Slavery’s Global Comeback
There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
Earlier this year, Ko Lin, 21 at the time, left his hometown of Bago, 50 miles northeast of Rangoon, along with a friend to look for work in Myawaddy, near the Thai border. The two found jobs there as day laborers loading and offloading goods, anything from rice to motorcycles, that were being illicitly transported by truck in and out of Thailand. After a month, Ko Lin had saved up the equivalent of about US$150 and decided to rejoin his family in Bago. Stopping first to pray at a local pagoda, the two friends met a super-amiable young woman who ended up pitching them an offer to work in Thailand. Her uncle, she said, could arrange a great job for them there.
Ko Lin was reluctant but bent to his friend’s enthusiasm. The uncle turned out to be a trafficker who forced them to walk through the jungle for more than a week. They ended up in weeks of forced labor in Chonburi, a city 60 miles east of Bangkok, after which Ko Lin was knocked unconscious and woke up separated from his friend on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand. For months, he then rarely if ever had more than two hours of sleep a night, always on a shared, cramped bed; he was given three meals only on days when the captain felt he’d pulled in enough fish to earn it; and when he was fed, it was always dregs from a catch that couldn’t be sold on the market. His arms regularly became infected from the extended exposure of minor wounds to sea water. If he complained that he was feeling unwell, the crew would beat him. He was injured multiple times by heavy blocks and booms, once having to tend to a head wound himself with a handful of wet rice. Three months out, Ko Lin was rescued in a police raid.
Ma Moe, 34, and her husband lived in a suburb about an hour outside of Rangoon, poor enough that some days they had nothing to eat. A friend offered her a job as a domestic worker in China where, she was told, she could make between $100 and $200 a month. Despite her husband’s objections, she decided to go. Near the border, her friend told her the trip would be getting rough and she should take some pills so she wouldn’t get carsick. The pills knocked her out almost immediately. When she woke up, she was in a small village in China; she still doesn’t know where. Kept with a few other women in a small house, Ma Moe would be taken around to different villages where she was offered up for purchase as a “wife.” After a failed escape attempt, when she was beaten by local police, a man from northern China bought her. Given the anxious month-and-a-half she’d now spent as a Burmese commodity in China, she could hardly eat from the stress and was emaciated. Concerned, wanting a child, the man who bought her had her blood tested; the results showed she’s HIV-positive; and he ended up leaving her at the bus station. With no hope of being able to get back to Burma, she prayed to die there. But a young newspaper seller, after fending off an attempt by another apparent trafficker to get Ma Moe to go with him, called a Chinese police hotline for trafficking victims. The police coordinated Ma Moe’s transfer to a Burmese anti-trafficking task force, and they ultimately took her home.
There’s a plain-language word for the horror stories that Ko Lin and Ma Moe have survived, as anachronistic as it might sound: slavery. Contemporary slavery is real, and it’s terribly common — here in Burma, across Southeast Asia, and around the world.