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Kohon Ja, a Myanmar woman, applies “thanaka,” a traditional cosmetic paste made from finely ground bark, to her face at her home. She was forced to marry a Chinese man. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

In pictures: Myanmar women trafficked as brides in China

Casting shadow on Belt and Road, victims share their ordeals

RIE ISHII, Nikkei staff photographer | Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

MYITKYINA, Myanmar -- Under sustained criticism from the international community for the "ethnic cleansing" of its Rohingya Muslim minority, Myanmar has also harbored another serious humanitarian issue for years -- "bride trafficking."

In the states of Kachin and Shan, embroiled in bloody ethnic conflict for decades, more than 100,000 people have fled their villages. They have become internally displaced persons, or IDPs, living in camps, many of whom frequently go to China to earn money as illegal migrant workers.

This lawless environment provides a prolific field for bride traffickers to "harvest" victims. Trafficked women are sold in inland China where the country's "one child policy" has created a serious gender imbalance.

Multiple Myanmar women, who went to China to find work but ended up being forced to marry Chinese men, told the Nikkei Asian Review what they experienced beyond the border.

Twenty-year-old Kohon Ja managed to return to Myanmar several months ago after becoming a victim of bride trafficking. She was forced into marrying a Chinese man after losing all means to escape.

Kohon Ja shows a photo of the Chinese man she was forced to marry. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Fleeing conflict between Myanmar's army and ethnic armed groups, she settled in an IDP camp before leaving illegally for China in December 2017, where she initially spent four months working at a metal processing plant, and another two months at a toy factory.

Then, the situation changed when a Myanmar man told her that she could earn 12 yuan ($1.70) per hour at a factory where his sister was working. She believed the man, and traveled by bus for two days to meet his sister, who was actually not working, but married to a Chinese man and pregnant.

On the day after she arrived, Kohon Ja was told by the man's sister that she owed hundreds of dollars. "You took on [the debt] when you decided to work in China," the sister said, adding "If you want to pay off the money, the best way is to get married to a Chinese man."

The next day, another Myanmar woman came and told her, "There is a job available in my husband's village." Desperate to work, Kohon Ja bought her story and traveled to another village. But after arriving there, the woman turned out to be a bride broker. She pretended to be looking for a job for the victim for several days and then told her, "If you cannot speak Chinese, it is impossible to get a job in China. It is better to get married to a Chinese man."

Chinese parents started visiting Kohon Ja to show photos of their sons. After she refused to marry a Chinese man three times, the broker got tough with her. "We already spent a lot of money for transportation, food and accommodation. Pick a Chinese man as soon as possible," the broker said. "Finally, I could not refuse anymore," said Kohon Ja.

Since returning home, Kohon Ja has been verbally abused by neighbors. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

She was taken to the house of the family into which she married, and a wedding ceremony was held two days later. The broker and her husband were the only attendants on the bride's side.

The man who bought the bride told her that he had paid 50,000 yuan (about $7,000) to the broker and started forcing her to have sex with him.

While she lived with the man's parents for six months, she was under constant watch by members of his family. After she and the man moved to a house near his workplace, he locked her inside every day. He was sometimes away from home for days on end without leaving her enough food or water. "I only had a tiny bottle of water. So, I had to drink little by little for a whole week, without having any meals," she said.

Her saving grace came in the form of a smartphone the man gave her. She phoned her friend in Myanmar, who then informed Kohon Ja's parents of her forced marriage. Her parents reported the crime to local Myanmar police. After long exchanges between the law-enforcement authorities of the two countries, the Chinese police finally took her into protective custody.

But her ordeal did not end there. A Chinese police officer threateningly asked her "whether you prefer to go back to your Chinese husband, or do you want to get married to another Chinese man." She was kept at a welfare facility for elderly people for around 20 days without any spare clothes provided. And even since returning home, she has not been left in peace as some of her neighbors have verbally abused her about her ordeals.

