by Daniel Opacki
What a restless and sleepless night one can have knowing that a loved person in their life has been taken by a stranger. My partner’s sister was up at 3:00 AM and went for a walk around the neighborhood where Thin Thin disappeared. None of us slept much. We had less than 18 hours to find Thin Thin. The things that come and go in the mind are both horrifying and comforting. Trying making sense of the situation is impossible. Fright and worry, periods of extreme anger, this is what accumulates so much to the point of sobbing and wanting to smash something, and guilt. We all went through this. Why in the world would Thin Thin be left alone at the shop? On an ordinary day, that shop is an extension of the living room. It was as much a part of her home as her bed and her plant on the balcony.
When the alarm went off at 6:00 AM I knew it was too early to do anything but shower, have some coffee and sit at a teashop to wait for my partner to call me. The people buzz in Sanchaung began and before 8:00 AM the entire neighborhood was overflowing with people again. I searched the crowds for any signs of Thin Thin.
|Thin Thin enjoying Thingyan in 2012
My partner’s sister walked past, and we spoke briefly. She
was also searching and had alerted a lot of people in the area about Thin Thin’s disappearance. My partner called, and we decided to start searching a different area of the large Sanchaung district. All of Sanchaung is dense with people and business. There was no easy place to start.
In all honesty, I don’t recall very much of what we did, where we searched, who we spoke to while searching. It was tiring, hot; we were sweating all day and dehydrated. My partner made many, many phone calls, and received many. Every time her phone rang we anticipated it was the most important call she ever got; hoping it was good news.
The city was extra busy. There were many more people than usual going about because it was the last work day before Thingyan. Thingyan is the name for the Myanmar New Year and water festival holiday. Over the first four days of Thingyan, no one worked, no one did anything except celebrate the water festival in the most raucous and rowdiest way. The next morning hundreds of thousands of people would begin driving around the roads of Yangon piled onto on light trucks, jeeps, and in cars, most people would be insanely drunk
from the cheap Myanmar whiskey and the strong Myanmar beer, throwing water and getting splashed all day long until sunset.
The only other such event on the planet that can compare to the way
Myanmar people celebrate Thingyan is Carnival in Brazil. Thingyan is an insane holiday, and unless one experiences it, one will never know the extent of how crazy it gets. There would be no chance of finding Thin Thin in such mayhem.
If we didn’t find Thin Thin within a matter of hours, we reasoned we’d never find her. We also came to grips with the idea that Thin Thin was going to be sold by the woman who took her. We had no illusions about her fate.
At around 7:00 PM we decided to go to my partner’s house and have a speedy meal. We were famished. We also hoped Thin Thin would be there, by chance having wandered home. After a meal that was already prepared, rice, some corn, curry with chicken and soup, we’d walk out into Sanchaung and lay our eyes on as many people and places and things as we could until there were no more people around. We weren’t hopeful, admittedly. We wanted to believe we would find her, but truthfully, we felt she was lost. Yet we didn’t abandon hope.
Khin, Thin Thin and my friend and colleague Michael at Kandawgyi Lake Thingyan in 2012
My partner’s sister had already finished eating and was out walking around. We hadn’t seen her all day. Just as we were finishing our quick meal, at close to 7:20 my partner’s phone rang. It was her sister. A woman she knew called her and told her that she spotted Thin Thin, and that she was very close and would be there to verify it in a minute or two. We rushed out the door and made it down the seven flights of stairs and onto the street when the phone rang again. My partner’s sister was standing about ten feet away from Thin Thin. She was sitting on a plastic milk crate peeking out from behind a canvas tarp behind a few racks of cheap clothing being sold by some people. We told her to be careful and to avoid a confrontation, just talk to Thin Thin but
don’t fight or argue with anyone, that we would be there in a couple of
I told my partner that we would take a taxi and park across the small street from where Thin Thin was found. I wanted to watch what was happening, see who was involved. We explained to the taxi driver what was happening and gave him thirty dollars to wait so he would be aware of our seriousness. Of course he agreed to do as we asked. When we arrived, my partner got out and walked over to her sister and Thin Thin. I waited in the taxi to see the situation, find out who the people were that took Thin Thin. There were a lot of people around. Many vendors were packed on to that part of the street, about two rows deep from the street in their makeshift stalls. Thin Thin was sitting behind a tarp, on the corner of the makeshift store looking at my partner and her sister and watching ruefully, frightfully, the one or two young men who kept going over to her and saying something.
