China’s Belt And Road Construction Boom May Fuel Demand For Trafficked ‘Brides’, Say Advocates

Seng Tsin had no idea where she was when she awoke one morning to find a strange man sat beside her on the bed, watching her as she regained consciousness.

He was her new husband, he told her, and his mother was downstairs preparing dinner for them. Seng Tsin, who says she was about 17 at the time, had been sold into China’s lucrative ‘bride’ trafficking industry.

She had travelled from Myanmar’s Kachin state to China’s Yunnan province in 2014 in search of work. But the broker who brought her and her friend into the country had a different plan.

The night before she found herself in the strange man’s house, the broker tried to convince the two women to marry Chinese men instead of working. They objected and an argument broke out.

Unwilling to take no for an answer, he drugged their meals and sold them into marriage while they were unconscious, she later concluded.

“We fell into a very deep sleep that night,” she told Myanmar Now. “When I woke up, a Chinese man was sitting beside me. It wasn’t the same room I fell asleep in.”

From that moment, she would not be allowed to leave the house. She didn’t even know where in China she was being held.

Seng Tsin is one of thousands of women to have crossed the border from Myanmar in recent years hoping to work their way out of grinding poverty, only to be tricked or coerced into forced marriages.

Yet the traffickers responsible have gone largely unchecked, with authorities on both sides of the border intervening in only a tiny fraction of cases.

China’s former one-child policy created a surplus of around 34 million males in the country, driving demand for trafficked ‘brides’ from poorer neighbouring countries. But now, activists and experts fear another of Beijing’s flagship policies is fuelling the crisis.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious effort to build new infrastructure across the globe, has spawned construction projects along the border that are luring migrant workers, and in turn creating opportunities to exploit them.

While it is difficult to get reliable data, Heather Barr, acting co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, says there is reason to be concerned about a link between BRI and trafficking.

“Based on the work we’ve done examining the issue of ‘bride trafficking’ to China from Myanmar and elsewhere it seems likely that there is some connection,” she told Myanmar Now.

“Given the clear demand in China for ‘brides’ it would not be surprising if the new business connections stemming from the Belt and Road Initiative also included increases in illicit commerce including human trafficking,” she added.

China and Myanmar have agreed to establish an economic corridor as part of Belt and Road. The plan involves building special economic zones near Muse, which borders China’s Ruili and is one of Myanmar’s biggest overland trading routes. Plans are also underway to build a high-speed railway line that will connect Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, with China.

Khon Ja, a Kachin activist who helps rescue trafficking survivors, said an increase in construction projects means there are more male Chinese workers at the border looking for wives, and more work opportunities for migrant women in those same areas.

That, she said, creates openings for traffickers. “So many construction workers there don’t have wives, or maybe they have a wife at home but didn’t bring them,” she told Myanmar Now.

“Another thing is that when they have a lot of workers in those areas, a lot of small businesses open up. More or less all those places need girls to be cleaners or serve at the restaurants, so these are pull factors,” she said.

Seng Tsin and her friend were lured to China, along with a boy, with the promise of work in a restaurant. When the brokers showed up, the three were staying in a camp for displaced people in Myitkyina, Kachin’s capital, having fled fighting between the Myanmar military and the rebel Kachin Independence Army.

After they crossed the border, the boy was separated from them and sent to work on a construction site, while Seng Tsin and her friend were locked in a room in the brokers’ apartment.

They were told the restaurant had been raided by police, and the job was no longer available. “They even tried to convince us that if we married Chinese men, then they could buy us jewellery,” she recalls.

‘Many never make it home’

Seng Tsin’s case is no anomaly; for Kachin women travelling to China, the chances of being trafficked are high. Up to 37 percent of women from Kachin now living in China are trapped in forced marriages, a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated last year.

More than 5,600 Myanmar women were trafficked into forced marriages in Yunnan province in 2017, the study estimated. But in the same year police in Kachin handled only 18 cases of women being trafficked.

“Many women are trafficked and never make it home again,” said Barr, and so their cases are never recorded in government statistics.

Despite the risks, poverty, war and desperation in Kachin mean many feel they have little choice but to travel to China for work, said Hpung Ram, a camp coordinator at the Takhone Church of Christ camp for internally displaced people near Myitkyina.

Most of the camp’s residents fled from the state’s northeast eight years ago, he said. “Our villages were burnt down and we couldn’t bring anything but our bedding and some clothes. All civilians had to flee,” he told Myanmar Now.

