Erin Kamler on Bride Trafficking from Myanmar to China

Dr. Erin Kamler is an American writer, composer, researcher, and international gender equality specialist who works at the intersection of feminist social justice and the arts. Dr. Kamler earned her Ph.D. from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where her research focused on the trafficking and migration of women in Thailand, and using the arts as a tool for political communication and human rights witnessing. She holds a Master in Public Diplomacy and Master in Communication Arts from The Annenberg School, and a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. Over the past ten years Dr. Kamler has worked as a researcher and technical advisor on women’s rights issues in Thailand, Myanmar, and throughout Southeast Asia in partnership with NGOs, members of government, civil society, UN agencies, and the private sector. An award-winning composer and playwright, her latest musical, LAND OF SMILES, received critical acclaim for its critique of the U.S.-driven crusade to combat sex trafficking in Thailand. Her new book, “Rewriting the Victim: Dramatization as Research in Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Movement” is available from Oxford University Press. Dr. Kamler works as Assistant Professor of Arts and Humanities at Minerva University, Affiliated Researcher at Chiang Mai University, and as an independent gender equality specialist in Southeast Asia.

You recently conducted research that was compiled into a 2019 Human Rights Watch report on the ongoing trafficking of women from Myanmar into China as “brides.” Can you give some context in two areas:  why and how conditions in Myanmar have made so many women susceptible to trafficking, and why there is a market in China for “brides”?

The war in northern Myanmar is the primary driver of this trafficking problem. In Kachin State, one of the ethnic areas of Myanmar, the Kachin have been at war with the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, for the better part of 70 years, with the exception of a 17-year ceasefire. This was recently broken in 2011, when the war resumed. The conflict is ongoing and has escalated to become quite problematic. You see the effects of the conflict on women, particularly those who live in villages where there are very few economic livelihood opportunities and resources. The same is true for women who are living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps along the border. This, on the Myanmar side, is a primary reason why women want to go to China and are looking for opportunities to make money in any way they can in order to survive and help their families survive.

Then you also see the driver from the Chinese side, which as the Human Rights Watch report details and discusses in depth, is linked to the one-child policy. This policy has resulted in a whole generation of young men who are unable to find wives. You see entire families complicit in the buying and purchasing of Kachin women as brides for their sons. It is really an issue of reproductive labor. It is all about reproduction to these families, and the women are secondary to their utility as mothers and creators of offspring.

The Human Rights Watch report details how several women and girls were transported from Myanmar into China. Typically, how are these women first targeted in Myanmar and then trafficked across the border?

From the interviews we have done with survivors in Myanmar, the trafficking process is really quite disturbing. The initiator can be anyone, but it is often a family friend or even a family member of the victim, or simply someone in the community with a cross-border connection. More research needs to be done to really understand the extent to which transnational organized crime networks are at play. The initiator will often have a family member or family friend living in China, so there is this informal and loose network.  That person will invite a Kachin woman across the border to help her find a job, say in a restaurant or as a domestic laborer, but then once the woman is in China, that job will change. Everything will change. Her phone will be taken away, and she will be taken further into China and brought into the trafficker’s house and kept inside. Or she will be brought to the house of the family to whom she was sold.

What happens to trafficked women after arriving in China? What do their captors and “husbands” expect from them, and is there a general length of time these women stay in China?

The length of time can vary. Some of the survivors we have talked to remained in China for a short time because they were able to escape. Some survivors remained in China for over two years, or longer, depending on how long they end up staying with the family. As I mentioned earlier, a woman will be taken across the border for a job she was promised, a job that either does not exist or exists for only a while. She may work in a restaurant for a little while, but then the situation changes. Often, she will end up held in a house with the person who took her across the border. Many women described suddenly seeing men and families of the men show up to wherever they were staying or living. The broker—the person who has taken her across the border—tells her that the situation has changed, and now she will need to go further into China, often to another city. She is told there is another job opportunity for her, and that they will help facilitate her transport. She is not sure where she is going, but ultimately ends up in the house of the Chinese family that has purchased her to be a bride. From there, the women we spoke with described overwhelmingly similar scenarios of being kept in the family’s house, being locked in a room, and being raped multiple times until they became pregnant and produced a child. Once the women produce a child, the situation varies. Some of the survivors spoke about being able to leave but having to leave the child behind with the family. Other survivors talked about how they could not leave after having a child and were made to remain in the house and serve this family. That could go on for months or years.

Did these Chinese families have a preference for male children over female children?

Male children sounded like they were prioritized, certainly, over female children, from the survivors we spoke to.

For those who escape or are released from their Chinese captors, the report details how reintegration into society in Myanmar has proved very challenging. What are the stigmas attached to trafficking survivors?  How do these women cope with their trauma?

They are not able to cope very well because there are not adequate support, rehabilitation, or psychosocial counseling services on the Myanmar side in Kachin state. The support networks that do exist for the women exist through civil society organizations (CSOs) that have taken it upon themselves to curb this problem. They try to rescue women in China and facilitate the reentry of those who do make it back on their own. But CSOs are largely unequipped to handle this issue. They do not have the professional expertise, the skills, or the resources. Although they are trying to fill really important gaps, there are not enough experienced, well-resourced NGOs active in this area, and there certainly is no support from the government. It is a real problem for women who do return.

In terms of the social stigma, it is really quite dire, both in the IDP camps and back in the women’s home environments. Sex outside of marriage carries its own stigma in Kachin society, which is a very conservative Christian society for the most part. You can imagine the stigmatization one would undergo, not only engaging in sex before marriage, but also having a child out of wedlock and doing so in China. It carries a very large stigma, and unfortunately the women are often retraumatized when they come home. They do not have the support services they need to reintegrate and to heal from their traumas.

