Part l: A Case of Human Trafficking in Myanmar: Finding Thin Thin

16 Feb

Part l: A Case of Human Trafficking in Myanmar: Finding Thin Thin

by Daniel Opacki

When a child goes missing in Myanmar, who knows about it
except the family of the child? Over the past several decades there’ve been
thousands of cases of young boys who’ve been abducted and taken away from their
homes to be made into child soldiers or porters for one of the many Burmese
government and ethnic armies. I’ve helped record some of these cases with an
indigenous human rights organization. The heartbreaking accounts of mother’s losing
their children one, two and even three times to an army unit is infuriating and
gut wrenching as it is also all too common. The founders of this particular
organization and its leaders have been arrested numerous times and all have
been political prisoners at one time or another. These kinds of child soldier cases
do get reported and recorded, people are aware them yet little has been done in
Myanmar to put an end to the use of child soldiers.

Thin Thin playing a flute she made while minding the small shop on the stoop
But what about when the child that goes missing is young
girl, either lost, runaway or abducted? There have also been many cases of
young Myanmar girls found out to have been abducted and trafficked to brothels
all around Burma, to China as brides or sex workers and to brothels in Thailand
or Malaysia. How does this happen? Who can a family go to for help when a
12-year-old girl goes missing?
There is an official apparatus that a family can report to
but to what end, and how effective are the authorities in Myanmar? There’s not
a national hotline to call and there’s no Amber Alert as in the United States
where when a child is abducted. With an Amber Alert a national awareness campaign
goes into hyper drive and police and authorities relentlessly try to locate and
save the child within 24 hours. Most people in Myanmar don’t have immediate
access to mobile or landline telephones. What good is a hotline when no one can
call it?
In Myanmar, in most townships in Yangon and in villages everywhere, the police are divided into districts. One must first report to their local
police, file a case and wait for results. The probability of finding a young
girl who’s been abducted is frustratingly bad. In any event, the police in
general are an assorted variety of undereducated, poorly trained and poorly paid men. If
one finds it necessary to call the police, generally payment is arranged
quietly. Uniformed authorities such as the police in Myanmar, as in third world
countries in general, don’t have a good reputation and are often a driving
source of protection for criminals if not criminals themselves. The rule of
thumb in Burma is if one needs the police to do anything one must pay them to
do it. Another rule of thumb is that the police certainly are not the answer to many of
Myanmar’s myriad social problems.
Since there’s been no national census for decades people
officially exist in Burma only if they have a National Registration Card, or
NRC number. Without it, one does not officially exist, one can’t go to school,
get a passport, or be officially identified. As with many official matters in
Burma there is a cost and poor people from rural areas often neglect to
register or in many cases they may not even know they can or should. Many poor
people have no birth certificates and it’s not unusual to run across people who
don’t truly know their real age or birthdate. For people living in farming
villages who spend most of their lives within a few miles of their birthplace there’s
little reason to have an NRC card and time across the months and years is
not measured with calendars.
After Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma in 2008, in which the
official government estimate was about 230,000 killed, there was an opportunity
for human traffickers to move freely around the thousands of affected villages
searching for victims. This was also the concern for many people after the 2005
Andaman Sea Tsunami ravaged Thailand and Indonesia, as well as areas along the
Burmese Andaman Coast. In 2012, several days after his release from prison, I interviewed one Burmese doctor that went to the delta region with his daughter after Nargis
hit, as many, many Burmese people did, to help the survivors of Nargis. In
their case, they were concerned with burial of bodies and they were at the same
time counting the dead.
Both the Doctor and his daughter, who were arrested for
their efforts and spent several years as political prisoners, have estimated the
number of Nargis victims to be well over a half-million. A March 2009 independent,
community based assessment of health and human rights response, published by
the Emergency Assistance Team and the Center for Public Health and Human Rights
at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gathered information from
relief workers and survivors and estimated about 140,000 were lost and 3.4
million affected. The Doctor’s own statistical estimates are based on his own
personal observations and knowledge of townships he visited, some which he
claimed lost upwards of 20,000 to 40,000 people in one township. The fact is to
this very day, no one really knows the true number of people lost, displaced
and disappeared by Cyclone Nargis.
One of the results of Nargis though was abundantly clear in
that thousands of children were orphaned. For children who were from poor and