Thin Thin on our jeep soaking wet during the 2012 Thingyan Festival in Yangon
One or two people whom I thought were involved were only
customers looking and buying a piece of clothing. Mainly the men were
selling women’s tops, and some jeans and a rack of accessories. With the customers gone I finally got a clear view of who was involved. There were two men and one woman. Every time my partner put her hand out to Thin Thin, probably telling Thin Thin to take her hand, one of the men would go over and not overtly but not discretely slap her arm away from Thin Thin. It was a very aggressive thing to do between Burmese people. My partner was angry and said something to him. He faced off with her, said something then backed down and walked away. I was surprised at my partner’s ferocity and composure. It actually boosted my confidence and belief that there was no chance of not rescuing Thin Thin. But it was a very public scene; we had to do it smartly.
The woman continued to walk over to Thin Thin and said something. Finally my partner settled down on her knees and planted herself
on the ground near Thin Thin. Her sister stood near her and over her to keep the man away from her. He kept going near them and when my partner and her sister faced off with him, he’d back away angrily. I could see he didn’t want a confrontation. That was his weakness that we had to exploit.
At that point I got out of the taxi. I’d noticed there was no way Thin Thin was going anywhere. I was hoping she would leave with my partner and her sister without me getting involved. Being a foreigner, there was no telling how the people would react to me getting in the middle of it all. Thin Thin was shivering, crying, scared, confused, and pitifully helpless to make up her mind. They’d obviously put some kind of fright into her.
At the moment I reached the makeshift stall, the young man
immediately looked at me and walked away from my partner, her sister and Thin Thin. I sized him up. He bleached his hair blond as many young men do during Thingyan. He had a punkish and mean spirited look to him. He was over 25, about 5 feet 8 inches and every bit of his face and arms and upper body showed he was a worker. He was powerful and looked rugged, and his extensive tattoos showing his Buddhist beliefs made him look even tougher. The tattoos also said he was from the countryside, most likely uneducated and if pushed enough, prone to extreme violence without notice. At that
moment I believed that I would have to fight him.
My being a westerner, though, caught him by surprise and I used that against him too. When I first looked at him, staring into his eyes, an aggressive thing to do in Burmese culture, he walked away for a moment. The other man by then had backed up to the road, and I could see the expression on his face he wasn’t interested in trouble. He looked worried and my eyes went back to the tough guy.
My partner asked me if she should pick Thin Thin up and walk away with her. I told her not to do it What if she resisted and made a fuss? Then it would look as if we were trying to take her away from them and
we’d have no other option for her. We talked it over and decided Thin Thin would have to make the first move. Now with my partner, her sister and myself standing within a couple of feet of Thin Thin, we tried to make a barrier from the tough guy. Suddenly the woman came over to Thin Thin from behind and told her in Burmese, “remember what I told you”. Thin Thin was crying and shivering as if she was sitting on a lake of ice in the middle of winter. All she could do is shake her head “no” every time my partner and her sister tried to take her from her
Thin Thin wearing her Thingyan mask
The tough guy came over to us and pushed me with his shirtless chest and stood inches from me, staring at me. I smelled his breath. I held my composure and stared into his eyes. He bumped me again but I didn’t budge. What worried me was that he’d hit me on the head with something when I wasn’t looking. It’s a very typical tactic with Myanmar men. They’d rather crack someone’s skull open than have a face-to-face fight. I’ve seen it happen more than once in Yangon outside a beer station and in the parking lot of some clubs. The only difference with this guy was that he was sober so I imagined he had some
restraint in him and many witnesses to think about. If he shed my blood by surprise, the crowd wouldn’t let him run away quickly.
By now about 45 minutes had passed from the moment we arrived. A small crowd of people watched the drama unfolding. Nearby vendors began breaking down their stalls, and the tough guy and the woman were relentless in talking at Thin Thin in loud bursts. Up until that point I hadn’t said a word to her and hadn’t moved too close to her. I was acting as blocker, and I began to get in the way of the guy and the woman each time they tried to say something to Thin Thin.Thin Thin started looking more at my partner and her sister, her eyes going back and forth between them when they spoke. That was a good sign as it showed she was listening to them. Time and time again the tough guy nudged me, bumped me and tried to move my arms. I didn’t respond except to stand firm. A fight would make everything worse.