Are the children who return with their mothers to Myanmar stigmatized?

I have heard of very few cases where the children are able to return with the mothers. One woman I interviewed said that she was able to leave her captor family and get her children out, but she did not return to Kachin. She stayed in China on her own because of this issue of stigma. She was worried about the fate of her children and what they would face

Existing efforts to end such trafficking seem ineffective. Why have NGOs and law enforcement agencies in both Myanmar and China proved unable – or unwilling – to take substantial measures?

There are not many anti-trafficking NGOs formally operating in Myanmar. It is mostly CSOs who do not have the resources, funding, and skills to adequately handle this issue. From what we understand, there are also very few NGOs operating in China working on this issue. The NGO space in China is very different from other parts of the world. It is very dangerous to do that kind of work in China, as it is not supported by the government. Although there may be some emerging or underground efforts on the Chinese side, we have not been able to document or adequately understand them, as their presence is not publicly known. So there really is not a robust anti-trafficking effort on either side of the border.

Additionally, we do not see the Chinese government effectively working on this situation. The Chinese police are often not trained properly to identify trafficking victims. When they do identify these women, they often re-stigmatize the victims or detain them as “illegal migrants,” retraumatizing the women further. You also see a lot of problems from the side of the Myanmar government. Because of the conflict between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is the de facto government of Kachin state, and the Myanmar government, there is a lack of coordination around this issue, to say the least, between these two actors. In general, we do not see a lot of effort from the Kachin or Myanmar authorities to deal with trafficking, certainly not in the ethnic areas.

What should be done now or in the near future to more effectively combat such trafficking?

First, women who are survivors of the conflict in Myanmar must be supported. Support services such as humanitarian aid have been sorely lacking in Kachin state, as have many other measures to improve quality of life for the Kachin people. Possible steps could include provision of livelihood opportunities for women and for men in Kachin state, better education, and better services and access to resources so that women do not feel the need to migrate to China in the first place. That is the primary thing so urgently needed, which is on the prevention side. You also have the rescue side and the rehabilitation side. Both of those areas are also lacking. On the rescue side, the Chinese government and authorities could do a much more robust job of identifying trafficking victims within China, and then facilitating the victims’ safe return to Kachin. We have heard stories about Chinese authorities and hospital staff looking the other way in situations where it should be obvious, or at least raise alarm bells, that there might be a situation of trafficking going on. The authorities do not make it a priority. That needs to change on the rescue side. On the rehabilitation side, again, primarily back in Kachin state, it is a matter of resourcing support services for women who do return.

It is a quite different landscape than in other parts of the region—for example, in Thailand. On the Thai side, there are so many anti-trafficking resources. There has been this huge international movement against trafficking in Thailand, first dealing with sex trafficking in the last few decades, and then more recently dealing with labor trafficking, for example in the fishing industry. It is a really well-resourced effort on the part of international organizations and Western governments, the State Department included. But we do not see that happening in Myanmar. I think one of the reasons for that is that there is not that much to gain ideologically from anti-trafficking efforts in Myanmar. In Thailand, a lot of the early anti-trafficking efforts had to do with trying to curb prostitution. It was an ideological battle led by radical feminists and the Christian right in the United States and supported by the US government. These actors saw eradicating prostitution in the developing world as a kind of moral crusade. The issue in Myanmar and China, on the other hand, is really not about sex work or prostitution, but about reproductive labor. As such, we do not see that same ideological commitment being made by Western NGOs and governments, wherein they can say prostitution is bad and should be eradicated, thus making all sex workers into victims. The women in Myanmar who are being trafficked as “forced brides” are in fact victims, but they are not given the attention—the rhetorical “victim” label—that you see being applied to sex workers by the anti-trafficking abolitionist movement in other places. If there were to be an anti-trafficking movement in Myanmar, I think it could benefit women there who are truly suffering—not as sex workers, but as reproductive laborers. But given that we do not see the same efforts and funding apparatus around this issue that we see in Thailand, it seems to have less relevance to Western actors.

Your recent book Rewriting the Victim: Dramatization as Research in Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Movement discusses how western condemnations of prostitution have led to an exportation of anti-prostitution sentiment and policy abroad by way of NGOs and international institutions, ultimately victimizing and disenfranchising Thai women. Although the situation in Thailand is very different from the one in China, how does this idea presented in your book inform our discussion on women trafficked from Myanmar into China? 

Beyond what I have mentioned, I would say that it is always important to be critical of Western NGOs and their tendency to sensationalize the victimization of women and human rights abuses. That is their mandate. Their job is to narrate the problems of the developing world to the West, and they often do that by using sensationalized language. But sometimes, that sensationalized language is necessary to portray the urgency of real problems on the ground. It is complicated in the Myanmar context because, according to the Kachin women we spoke to, trafficking is real a crisis. One of the most important take-aways from the research is that we do need to take this problem seriously. Not because Human Rights Watch says this is bad, but because the women themselves say it is a problem. It was the people on the ground who originally brought this problem to my attention, not an international NGO. It was actually women in Kachin who asked me to research the issue. Human Rights Watch saw my original article on the topic and were interested in the subject, which is how we connected. Their subsequent work been really essential for raising public awareness. However, I would say that, for any issue, identification of the problem should come from the voices of the people affected.

Genevieve Collins CMC'22Student Journalist

Featured Image by Adam Jones “Buddha Astride the Globe – World Peace Pagoda – Outside Hsipaw – Myanmar (Burma).” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *