A glowing video by China’s state news agency on the happy life of a Myanmar woman who married a rural Chinese man has stumbled over sensitivities about bride trafficking in the Southeast Asian country, where hundreds of women have vanished across the border with its giant neighbor.
The three-minute video released on the Burmese-language Facebook page of China’s Xinhua news agency, “Myanmar Woman’s Rural Life in China,” drew nearly 2 million views within a few days of its posting on Sept. 21.
But before long, Xinhua’s story of a Myanmar woman named Shao Yue, who credits her good her life to her marriage to a Chinese man and government anti-poverty programs in China, was being panned by anti-trafficking NGOs and actual trafficking victims for painting a misleading picture.
“When I arrived in his village, the streets were made of dirt, my husband’s house had doors and windows made of wood, and the floor was made of concrete,” Shao Yue says in the video.
“Many houses were not good then, but it began to change 10 years ago,” she says. “Now most of the houses have been renovated.”
The regional government’s poverty reduction program helped Shao Yue and her husband renovate their rural home, she said. It also provides about U.S. $74 to each of their children during the academic year and reimbursed Shao Yue’s medical expenses when she needed surgery.
“At that time, my husband was unemployed, so the government gave him a job as a forest guard,” she says. “The government helped with a lot of things.”
As of Oct. 3, the video, which does not say how Shao Yue met her husband, had 39,000 reactions and 963 comments from viewers, many of whom dismissed it as spin from China.
“This is mere propaganda,” a viewer identified as Yee Mon commented. “It is not possible to be OK [in China]. Anyway, do not believe it. Don’t dream about it, fellow Myanmar women and ethnic women.”
A viewed who goes by the name Sapphire T T Sapphire said: “This video should not be shown. If innocent girls and women see it and go to China, human trafficking cases will increase.”
A viewer named Yuki Singh wrote: “You are lucky because you met a good man. I am happy for you.”
But the commenter chastised the news agency, saying “Please don’t distribute propaganda. Is this the news? Why don’t you write about human traffickers crowded at the border? There are many victims whose lives have been ruined by it there, too.”
Cashing in on the gender gap
According to Myanmar government figures, nearly 200 Myanmar citizens were trafficked to China in 2019. That same year, authorities rescued more than 200 people taken captive up until then, and arrested more than 500 for their involvement in trafficking.
But a March 2019 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) focusing on trafficking in women from conflict-ridden Kachin state said traffickers were cashing in on a huge gender gap in rural China, where a preference for boys, exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015, has created a shortage of brides.
“It is difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked from Myanmar to China for sale as brides,” said New York-based HRW.
“No reliable statistics on the total number exist on either side of the border,” the group said.
Gathering accurate statistics would be difficult, as many cases of missing women are never reported, many trafficked women and girls are never found, and many women and girls who escape may keep their experience secret due to stigma,” it added.
Inside Myanmar, the Xinhua video sparked criticism from media and NGO leaders, who linked it to the country’s trafficking problem, and from a trafficking victim.
One 30-year-old Myanmar woman from Yangon region who had been trafficked twice and escaped from Longyuan township in Fujian province, said the life she had in China was a far cry from the wedded bliss portrayed in the Xinhua video.
“Life was pretty difficult, [and] because I was away from my family and friends in Myanmar, I never felt good,” she said.
In 2016, agents lured her with a promise of a restaurant job in the Chinese border town of Ruili, across the Shweli River from the Myanmar trading hub Muse in Shan state, the woman said.
But instead they transported her China and sold her to a Chinese man she was forced to marry. The man confined her to their apartment and physically abused her, she said.
The woman escaped, but was caught and returned to her husband. His family, however, decided to sell her to another man, who was kind to her and let her return to Myanmar.
“It is not possible for women who marry Chinese citizens to have convenient lives and get assistance from the government,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
Myint Kyaw, a member of Myanmar Press Council, told RFA that “Xinhua is the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, so they are broadcasting the government’s opinion.”
“Maybe this woman in the video is one of a kind, but she could be the exception,” he said. “Many Myanmar women have been sold repeatedly. This propaganda video is an insult to all the victims of human trafficking in China.”
Idea is ‘misleading’
Kyaw Thaung, director the Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT), a humanitarian group that assists Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand and helps return trafficked woman, blasted Xinhua for producing the video.
“As a major news media organization, it should not broadcast such a misleading video because Myanmar is one of the counties severely affected by human trafficking,” he told RFA. “It is also racially degrading.”
“The idea that a Myanmar woman will have a good life by marrying a Chinese man is misleading,” he said.
Agents persuade young women from poor families to pay them a 2 million or 3 million kyat (U.S. $1,500-2,260) service fee to arrange their marriage to a Chinese man, telling them it is a quick way to escape poverty, Kyaw Thaung said.
“It could exacerbate existing problems,” he said, estimating that as many as 99 percent of Myanmar women trafficked to China are sold to Chinese men as sex slaves or brides.
It is a challenge for MAT to help all trafficking victims who contact the organization because of a lack of coordination between government ministries or human trafficking police in Myanmar and China, he said.
Hla Hla Yee, director of the Legal Clinic Myanmar (LCM), which provides free consultations and legal aid to those who cannot afford them, said the video was unacceptable.
“This is shameless propaganda and inappropriate,” she said. “This video shines a spotlight on the good life of one woman and ignores all the women who were forced into trafficking and prostitution.”
The situation of Myanmar women being trafficked to China is at its worst, Hla Hla Yee said, adding that the cases that LCM handles are “pretty horrible.”
“In most cases, Myanmar women are sold as brides and forced into prostitution,” she said. “Some women die of disease after they return home to Myanmar.”
Stable, happy life
In a response to the controversy, reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service in Burmese, Xinhua defended its depiction of China’s “fight against poverty from the perspective of a Burmese woman” and denied that Shao Yue was trafficked from Myanmar.
Although no allegation that Shao Yue was trafficked was reported, Xinhua said in a statement posted online that “some media outlets and some misrepresentations of such media coverage damaged the woman’s reputation, and Xinhua is deeply saddened.”
“China has never denied the existence of the problem of human trafficking, but its presence does not mean that a Burmese woman, Ma [honorific] Shao Yue, was trafficked to China,” Xinhua said.
Shao Yue met her husband, Gao Pao Hong, who worked on the China-Myanmar border, in 2007, and she accompanied him to Chiyuan, his hometown in Fujian province, and registered her marriage, the news agency said.
Her current life is stable and happy, it said.
RFA contacted the head of public relations at the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar for comment but received no response.
Both Myanmar and China are listed in the Tier 3 category in the U.S. government’s 2020 “Trafficking in Persons Report” (TIP), which ranks 188 countries and territories around the world as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3, in descending order based on whether they meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking set by U.S. law.
During the reporting period, police identified 335 victims of trafficking, including both men and women, in addition to 216 women and three men who may have experienced some form of exploitation in China, the report noted.
“Many of these cases involved forced marriage that included corollary forced labor or sex trafficking, the report said.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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