’s always busy, with thousands of stores, teashops and street stalls,
sometimes two and three deep on the side of the road, there’s almost no place
to drive and sometimes walking the streets of Sanchaung is mind numbing and disorienting.
A simple walk is usually interrupted with frequent stops to avoid being hit by
a tri-shaw or car or bicycle. Car horns and the trishaw-bells, along with music
and recorded advertising and loud-pitched noise from the lottery carts permeate
the air. Due to all of the sights, movements, sounds and aromas from the
salacious varieties of food cooking everywhere, the entire place can at times
be disorienting and mesmerizing in a variety of ways.
In the early morning hundreds of women and children arrive
to set up mats on their ground space on the side of the road to sell
vegetables, poultry, curries, fish and an assortment of other daily necessities.
This is a typical scene that takes place all around Yangon everyday. At around
11:00 AM most of the sellers pack up and move on. For a few hours the streets
are fairly quiet and while many of Sanchaung’s inhabitants are working, the
streets don’t get busy again until around 4:00 PM when the homeward migration
begins and the evening vendors begin setting up shops wherever they favor a
spot. Then, they spring up a stall and sell their goods until 9:00 PM. In the
evening, in addition to food, most of the sellers sell anything from apples to
zip lock bags. In between are hundreds and hundreds of sellers of clothing, DVD’s, ladies
accessories, knick-knacks, tools, toys and any imaginable item that one could possibly
use or need.
I’d spent many, many days walking along Sanchaung’s streets.
 I’d sometimes gaze with delight or stare
in awe of all the human activity while on my way towards a destination among
all of the people making a living and going about their daily routines in ways
that long ago disappeared in the United States where giant box retailers have
replaced friendly settings of small towns and villages filled with people
walking around, talking and sharing news. The Sanchaung Township way of life
has disappeared into the past all across the United States along with black and
white televisions, transistor radios and soda fountain counter stools at drug
stores.
In some ways, as I had believed growing up in my small New
England village of Rockdale, I’d always imagined Sanchaung to be devoid of
crime or mishaps at the hands of human beings. However, that was not so in
Rockdale and certainly that’s not so in a place where thousands of people in
survival mode inhabit the Sanchaung streets. Still, it was easy to believe it
was otherwise.
In and amongst the many, many people going about their
routines are many people who don’t live in Sanchaung, who only go there to
set up stalls to sell merchandise. And some of those people look for vulnerable
children easy to take when everyone is busy and looking the other way.
It never occurred to me until Thin Thin was taken that the
people who set up stalls to sell things lived outside of the neighborhood and
only travelled there from other districts and townships to sell and make money.
In a very ordinary way, if some of those people are quietly doing wrong amidst
the human mass of movement all around them, who then would even consider their
doings as anything except people going about their own business? It would be
almost impossible to know that a woman walking with a 12-year-old girl is in no
way related to that girl. Even people who knew Thin Thin might not challenge the sight because they have a tendency to think it’s normal. Most of
the people living on the short end of Min Street knew Thin Thin but may have never seen her with
an adult. How could they possibly know the woman with her was intent on deceit?
I believe most people wouldn’t immediately suspect anything was amiss other
than that Thin Thin was walking by along with dozens of other people within the
field of sight and in a few seconds she would be gone.
In this way it’s frightening to think about how easy it is
for very crafty and devious people to do harm in the midst of thousands of
people within an arms lengths and vision. This concept so easily explains how
two hatefully crazed young men could drop lethal bombs in a crowd of people in
Boston or how pickpockets skillfully move about crowded areas ripping off
people without being detected.
Most people are inherently good and decent and they want to
believe that good is happening all around them. Therefore, it’s easy to miss
those among us who have cruel and dubious intentions. We all know these bad things
occur somewhere everyday, yet how many of us have ever witnessed something bad
but failed to recognize it as bad? How can we know the answer to that? Many criminal and devious people are the
same as the purloined letter in Edgar Allen Poe’s tale. They often hide among
us in plain sight and we overlook them because they seem to fit in with us, as
if they are one of us.
When the call from the nephew came it wasn’t too alarming
and my friend hung up. In an ever so slight way, though, she was just too
uncomfortable with the idea that Thin Thin was away from home for over two
hours. She returned the call to her nephew to confirm what he said the first
time.  Once she intuited something was
wrong she decided we needed to go look for Thin Thin. In fact, something was
wrong since her nephew had needed to call her about it, because he felt it too.
Thin was missing.
The taxi ride from downtown Rangoon to Sanchaung was
excruciatingly long. We talked over the probable reasons why Thin Thin left her
duty at the shop and never returned. In my mind I began to recall and think
about all of the television shows I’d seen over the years about missing and
abducted children, the John Walsh experience, the young girl kidnapped from her
home in Petaluma, California, the reason for Amber Alerts. It began to sink into
my gut that something horrible had happened to Thin Thin. This tiny girl who a
year earlier had innocently told my partner that she’d like me to be her new
father, who was being taught and educated by my partner every day, who wanted
nothing extravagant in life except to “be happy”. Thin Thin was gone and we had
no idea where she could be.
When we finally arrived on Min Street we got out of the slow
moving taxi and walked the last hundred meters to the shop on the stoop. We
looked around and everything was put away in its place, the shop was locked.
There was no sign of Thin Thin. Going up the seven flights of stairs we
stretched our necks into the doorways of every open apartment. My partner asked
anyone she saw if they’d seen Thin Thin. No one had. It was about 6:00 PM and we
reached the flat where my partner lived with Thin Thin, her sisters, mother,
nephew and great-grandmother. Until the nephew called my partner no one knew
Thin Thin wasn’t at the shop. With the mother in bed suffering with an ailment,
the other daughter recently took on a part-time job. That’s the reason Thin
Thin was alone at the shop several times a week for about three or four hours
each time. Otherwise, Thin Thin would not be left alone. But money was scarce
and it had to be found wherever it was.