A camp for internally displaced people in Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar’s northernmost state of Kachin, where jobs are hard to find. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

However, some victims are even unluckier than Kohon Ja. According to an estimate by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Humanitarian Health and Kachin Women's Association Thailand, roughly 21,000 women and girls from Kachin and northern Shan were trapped in forced marriages to Chinese men between 2013 and 2017, of which over 15,000 were estimated to still remain in China's Yunnan Province.

Nang Pu, director of Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, a nongovernment organization based in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin, which is working to provide support for victims, says there are no signs of improvement in the dire situation. "Even though the police forces of Myanmar and China have committed to eliminating the trafficking issue, these kinds of cases are still increasing day by day," she says.

In many cases of bride trafficking to China, Myanmar people, including relatives of the victims, play a role. Brokers typically earn $3,000 to $4,000 for each trafficked woman. "There are only a few job opportunities ... For brokers, it is very easy to traffic the women," said Nang Pu.

In China, the one child policy led many families to opt for gender-based abortions to ensure their only child was a boy, resulting in serious gender disparities. With dismal prospects of finding Chinese wives for their sons, they have begun importing women from nearby countries like Myanmar, sometimes by force.

A woman makes clothes with a sewing machine in a Myanmar village. She narrowly escaped being duped into becoming a surrogate mother. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Women are trafficked not only to become wives, but also to be used as surrogate mothers to give children to Chinese men.

Shai Pan, a 25-year-old resident of Kachin state, came close to being forced into surrogacy. She was lucky to be able to escape.

Like Kohon Ja, Shai Pan was tricked into traveling to China in search of work. The broker, a Myanmar woman, persuaded her parents to allow her to go to China by talking about alluring job prospects in China while showing them photos of a Chinese factory.

On the third day of traveling from her village, Shai Pan arrived at a 10-story building in China. She found numerous pregnant women, including many from Myanmar, on the top floor, which had been compartmentalized into some 20 units. She noticed a girl who appeared to be as young as 14 or so among the pregnant. There were also around 30 women who were not yet pregnant. When Shai Pan fearfully asked one of them about their work, she said it was to give birth to a baby by a Chinese man.

Shai Pan realized that she had been deceived and sent a message to her father with a cellphone, saying, "The job is not what I was told about. There is something wrong. Please help me." Her father immediately told the village chief and police about his daughter's message, and began to make frantic efforts to rescue her.

While the whole picture is not clear from what Shai Pan saw and heard, it was apparently a business of importing trafficked Myanmar women to serve as surrogate mothers. Shai Pan was told that she would receive $10,000 for each baby she gave birth to. But she repeatedly refused to take the job, which she thought was totally unacceptable, no matter how much money she could earn.

Three Myanmar women practice using sewing machines at a job training center to gain useful skills for getting a stable job. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Later, the woman broker who deceived Shai Pan in Kachin was arrested, and she was rescued along with some 30 other victims of trafficking.

For China, which wants to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, Myanmar is an important partner from the geopolitical standpoint, and a country taking part in Chinese President Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road" initiative. But Beijing has earned a bad reputation in the neighboring country as it tried to build a huge controversial dam at the source of the Irrawaddy river, which is highly valued by the local people.

Since overhauling its image in Myanmar is an important task for China, there is much pressure on Beijing to take effective steps to deal with the serious humanitarian problem of the trafficking of women from Myanmar to China. Growing awareness of the problem could deliver a blow to the outlook of the Belt and Road project as well.

Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, has pointed out that Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar, "have become source countries for a brutal business -- the trafficking of women and girls for sale in China as brides."

The tragedies that have befallen countless Myanmar women are only the tip of the iceberg in the sprawling and dreadful world of human trafficking in Asia.

Children in class at the camp, where volunteers teach them every night. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Names have been changed to protect victims' identities. Additional reporting by Yuichi Nitta in Yangon.

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