Myanmar’s top human rights body said Wednesday it will investigate the domestic fishing industry’s use of workers sold to operators by human traffickers following a case involving a university student who went missing for weeks after being abducted by alleged traffickers.
Myat Thura Tun, a history major at Dagon University in Yangon, was trafficked by brokers on Oct. 2 and sold for 700,000 kyats (U.S. $456) to the operators of a fishing raft in Kha Pyat village, Pyapon township, in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region, according to local media reports.
He had worked on the raft for about 45 days when his family tracked him down and secured his release last week after paying 800,000 kyats (U.S. $521).
Myat Thura Tun indicated that he had been tortured by a supervisor on the raft, local media said. The boy was physically and mentally traumatized, with the upper part of his left ear cut off and injuries on the rest of his body.
Earlier this week, Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), told the Myanmar media organization Mizzima that the party would work with the regional government in handling the case, meet with the victim, and discuss ways to eliminate human trafficking.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) will conduct a team field visit led by member Myint Kyi to Pyapon township on Dec. 2-4 to investigate reported forced labor and human rights violations in the local fishing industry.
In recent weeks, more reports of abuse and forced labor have emerged, concerning workers made to labor long hours on traditional bamboo kyar-phaung (tiger rafts) during peak fishing season and who are often given fatal punishments by foremen.
Commission member Yu Lwin Aung said poverty facilitates rights violations in the local fishing industry.
“This is something we need to prevent,” he said. “We have received many reports of this kind of abuse. It starts from poverty [with people] who have no livelihoods and are desperate for money and a job. They are lured into working on the kyar-phaung.”
“Their locations are remote and cut off from the population, so they are at the mercy of the foremen,” he added. “These harsh and abusive practices have become almost a standard for these laborers.”
He said the commission will provide education sessions to those who operate and work in the fishing sector, based on its findings during the investigation.
Anti-human trafficking police in Yangon region have arrested two of seven suspects in the Myat Thura Tun case and have charged them at the Kyauktada Township Police Station, said Police Major Khin Maung Kywe from the force.
Police are now working with other regional police stations to find the other five suspects, he said.
Khin Maung Kywe also called for careful supervision of those who operate the fishing rafts to avoid the lawlessness and abuse that can occur on the vessels.
“They are located in the middle of the sea. They are cut off from the people and are not accessible to police forces or government departments, so this leads to abusive practices,” he said.
“Because they are at sea, there is no rule of law, and the foremen govern the laborers by subjugation,” he said, adding that raft owners are partly responsible for failing to monitor their crews and prevent abusive practices.
“We will make sure they follow conventional work hours and abide by the law,” Khin Maung Kywe said.
Most of the kyar-phaung rafts in service operate in waters off Pyapon and Dedaye townships in Ayeyarwady region and in southern Myanmar’s Mon state during the seven-month fishing season from October to May.
Because the nature of work is rough and difficult, there are always labor shortages, and owners employ brokers as middlemen to lure young men into the industry.
Fish and prawns caught by the workers are processed into dried shrimp, shrimp paste, and fish sauces — all essential commodities for Myanmar households — though some are exported.
Win Kyaing, general secretary of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation, said he is concerned that reports of human trafficking and abuse of forced laborers will give the fishing industry a bad reputation and prompt the withdrawal of incentives by the United States and European Union that give the sector access to their markets through reduced tariffs.
“There are many parties who are always finding fault with and blaming Myanmar,” he said. “When they get a chance, they will take certain steps to ruin our interests. They will block opportunities for our fishery products to be exported effectively.”
“If they withdraw these incentives, the whole country will suffer,” he said.
According to Myanmar’s Anti-Human Trafficking Police, the three main drivers of human trafficking in the country are demands for brides in China, prostitutes in Myanmar, and laborers on fishing boats.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.