The nephew said he spoke to the women who ran the food shop
aside their own phone shop. She told him that Thin Thin had left the phone shop
about 2:00 PM. All we had was a time to start with, and as the gravity of this
situation settled in, we sort of exhaled and fell speechless. We agreed that if
someone took Thin Thin, we would most likely never find her in the mass of
human activity going on all around us. My partner went into a dazed state and
no one spoke for a while and it seems odd to say now, but I thought then they
weren’t trying to do anything to find her. I realized shortly after that, like
me, they felt almost helpless, and they were in a bit of shock.
We talked about going to the police and after a phone call to a
local policeman, it was explained that the police wouldn’t do anything for 24
hours after which time they could consider her actually missing. The policeman
on the phone advised that we should wait to see if she found her way home. He
was understanding, polite and kind but that was that. We almost had no choice
but to go search for her while hoping she
would find her way home.
Starting with the woman at the food shop, we learned that
Thin Thin went to her about 2:00 PM and asked her to hold the keys to the shop
because she had somewhere to go. That was very unusual. If Thin Thin went to a
store to buy snacks or rice she would normally have pulled on the string that
rang a bell in the flat on the 7th floor. One of the women above
would lean over the balcony and Thin Thin would have attached the keys to the
small basket, and the woman above would pull them up and secure them, then drop
the empty basket carefully down to ground level. This method of sending items
up and down without having to climb the stairs is common. On almost very street
in Yangon strings and ropes of various kinds dangle down the front of buildings
with hooks, baskets or clasps on them for communication and delivery of small
things.
We wondered why Thin Thin wouldn’t tell anyone in her family
that she’d gone off. The odd thing was Thin Thin was alone. We then asked the
woman what Thin Thin was like, was she excited? Or, did she seem ordinary? She
mentioned that Thin Thin seemed sad, almost as if she was going to cry. After
some queries about the people coming and going to use the phone, we pressed her
hard to find out if any new people had stopped by recently. She had a hard time
recalling but we kept after her and finally she recalled that a neatly dressed
woman of about 35 to 40 years old began using the phone in the early evening
when Thin Thin was alone. She remembered that one day the woman was talking to
Thin Thin in a serious way. She said she also thought it was odd because the
woman was a stranger and the conversation seemed out of place. Yet, she went
about her own business thinking no more about it.
The eldest sister was already out canvassing the streets,
looking into stores, asking about Thin Thin, searching for her in places where
she believed Thin Thin would take an interest. Lately, Thin Thin had wanted to
get some stylish clothes, she wanted a different hairstyle and she emulated the
older women and wanted to be like them. She began to become aware of herself
and her appearance, she was growing and was more curious about things teenagers
around her were doing, how they were dressing and what they were saying. We
told the sister to keep looking and that we should talk by phone every 30
minutes to keep in touch as to where we both were at and that we were also going
to start looking.
While the sister was already out canvassing the streets we
decided to retrace Thin Thin’s possible footsteps. We stopped at every doorway
and every shop and vendor who could have known Thin Thin or saw her on her walk
down the street into the confluence of busier streets intersecting and leading
off in all directions. We were running out of shops before getting to the
busiest part of Sanchaung when my partner remembered that Thin Thin used to
liked to buy single sticks of bubble gum from a small store on the corner of
Min and Sanchaung. Inside the store we finally found someone who saw Thin Thin.
It was the very last store on the corner of Min and Sanchaung.
She told us Thin Thin went in and bought a whole pack of her
favorite gum without saying a friendly word. Thin Thin wasn’t smiling. She
mentioned that she thought her demeanor was strange. When pressed as to where
Thin Thin went, she told us she watched as Thin Thin walked to Sanchaung Street and
was met by an older woman who spoke to her as they walked off together.
Our suspicion was confirmed that someone was with Thin Thin
but what we couldn’t understand is why would Thin Thin go off with a stranger.
She was a very simple and trusting young person, we imagined that she was
coerced in some way, but how? Knowing this fact was in a way a relief yet also
frightening. It was almost 9:00 PM and the streets of Sanchaung were closing
up. The only people out after nine were going to and fro or hanging out at beer
stations and teashops, mostly men. We walked around until 10:00 PM when the
older sister called and said she was going home, that she had nowhere else to
look tonight. We decided to rent a taxi to slowly drive around the
neighborhood.
Amazingly, the taxi driver we paid to drive us around in
search of Thin Thin told us about the rumors of young girls gone missing over
the most recent months. He said about five or six girls were missing. The only
clue was that a middle-aged woman walked into a school one day and asked for a
girl by name. She said to the people in the school that she was the girl’s Aunt
and that the girls mother was in the hospital and she was there to fetch her to
take her to see her mother. This story took the wind out of both of us. Later
on my partner made some phone calls to people around Sanchaung and indeed, the
rumors seemed to be real. There was a woman, or possibly more people, going
around Sanchaung brazenly abducting young girls.  
It was after 11:00 PM and we decided to go home and start
looking for Thin Thin early in the morning. We talked over the fact that after
the next day, the Thingyan Water Festival in celebration of the South East
Asian New Year began. We reasoned that if we didn’t find Thin Thin during the
next 24 hours, we would never see her again. We had no illusions as to the fate
that awaited her. We were determined to do all that was possible to find her. However, in our hearts, we both experienced the true meaning of dreadfulness. Tomorrow was all we had.   

Part 3: Conclusion to follow soon.

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