broken families, having an NRC number was usually unheard of and certainly not
required to live in a village where a life of work would begin as early as
possible. Child labor in Myanmar is as common as rice in a bowl and any tourist
can see children working in teashops, restaurants, street stalls, selling items
on the street, as janitors and staff in businesses and schools, as was the case
where I was working for an international school in Yangon and Mandalay, and all
over Myanmar.
This is normal in Burma and for families with little or no
money; even paying for their children to attend a government school is far out
of reach. When a foreigner lives in Myanmar for a long time it’s nearly
impossible to turn away from the children working everywhere one looks.
Children are as big a part of the necessary means to an end for survival in a national
society that has been criminally neglected and abused by the Generals and their wealthy
cronies and business elite for well over 30 years. At the same time, one cannot
judge this way of life for which the alternatives to serving food and tea or
beer, cleaning a school or selling goods on the street are more miserable for children than few
can imagine.
After Nargis ravaged the delta region of Burma many of the
orphaned children took up residency in Buddhist monasteries. Buddhist
monasteries in Burma are a national grace saving institution where hundreds of
thousands of children live as novice monks and nuns. A life in a monastery for
a child is generally a better one than living impoverished, on the streets and
left to fend for their own survival in which case drugs, homelessness and like wise other horrible fates await them. In monasteries they get meager provisions of
food, clothing, shelter and if they’re lucky, depending on the monastery, they
get an education. Not all monasteries are alike; some are wealthy, while some
are without. They serve the community in which they exist and in Myanmar, that’s
usually an impoverished or working class community. Monasteries in Myanmar act as a social
safety net and without the devout and conservative Buddhism that exists in Myanmar, given
the fact that the Burmese elite have literally killed, raped and pillaged their
own people freely for decades, Myanmar could easily have descended into
disastrous depths of conflict brought on by starvation, ethnic and religious
differences with hopelessness and crime as it exists in Haiti or Congo today.
Thin Thin was eight years old when Cyclone Nargis savagely roared
over the Delta regions of Burma in 2008. Like many children her age, when it
was over, her parents had vanished. She was already a child of a broken home
with a wayward and absent alcoholic father and a mother doing her best to raise
her two daughters, Thin Thin somehow survived the storm with her sister.
Thirty-eight members of her family who lived in and around her village were not
so lucky. Of her remaining relatives, they had all lost close family members
and as well as their homes to the storm. Thin Thin and her sister, along with
thousands of other cyclone victims, was lucky to have a chance to take refuge
in a monastery after the storm. It was also urgent for the overburdened monasteries
to find a way for children like Thin Thin and her sister to find a new home.
Around Yangon and other places, people who were able to take in Nargis orphans
did so through the networks of monasteries. In the case of Thin Thin and her
sister, they were given a chance to live with separate but related families. In
this way, although they would not live together, they would often be together
when the families united as they often do for celebrations, gatherings and
Thin Thin with one of her adopted cousins at a family celebration 
The family that welcomed Thin Thin into their home was not
well off financially, but they were prosperous at one time until the loss of the father to an
early death and then the eldest son to political exile where even today, his
return is unwelcomed by Myanmar authorities. It’s a highly respected family because during their good days, when the father was alive, they practiced an unusual amount of generosity to those less well off and in need. They are also well regarded in the community of Democracy seekers. Yet, in 2008 they could not afford to send Thin
Thin to school so Thin Thin helped out with the very modest business the family of
women ran from their stoop in front of their building.

Thin Thin was known as a
kind, friendly and happy child. Everyone liked her and with her pleasant sense
of humor and gregarious nature, she quickly adapted to her new life with her
new family. There was never any doubt about her, never a complaint or problem,
she was genuinely happy and in April 2012 her future was full of promise as she
grew older, considering that several years before, her life had been made impossible
due to the loss of her mother, most of her family, her home and possessions, in
Cyclone Nargis. Unfortunately, in April 2012 a bad turn of events would send Thin Thin spiraling through a period of uncertainty and unimaginable horror. Thin Thin went missing and under the best of circumstances it would be nearly impossible to find Thin Thin. With the Thingyan Water Festival celebration about to begin within 48 hours, the whole country would shut down to celebrate for five days and when Thingyan began, there would be no hope. Thin Thin would be trafficked into hell. 

Part 2 will follow soon.

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