Crossing the nearby border is considered inexpensive, and many people in the camp are desperate, he said. “They hear about the dangers of working in China, but they take the risk because there’s no other place to find work.”

Land grabbing by Myanmar soldiers has contributed to people’s hardship, said Moon Nay Li, General secretary of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). “The military has confiscated land from local people to build barracks,” she said.

The government has also prevented humanitarian agencies from supplying displaced people with aid in some cases.


Traffickers stalking communities in Kachin state use a variety of tactics to lure women.

Some approach parents posing as prospective husbands and offer to pay a dowry to marry their daughter and take her back to China. Then after the pair have crossed the border the trafficker will sell the woman into a forced marriage.

“Traditionally, Kachin people are very impressed to be given a large dowry,” said Lamung Hkwang, Director of the Kachin Women’s Organisation.

As well as approaching people directly with offers of work, brokers also manipulate community leaders into spreading rumours about work across the border, she added.

In one instance brokers convinced a group of local nuns to encourage villagers to take jobs in China and those who took up the offer ended up being trafficked.

“It took several years to get them back, the nuns were defrocked,” Lamung Hkwang said.

One reason so few people are saved is a lack of coordination between Myanmar and Chinese authorities and the Kachin Independence Organisation, which administers swathes of Kachin state.

“There is no way a competent investigation in any of these cases can be done solely on one side of the border,” said Barr. “Every single one of these cases requires cross-border law enforcement cooperation and there seems to be very little of that going on.”

Representatives from Myanmar’s home affairs ministry, police force and anti-trafficking task force all declined to comment for this story.

The Public Security Department of Yunnan Province told Myanmar Now in a statement: “Since 2017, Yunnan Province has cracked 25 human-tracking cases involving Myanmar, arrested 57 criminal suspects, cracked 6 criminal gangs, and rescued 33 Myanmar women.”

Between 2017 and 2018, the department also helped repatriate 331 abducted Myanmar women and children from provinces including Heilongjiang, Jiangsu and Hunan, the statement added.

From forced bride to rescuer

But in many cases, people in Kachin are forced to take matters into their own hands.

Sar Li Htwe, a legal adviser for the Kachin-based Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, said her group has handed over details of trafficked women they are in contact with, including their locations in China, to authorities before, but Chinese police are inconsistent and sometimes do not follow up.

“We have to tell the victims to run away when the Chinese police force doesn’t take any action,” she said.

Tsawm Nu escape a forced marriage in 2011. Then, frustrated by the authorities’ inaction, used the language skills she learned while trapped in China to rescue 14 other women.

She followed rumours about trafficking victims, made contact with them by approaching the families that had bought them, and helped them to find escape routes home.

One of those she saved is Num Ri, who in 2007 was drugged by brokers who threatened her with violence and forced her to act like a “lunatic” in front of Chinese border guards to discourage them from checking her documents and asking her questions.

Tsawm Nu tracked down the family that was holding Num Ri and convinced them she was her sister. They allowed her to pay visits to Num Ri, and over time Tsawm Nu convinced her to escape. She provided her with money and helped arranged transport back home.

Seng Tsin’s escape was the result of sheer luck. The house she was kept in was surrounded by a high fence and a locked gate. But it just so happened that a Kachin man lived nearby. He had heard rumours of a trafficked woman being held somewhere in the neighbourhood and decided to investigate.

“One morning while I was walking around the garden a man yelled to me in Jinghpaw: ‘Are you Kachin?’” she recalled, referring to the main dialect of the Kachin.

Then she explained what had happened to her, and he told her to jump over the fence. “There were lots of empty flower pots in the garden. I dragged the empty pots and arranged them into stairs,” she said.

Once she was over, the man drove her to a bus terminal, bought her a ticket and asked the driver to ensure she made it to Myanmar safely. He also gave Seng Tsin 200 Yuan (roughly $28) for anything she might need on the journey home.

Seng Tsin, Tsawm Nu and Num Ri are still scarred by their experience.

Seng Tsin still feels terror at night time, because that was one of the worst parts of her day while she was trapped. “Going to bed was miserable because I would have to have sex with this strange man,” she said.

Num Ri, like many who escape, was forced to leave behind her child. Her was almost two years old when she left and is now 10.

“I miss my son a lot, especially when I see children who are the same age as him. But he doesn’t belong to me anymore… there’s nothing I can do.”

Written by Graeme Acres
Source: Myanmar Now
Published on 9 October 2019

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