HLAING THAR YAR: Enticed by work in China, hundreds of poor young Myanmar women are instead being duped into marriage, and left to scramble to get back across remote borders before they are forced into life with husbands they have never met.
In April Kyi Pyar Soe, 22, vanished from her community of squatters, who live in tents and flimsy bamboo lean-tos an hour outside of Yangon, the largest city in impoverished Myanmar.
“She didn’t say anything. She left after she argued with her younger sister. Her mother told her off and she left,” her father Mya Soe told AFP from the family’s shelter in Hlaing Thar Yar township.
He could not have known that his daughter was on her way to China, enticed along with another woman by job offers as maids paying $210 a month — several times more than what they could make at home.
Gifted a free journey by brokers to the shady Myanmar border town of Muse, in eastern Shan State, the pair were able to cross legally.
But once on Chinese soil, the deal swiftly unravelled.
“They were taken to a Chinese woman’s house and the woman brought some Chinese men to have a look at them,” a police officer, from Kyi Par Soe’s township told AFP, requesting anonymity.
“She told them that they have to marry a Chinese man.”
Demand for Myanmar brides is high in China, where a one-child policy has led to a massive gender imbalance.
Myanmar has drawn international praise in recent years for democratic reforms that have loosened the military’s repressive grip and paved the way for the human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to lead an elected government.
But the fledgling democracy faced a diplomatic setback Thursday when the United States branded it one of the world’s worst centres for human trafficking.
The government has failed to meet the minimum standards for combating people smuggling, the US State Department ruled in an annual trafficking report that downgraded the country to the lowest “Tier 3”.
“Burmese women are transported to China and subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude through forced marriages to Chinese men,” the report said, adding there is reason to believe that government officials “are occasionally complicit in this form of trafficking”.
More than 3,000 people were trafficked to China between 2006 and 2016, according to official figures.
“Two thousand of them are women… four hundred are children who are under 18-years-old,” said Police Major Ye Win Aung, of the Yangon-based Anti-Trafficking Task Force.
“They were offered job opportunities in China but instead they were sold to be wives of Chinese men when they arrive on the other side,” he added, saying some 800 cases have been recorded so far.
Non-governmental organisations say the real figure is likely to be much larger, especially once northernmost Kachin State is included where poverty and war drive thousands across the border.
Neighbouring Thailand is also an immediate draw for millions of Myanmar people seeking work on its construction sites, in restaurants and factories.
But migrants are prone to exploitation there too, especially if they lack work permits.
In the end, Kyi Pyar Soe and the other woman were lucky.
The pair met an old Myanmar woman in the Chinese town who helped them back across the border before they could be married off to the strangers.
They are now in a government-run woman’s refuge in Yangon where they are receiving job training — vital to prevent Kyi Par Soe, who never went to school, from repeating her journey.