After visiting her grandmother in southern Mon State in the country’s southeast, May Khine Oo – who was 17 at the time – boarded a train for the state capital, Mawlamyine, to return to her parents in Mudon Township.
On the train she met a couple who offered her a job which she refused. She did, however, accept their offer of water and next thing she knew she had fallen asleep and missed her stop, with no money to get back.
The couple suggested they could find her work to raise the funds needed to pay for a new ticket.
“I decided to accept their job for travel expenses to return home,” May Khine Oo told Myanmar Now, an independent website supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she now believed the water had been drugged.
The couple took her to a local restaurant where she worked for three months but instead of taking her back to her parents as promised they then took her to a broker and she was sent to China.
May Khine Oo said over the next 13 years she was forced to marry twice. She had two children with her first husband and was pregnant from her second marriage when she fled after contacting a student group through the Chinese messaging service WeChat.
“I tried to flee many times, for many years,” she said. “But the foreignness of the communities made it difficult to do so and I was also afraid that my situation would get much worse elsewhere.”
While May Khine Oo’s ordeal is not uncommon, what is unusual is her determination to go public with her story to stop other young girls from falling into the same trap.
Forced to marry
For the United Nations has described Myanmar as a source country for human trafficking and police statistics show that 3,489 victims were rescued from 2006 to 2016, most of whom were trafficked into marriages.
Prostitution accounted for the second highest number of cases, followed by forced labour.
Police records show the top destination for trafficking victims from Myanmar is China although the trade also exists in other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Malaysia, and within Myanmar itself.
Myanmar was upgraded in June in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report to its Tier 2 watch list which indicated that the country was making significant efforts to comply with U.S. standards to combat human trafficking.
Human rights groups, however, called the move premature, saying not enough was being done to stop this illegal trade.
Tun Hlaing, a project manager at the Yangon Justice Centre, said improving employment opportunities, tightening scrutiny at border checkpoints, and developing programs at the community level – where the poor are most vulnerable to exploitation or promises of a better life – are all key.
“Preventive measures against trafficking in persons must be carried out systematically,” he said. “This crime is also happening in this country. But only serious cases are known to the public.”
Myanmar’s government passed a landmark Anti-Trafficking Law in 2005, which laid out hefty sentences for offenders. Cases that proceed to court are rare but have happened.
Myo Aung, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population, said one challenge is providing a strong alternative to the lucrative offers made by brokers.
“Potential victims do not heed education programs about trafficking,” he said. “Instead they believe the enticements of illegal traffickers. As a result they cannot find help after becoming victims.”
Myanmar woman May Khine Oo, 30, stands in front of her family’s grocery store in Mon State, Myanmar. on July 20, 2017. Photo by Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ei Cherry Aung
On the local level, the fight is often about raising awareness.
Police Major Khin Maung Latt of Yangon’s Pazundaung township recommends a more aggressive approach to the information battle. He said his officers cooperate with non-government organizations to disseminate pamphlets, using a “door-to-door system”.
“It is more effective than formal educative talks,” he said, adding that residents should inform that police if they are approached by brokers.
“It is a preventive measure against liars. Prevention is better than the cure.”
After her case was reported, Chinese authorities were able to locate May Khine Oo and handed her over to the Myanmar Police Force’s Anti-Trafficking unit in the town of Ruili in China’s Yunnan Province.
She moved back to her parents in Mudon, leaving her two children in China, and started to rebuild her life, receiving a grant from the Social Welfare Department to set up a grocery store.
The International Rescue Committee charity gives her a small daily stipend for living expenses and a village clinic is providing free checkups for her pregnancy.
She has also filed a complaint with the police in the hope that they can find the couple who duped her on the train, and is spreading her own story locally as a cautionary tale.
“I would like to suggest to all parents not to allow their children to travel without close adult family members,” she said. “Using my experience as an example, I tell the girls not to blindly trust others.”