In yet another report highlighting the devastating consequences of the ongoing war in Myanmar’s ethnic areas, Human Rights Watch highlighted how the Chinese and Myanmar authorities continue to turn a blind eye as Kachin women and girls from the conflict-torn areas of northern Myanmar are trafficked as “brides” and sold to families in China.
According to the report, many of the victims have endured unspeakable abuse, including being locked up, repeatedly raped, and forced to bear the children of the captors – with no choice but to leave their child behind upon escaping back to Myanmar. The “bride” trafficking in China has been driven partly by the severe gender imbalance in China due to its one-child policy, which forced Chinese families to have only one child between 1979 and 2015 as a measure to control population growth. As families favored male babies over female babies, the policy has led to sex-selective abortion, which has resulted in 30 – 40 million “missing women” in China. This one child policy has contributed to the rise in trafficking as Chinese families look to find wives, particularly in neighboring poorer nations.
The report echoes findings from an earlier study by the Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand (KWAT) and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which estimated that out of the 106,000 female migrants who returned from China to Kachin and northern Shan States between 2013 and 2017, around 5,000 migrant women were forced into marriages with Chinese men and around 3,900 had been trafficked into forced marriages. According to their study, this already alarming number would increase if larger areas of Yunnan Province, China and inside Myanmar were surveyed. Among the 400 interviewed for the report, some women were resold into the hands of a second husband after being forced to bear children for the first husband, or trafficked into China more than twice, every time being forced to give birth.
These reports bring to the fore how the consequences of the ongoing war suffered by women and girls remain largely invisible and unaddressed in Myanmar. In 2013, two years after the resumption of war in Kachin State after the Myanmar military broke the ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army, KWAT documented how the onset of armed conflict exponentially increased the risk of trafficking of Kachin women and girls along the China-Myanmar border. Large-scale displacement, coupled with a lack of protection and restrictions in provision of humanitarian aid had become increasing push factors that were fueling the already prevalent trafficking problem in Kachin and northern Shan States. Since then, the Myanmar government and military have weaponized humanitarian aid, restricting aid provision to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. This has created desperate conditions in IDP camps as IDPs struggle to survive on a daily basis, unable to receive enough rations to avoid hunger. As men become either engaged in, or run away from the conflict, women are left as breadwinners for their families, often desperate to earn an income, making them vulnerable to preying traffickers.
This is compounded by the Myanmar government’s failure to ensure provision of ID cards, particularly to the IDPs, which means migrant laborers from Kachin areas are often unable to obtain official border passes to legally seek employment in China, thus increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. In addition, under the 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, those convicted of trafficking are subject to a minimum 10 year sentence with a maximum of a life sentence, but cases of trafficking rarely make it to court due to a poorly resourced and unresponsive police force. To make matters worse, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report – which downgraded Myanmar’s ranking from “Tier 2 Watch List” to its lowest ranking of “Tier 3” – has noted that “Burmese government officials are occasionally complicit” in the trafficking of women who are also forced into domestic servitude through forced marriages to Chinese men.
The response to the situation in Kachin State requires a global response. While the situation of the Rohingya continues to grab headlines – and understandably so – the situation of women and girls in armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States is slipping through the attention of the international community. The rampant trafficking of women and girls in Kachin and northern Shan States is a symptom of a much deeper and rooted systematic marginalization and persecution of ethnic nationalities who continue to suffer the consequences of the decades-long civil war and human rights violations mainly perpetrated by the Myanmar military. In addition to holding those responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law accountable, humanitarian aid agencies must immediately be given unfettered access to all IDP camps in order to begin addressing this “bride” trafficking of ethnic women and girls to China. Most importantly, without an end to the ongoing conflict as well as the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against these communities in Kachin and northern Shan States, women and girls from these conflict affected areas will continue to be trafficked and left to endure unspeakable abuses in both Myanmar and China.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By 19 International Non-Government Organizations
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Campaign UK
By International Karen Organization
By Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and Fortify Rights
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”