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Conflict and Bride Trafficking: The Sino-Burmese Border

This piece is by Laura Hackney, from Stanford STAND

With the end of the ceasefire in 2011 between the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and the national Burmese army*, fighting in the Kachin State has escalated across the vast province. Though peace talks have taken place recently in the Chinese border town of Ruili, the effects of this violence have destroyed lives and endangered the livelihoods of thousands of Kachin people living in the region. Additionally, the Palaung people in the Northeast Shan State of Burma have also suffered decades of fighting, increased food, education, and healthcare costs, as well as military seizures of land. The vulnerabilities of these minority groups (especially women) have intensified despite the political reforms coming from Naypyidaw.

Due to these various compounding factors, these states along the Sino-Burmese border have become a perfect breeding ground for the trafficking of women and girls into China’s Yunnan Province. Over the past 15 years, migration to China has increased as economic opportunities in towns such as Ruili have exploded. Once thought of as the “Wild West” of China, these border towns were the centers for the sex industry, drug trafficking, gambling, and a lucrative jade market. The local government has swiftly cracked down on these illicit activities (especially in Ruili) in the recent decade. However, there has emerged another lucrative market in the region, namely—women trafficked to become brides for Chinese men.

As with several other rapidly developing nations, China has experienced extraordinary demographic changes in the past three decades. In addition to an aging population, there exists in China an aggregate gender imbalance. This imbalance exists in various regional contexts, and has had its most extreme manifestations in rural areas. Due to land reform, the One Child Policy, the proliferation of ultra-sounds, and the overwhelming dependence on son to carry on the family name, the sex ratio at birth in some regions is greatly skewed (in some areas the imbalance is as high as 130 males per every 100 females). Traditional means of securing a bride is no longer available for some men, particularly those living in poor villages. Ruili’s location on the border between Yunnan and Burma acts as a gateway for women to be trafficked into Yunnan and then out to different provinces across the country.

Two Burmese NGOs, the Palaung Women’s Association and the Kachin Women’s Association, have been working in Thailand to document these cases of human trafficking. As with a large number of trafficking cases, traffickers are able to take advantage of the relative poverty of those victims who they wish to sell. Many young women living in the Palaung and Kachin areas of Burma are told that they will be able to find good jobs in prosperous China and send money home to their families. These women enter China, often without documentation, and are sold to Chinese families who need a wife and heir. Once in China, these women do not have access to many public services, can suffer abuse at the hands of their new husbands, or be forced to work without wages in various industries.

Both the Burmese and Chinese governments have established National Plans of Action against Trafficking of Women and Children; however, the root causes of this problem, especially in Burma, have yet to be addressed. The causes of trafficking can be complex, incorporating gender relations, conflict environments, economic resource allocation, globalization, proliferation of crime networks, and poverty–to name a few. In this light, human trafficking is an intolerable symptomatic of various forms of oppression. As a starting point, there must be awareness that a main factor pushing these women in the hands of traffickers is the lack of opportunities in their home cities or villages. An end to the fighting in the Kachin State and a focus on more equitable economic investment by foreign, private, and government entities should be the priority for those working for positive change in Burma.

*Note: “Burmese” here does not explicitly mean the Burmese ethnic group.

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