Speaking Out to Combat Trafficking

In a reporter's notebook, Tyler Chapman speaks with two Burmese women who were sold to Chinese farmers.
By Tyler Chapman
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Cho Cho in the office of the U.N. anti-trafficking agency in Rangoon on Oct. 23, 2012.

RANGOON—This is the tale of two young Burmese women, Aye Aye and Cho Cho, both sold to farmers in China as brides-to-be, both beaten after they got there, both back in Burma now after daring escapes.

Both were victims of human trafficking:  “brokers” luring impoverished Burmese women with the promise of good jobs, then selling them in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere as brides, laborers, even sex workers.

Ohnmar Chaw, of the U.N. Inter-Agency  Project on Human Trafficking, says prices depend on what the woman, or girl, is destined for.

On one hand, she told me, Chinese men will pay a broker up to $4,000 for a Burmese bride.

On the other, she said, the family of a Burmese teenage virgin, desperate for money, can command as much as $5,000 for their daughter to be sold into prostitution in Thailand.  She called this the exception, not the rule.

“It still happens in eastern Shan State,” Ohnmar said.  “It’s an accepted norm in the community.  Girls think it’s the honorable thing to do for their parents.”

Two women among hundreds

There are no reliable statistics on how many women, and men and children, are trafficked from Burma.  But the U.N.’s Ohnmar told me Aye Aye and Cho Cho are among probably hundreds of women sold to men in China.

The stories of Aye Aye and Cho Cho—they asked me not to use their real names—are alike in many ways but strikingly different in how they end. Both women want to talk, to help keep others from being exploited.

Aye Aye was a 16-year-old housekeeper helping her widowed father and two brothers, earning a dollar a day, when her boss offered her a better life and a U.S.$90-a-month job on the border with China.  For someone with only a kindergarten education, the choice was simple.

“We were very poor,” Aye Aye said.  “I wanted to help my family.”

Cho Cho, who was 18 and married, was selling the betel nut chew so popular with Burmese men when a man from her neighborhood approached her with the promise of a job in Mandalay.  She had a sixth-grade education.

“It was after the monks’ revolution in 2007 and there was a curfew,” she said.  “I couldn’t do business.  It was a bad economic situation.

From broker to broker

Both women ultimately found themselves on buses or trucks bound for China,  passed from one broker-captor to another.

“One of the brokers told me not to worry,” Aye Aye said.  “He said after three months, I would have enough money for a car and a new house back in Burma.  I didn’t believe it and kept saying ‘no.’ But there was no way to escape.”

“I told them I wanted to go home,” Cho Cho said.  “But they said they wanted $250 as a ‘refund.’  I had no money.”

“Even if  the women are promised money, they get nothing,” said Mai Nyou Nyou Aung, Worldvision’s Victim Protection Project manager in Burma.  “Brokers are the only ones who profit.”

The most recent statistics show the Burmese government prosecuted 351 brokers in 2011 but, she said, with little money, and no help from China, it has been unable to reduce number of women victimized like Aye Aye and Cho Cho.

Aye Aye wrings her hands as she tells her story in the U.N. anti-trafficking agency's office in Rangoon, Oct. 23, 2012.
Aye Aye wrings her hands as she tells her story in the U.N. anti-trafficking agency's office in Rangoon, Oct. 23, 2012.

Beatings and abuse

After exhausting  journeys, guarded all the way, each  woman reached her destination and was introduced to the Chinese farmer who had bought her.  That’s where their stories begin to diverge.  

Aye Aye married her owner, even though she said she didn’t love him, and said she tried unsuccessfully to escape several times.  Then she bore him two children, a son and daughter.

“I learned to love him later,” she said.  “But when he was away during the day, his parents would beat me and pull my hair because they didn’t like the way I cooked or raised my children…  He wouldn’t do anything about it.”

Cho Cho, with a husband at home, refused to be married to the man who bought her.

“He locked me in a room and beat me with his hands and sticks,” she told me.  “Then he took me by the hair and beat my head against the brick wall…  That was the worst part, to be beaten again and again.”

Aye Aye’s beatings at the hands of her in-laws never stopped.  Cho Cho’s beatings stopped only after she agreed to work as a laborer in the farmer’s fields.   As time passed, both women yearned for home.

Going home

Aye Aye said she asked her husband several times if she could go to Burma to visit her family, just for a month.  Each time, she said, the answer was no.

She faced a terrible dilemma: stay with her children in China and be abused, or abandon them and go home to Burma.  Then she had a dream that her father was sick.  She hadn’t seen him in five years.  She decided to go.

“I felt very sad,” Aye Aye said.  “I knew I might never see or talk to my children again.”

It took Aye Aye five days to reach the border after she slipped away when no one was watching.  She got help from Chinese women who took pity and gave her directions and bus fares.

“I was frightened all the way,” she said.  

With the help of World Vision workers at the border, she arrived in Rangoon in February to learn that her father had died.

Cho Cho, too, had decided to run for home.  Her way back took much longer.

Alone one morning, she walked away and fled to a police station in a nearby town.  Instead of taking her back to her owner, as they sometimes do, the police held her for three months as an illegal alien and then deported her to Burma.

“I told my husband everything when I got home, and he accepted me back,” Cho Cho told me.  “The scars are gone.  No more scars…(but) I’m still heartbroken telling this story.”

She is now 26, with a two-year-old son.

Back to China?

For Aye Aye, being home has brought little relief.  With her father dead and brothers now estranged, she has only her children, back in China.  She has talked with them, and her husband, on the telephone.

“They want me back,” she said.

And she’s decided to go back, but only on the condition that she has a Burmese passport, a Chinese visa, and a guarantee in writing that her in-laws will leave her alone.

“My children don’t speak Burmese,” Aye Aye said.  “Living in China will give them a chance to have a better life.”

Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to RFA.


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