Myanmar authorities have launched an investigation into an apparent human-trafficking operation that recruits women as brides and birth surrogates for Chinese men through advertisements posted on the streets of a major trading town on Myanmar’s border with China, an anti-trafficking official said.
Earlier this week, residents of Muse, a Myanmar border town in northern Shan state that serves as a major trade hub between the two countries, reported seeing advertisements posted on lampposts and building walls.
One ad with a headline reading “Invitation for Marriage” in Chinese and Burmese, gives the height, income, and address of an unnamed Chinese man who is looking for a Myanmar bride between the ages of 26 and 32. The ad also provides a contact number and says more details can be discussed over the phone.
Other advertisements with the headline “Surrogate Mothers Wanted” say a company is looking for women under the age of 25 to carry the babies of Chinese men in exchange for payments of 13,000 yuan (U.S. $1,900) a month plus meals and accommodations. The ads also provide a contact number.
“What we’re doing right now is we’re looking for those who posted the ads,” Kyaw Nyunt, Myanmar’s anti-human trafficking police chief in Muse, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“District and local police officials have been pulling down the ads and looking for those who are posting them,” he said. We’ll arrest anyone who posts the ads and find out who told them to do it. That’s the plan.”
Kyaw Nyunt said that Myanmar authorities launched the investigation in cooperation with Chinese authorities and are looking into the phone numbers listed on the ads.
He said similar ads have been posted around Muse in the last three or four months, offering surrogate mothers payments totaling about 2.3 million kyats (U.S. $1,470) for 10 months to cover the time just before and during their pregnancies.
“We’ve contacted the numbers on the ads. We also checked through WeChat apps,” Kyaw Nyunt said, referring to the popular Chinese messaging app.
“They answered in Chinese when we made the calls, and calls to two other numbers went unanswered, so we just added our numbers to the WeChat contact list,” he said.
As part of the investigation, authorities are pretending to be women responding to the ads, claiming to understand the Chinese language and offering photos, he said.
RFA’s Myanmar Service tried to call some of the numbers on the notices, but could not reach anyone. When a reporter in RFA’s office in Bangkok called one of the numbers, a Thai operator’s voice said the number was not available.
Kyaw Nyunt also said that Myanmar authorities contacted Chinese authorities at a Border Liaison Office (BLO) to get them involved in the matter.
“We’ve sent a message to the BLO, because China doesn’t allow human trafficking,” he said. “Myanmar is also taking action against trafficking services. We asked the Chinese authorities to take action urgently because this case not only damages Myanmar women’s dignity but also hurts China’s reputation.”
Authorities in the BLO office in the Chinese town of Ruili across the Shweli River from Muse said they would follow up on the case, he said.
“They said that this kind of service is illegal in the country, so the ads are apparently scams,” he said.
Local outrage over ads
Muse residents have expressed outrage over the ads posted along major roads and in downtown areas, said Thaung Tun, a member of the local relief organization the Karuna Foundation.
“We’ve seen these notices over the last three or four months,” he said. “The latest ones are very recent and new. The ads are now in many public places, including along Pyidaungsu Road and on the downtown clock tower and utility poles.”
“The authorities should prevent such activities,” he said. “Posting such ads in Myanmar is an insult to us. It’s not just me; others are also angry and have ripped down the ads.”
A report published in December by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health measured the prevalence of trafficking for forced marriages and childbearing among women and girls from Myanmar, specifically from Shan and Kachin states to China’s Yunnan province.
It found that 7,500 of the estimated 171,000 women and girls who migrated to China between 2013 and 2017 were in forced marriages, while 5,100 of the migrants were forced to bear children.
Young women and girls in civil war-ravaged Shan and neighboring Kachin state are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for forced marriages and childbearing in China, where a gender imbalance means there are not enough women for men to marry.
Chinese men in rural areas who don’t have wives are especially marginalized in a society that places family above all else. With demand for wives high, those who live near border areas with Southeast Asian countries look to neighboring countries like Myanmar to fill the void.
Human traffickers also know there is money to be made in luring impoverished and vulnerable women across the border to be sold off as wives.
“The human trafficking issue in this area is always going on,” said Thaung Tun about Muse. “Some women are sold by human traffickers, some by their parents, their friends, and their boyfriends.”
Thaung Tun said he’s heard that the price for brides from Shan and Kachin states is about 20 million kyats (U.S. $12,700), though the parents receive only 3 million-4 million kyats (U.S. $1,270-$1,900) after traffickers from both China and Myanmar take their cuts.
The dangers of displacement
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that fighting between ethnic armies and Myanmar forces, or armed conflict between different ethnic armed groups, in Kachin and northern Shan states has displaced about 107,000 people during the past seven years.
In Kachin state, the Myanmar government and the military have not allowed U.N. agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance to about 40,000 displaced people in areas controlled by armed groups, according to an OCHA brief issued in September.
The qualitative data in the Hopkins report suggests that conflict and displacement increases the risk of forced marriage because of weakened social networks and a lack of protective systems. Poverty, age, low education levels, and rural status are also factors in both states that increase the likelihood of young women and girls being trafficked to China, it said.
Some NGO workers say that a drop in humanitarian aid in recent years has led to an increase in trafficking.
“A lot of women have to stay at internally displaced persons [IDP] camps on account of the civil war,” said Maran San Htoi, joint secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). “International humanitarian aid for these IDP camps has declined since 2016, and this has resulted in them being trafficked.”
B. Esther Ze Naw, an activist with the Kachin Peace Network, said aid organizations cut assistance to displaced young people between the ages of 16 to 35, while some IDP camps have faced total stoppages.
“The idea was to build self-reliance among the younger population instead of them depending on aid, which the government supported,” she said. “But the region where refugee camps are located has no strong economic activity, and it’s been a challenge to share resources after hundreds of thousands of displaced people arrived.”
A dearth of job opportunities is also an issue, she said.
“So self-reliance for young people becomes a driver of human trafficking and fuels its flames,” she said.
A Kachin woman in Muse who declined to give her name out of fear for her safety said families of trafficking victims becoming unknowingly involved in the trafficking process.
“They [traffickers] say you will have a better job on the other side,” she told RFA. “In some cases, they give the family a cash advance. For example, they gave our friends’ family 200,000 kyats (U.S. $127) out of an offer of 400,000-500,000 kyats (U.S. $253-$317).”
“We ethnic minorities are usually naïve,” she said. “The women have to serve as Chinese men’s mistresses, and they are also treated like slaves after giving birth.”
Limited help from NGOs
Domestic NGOs say they can only do some much with their own limited resources to prevent women and girls from falling victim to traffickers.
“We can’t help them in some cases, especially if they are seeking help from remote areas,” Moon Nay Li, KWAT’s general secretary, told RFA, adding that one of the group’s safe houses has helped more than 100 women so far, and not just Kachins.
“We found out that they are not just ethnic Kachin women, but they are also ethnic Rakhine and other minorities,” she said. “In the past, most women have been from Kachin state and northern Shan state near China, but now there are some others from the lower part of the country.”
She said KWAT has reported trafficking cases to China, but that Chinese police were unable to rescue the women.
Win Mara, chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, said his organization has not received any reports about Myanmar women being trafficked to China.
“If we receive them, we will work on them by collaborating with the Foreign Affairs Ministry,” he said. “It seems as though relevant ministries are working on this issue.”
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.