I told my partner to tell the guy that we called the police. By then I was standing with my arms outstretched blocking his access to Thin Thin, and all he could do was raise his voice for her to hear him. Three times he shoved me hard and knocked my arms down, but I still stood firm and said ‘ba leh’ loudly at him. Ba leh means “what” in Burmese.
My partner’s sister then told me to talk to Thin Thin. So I knelt down but not very close to her. I kept a steady posture while my partner
spoke to her and I held out my hand to her from about four feet away. Each time the tough guy moved away I looked at Thin Thin and told her with a nod and eye contact to take my hand. The guy was very agitated and speaking furiously with the woman. I looked for the other guy but he was standing out on the edge of the street, not involved anymore. I also noticed the taxi driver standing near his car talking to a few men and paying attention to what was happening. What helped everything thing was my partner continued with her controlled anger and ferocious tone of voice. I was surprised and encouraged by her will and followed her temperament rather than let mine get out of control.
It then occurred to me that this whole scene must look very bizarre to the people watching. I kept my eye on the tough guy by now it seemed he resigned himself to let things play out. He stopped being pushy. It
occurred to me that I was a western white male in a place where few westerners ever went, standing in a crowd almost getting into a fight with a Burmese guy while two women were trying to coerce a child to leave with them. No doubt it was a curious scene.
I told my partner to have her sister explain loudly to the people what we were doing. And to tell the crowd that the vendors trying to stop us were outsiders who abducted Thin Thin. As she began speaking I stood over my partner who was kneeling next to Thin Thin, and told Thin Thin, “take my hand, we will protect you and walk away”. My partner repeated this to her several times and in a split second Thin Thin made her choice. She grabbed my hand with her tiny fingers and put her other hand on my partner and held her by the neck.It was a pitiful sight; to see this tiny girl frightened out of her mind. We knew what her abductors were going to do to her; this girl who lost her family, who was so confused and scared, not knowing what to do. I wanted to haul one off and knock the guy out with my fist to his head. The Burmese way, by surprise. But it was just a desire. When my partner stood, Thin Thin was in her arms; her sister was also clutching
Thin Thin, and Thin Thin’s little hand was squeezing mine, and she wasn’t letting go.
The taxi driver walked over to us offering to help and we asked him to keep an eye on the guy and the woman. We decided to walk with Thin Thin rather than go off in the taxi. Thin Thin agreed and down the road we went. The sister stayed behind to keep and eye on the vendors who, she told us later, broke down their stall quickly and made off as fast as they could. It was past 9:00 PM by now and most all of the stalls on the street had been taken down.
|Khin, Thin Thin and Ko Tha Dja during the 2012 Thingyan Festival at Kandawgyi Lake
After we left Sanchaung Street we walked up to Ahlone Road past City Mart Supermarket across from People’s Park, took a right and walked calmly down Ahlone Road towards Baho. Once on Baho we’d take
another right, walk past Asia Royal Hospital and then right again on the
backside of Min Street where it meets Baho and on to my partner’s home.
The walk was long, it was hot and humid and we were all sweating. Thin Thin kept her grip on my hand for most of the way. When
our hands got too sweaty and wet she finally let go and my partner picked her up and carried her for while. Thin Thin was comforted by that. I looked away in tears. There aren’t words to describe the feelings then rushing through me. My partner was holding up for Thin Thin. Strong and determined for the little girl.
Thin Thin and my partner spoke in Burmese, and I listened,
taking in what I could.
We learned that the woman who abducted Thin Thin told her she had a big house at Chaung Da Beach. She tempted Thin Thin with an exciting excursion to the beach for Thingyan. Once there they were going to party and have fun driving out on the ocean on their beautiful boat and Thin Thin, they told her, would become a part of their family. Thin Thin
said that the woman told her that my partner’s family was trying to hurt her, that they were using her, and that when she got older they would abandon her to the street. She told Thin Thin she’d have no place to go, no one to be with and she’d wind up living alone on the roadside. They promised her a wealthy life full of sweet things, a lot of food and beautiful clothes. They also told her she’d let her wear makeup which is something she wasn’t allowed to do with my partner’s family.
As to the threats, they made to her while we were at the stall. She would only say that she was afraid of them because they made her promise to go with them and that when one breaks a promise, one is disobeying Buddha. It’s a grave thing for a small child to be told this and then forced to live by it.
We told Thin Thin that we’d been doing everything possible to find her and that surprised her. We explained that we all were worried about her, that we loved her and cared for her wellbeing and life. Thin Thin apologized for leaving. We told her not to worry about it.
In the mind of that child, when she gave her word, her promise, it was unimaginable for her, even shameful for her to break it. Thin Thin is honest and pure. She’s unaware of the dangers and deceit that exists in the hearts and minds of wicked people.
The people who took her were from a village on the outskirts of Yangon, past Dagon, down a long dirt road where they have a few sheds and a house near a factory of some kind. The one night that Thin Thin was with them they made her sleep alone in one of those sheds. During the day they gave her work and told her that she needed to clean the house if she wanted to eat. Thin Thin did as she was told. As evening approached they told Thin Thin they were going to Yangon for the last day of market. Then, on the first day of Thingyan they were going to go to Chaung Da Beach and go for a boat ride.
Before they were about for market they told Thin Thin to stay in her shed. Thin Thin was deathly afraid of being alone. She began crying and sobbing. She said they had a huge argument over whether or not to bring her to Sanchaung. Finally they brought her but made her promise to sit behind the tarp and told her to never leave her little plastic stool and to remain hidden.
Thin Thin feeding a deer during a trip to the Yangon Zoo in 2011
For a few hours sitting on her stool behind the vendor’s stall, Thin Thin did as she was told. She sat still and didn’t move. They brought her food. But finally, she was curious to look out. At the very moment she moved the tarp aside about eight inches to look outside to see whatever she could see, a friend of my partners sister who knew about Thin Thin’s abduction happened to see Thin Thin for only a slight moment. She stood watching the stall as she called my partners sister who then immediately called us.Thin Thin said she never peeked past the tarp a second time until she heard the voice of my partner’s sister calling her name. She said she wanted to run from the people who took her but she was afraid they would go get her again. About three seconds of time was the difference between Thin Thin being trafficked down the Andaman Coast of Myanmar to be forced into sexual slavery in the many brothels that operate on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border and near the town of Rayong. She may have even been sold further down the coast to Phuket, Thailand or into Malaysia, or beyond. We’ll never know.
In May when the event was still fresh I reported the entire incident face-to-face with someone I knew at the U. S. Embassy. She promised to get in touch with me in order to look into the affair. All of my further emails and phone calls to her went unanswered and ignored. I knew this person. When she was new in Burma, I got her involved on issues with ex-political prisoners, made introductions for her, got her access to people. She got a lot of great recognition to help boost her career. Receptions were had for one woman I introduced to everyone. Originally, they ignored my attempts to get more assistance for the political activists I worked with for two years. I wrote to Aung San Suu Kyi, explained how and why the Public Affairs Section was blackballing me, and I asked her to get the ambassador involved. The Lady knew my students well. Finally, when the slugs in Public Affairs were told by the Ambassador to get involved, they arrived as if they were on top of the issue all along. Cowards, every one of them. I suppose that’s the disappointing reality with government careerists. It’s possible we could have caught a few traffickers, but I had no authority. That person, the one I assisted, was disappointing, to say the least. As with so many, all talk and no action. Substance and meaningful action are danger zones to such people.
After Thingyan Sanchaung returned to normal. We spotted the abductors; we were looking for them. We glared at them from across the road and knew they saw us, but they hadn’t the guts to look at us as we watched them. After that night they never returned to their usual spot, and we never saw them again.
Khin and Thin Thin at the stoop the morning after her ordeal with her abductors.
Thin Thin today is a happy child. We gave her credit for saving herself by having looked out bravely from her place behind the tarp, disobeying her abductors. Thin Thin survived Cyclone Nargis, a broken home, an abduction and probably human trafficking. That’s more than enough for a child to live within a lifetime.We celebrated Thingyan in 2012 together and with members of the larger family for four days. We washed away all of the bad karma from the year before and we acknowledged a deeper understanding of joy, gratitude, humility, and each other’s happiness. There’s no better way to live than to live knowing you’ve done all you can do in such situations.
U. S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell’s concert to build awareness of Human Trafficking in Myanmar featuring Jason Mraz had a special meaning for Khin and me, and we enjoyed it to the end.