On December 2nd I woke up in London, the last stop on a short, successful tour of Europe. Reviewing the pages from my journal that morning reveal notes about how to improve my show. I then boarded a plane and flew back to San Diego, stamping my passport closed on another exciting chapter. My life sounds easy and breezy. And it is.
Dec 2nd was also the day that Shine, a 21 year young man escaped imprisonment from a fishing vessel where he was held prisoner and forced to work for 3 months. I sat with Shine at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar yesterday as he told me his story.
While visiting a Buddhist temple, he and his best friend met a young girl who asked if they’d help her find her missing mobile phone. As the boys got to know the girl that afternoon, she invited them to consider traveling to Bangkok where her uncle could get them good jobs. Charmed by the girl, it sounded like a good idea. (This is generally the case for victims of trafficking. If the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.)
Shine and his friend went to a nearby border town and joined an illegal migration from Myanmar into Thailand.
An illegal migration takes 8 days, walking through overgrown forests at night, remaining quiet, with little to eat or drink. People migrate like this all the time hoping for light at the end of the journey. More often then not the groups are misled and don’t end up where they were promised. This was the case for Shine. Instead of bustling Bangkok, he arrived at a remote dock, where he realized he’d been had.
The boat captains began dividing up the men. Shine insisted he and his friend stick together. They were denied. So they put up a fight. Shine was struck over the head. When he regained consciousness, he was already at sea, without his companion.
The boat returned to the dock once a month but each time all the trafficked men on board were locked up, unable to go ashore.
After three months of grueling, unpaid labor, the boat was accidentally left unlocked for a moment at one of the moorings. Shine made a run for it and seeing another boat being raided, he was able to run directly to authorities who immediately conducted a raid on his boat, freeing 8 other men. His friend however, is still missing. Some boats would be gone from the dock for up to 6 months, he said. And it’s possible his friend was forced onto one of these boats.
Since Shine’s return to Myanmar he’s worked diligently with UN officials and local authorities to find his friend and to prosecute their traffickers. One of the traffickers agreed by phone to release the missing boy and return him by Dec 13th. But as of this post on Dec 17th, there is still no sign of him.
I couldn’t help but think of my best friends back home and how easy our lives have been growing up in the United States. For whatever reason we were born into better circumstances, with freedoms and opportunities, and yet we still complain about slow internet or traffic jams or having to work extra hours during the holidays. I wished in those moments after speaking with Shine that I could call my friends and my parents and thank them and tell them how much I appreciate and love them. I always had a hot meal on Thanksgiving. And I was given all of my childhood (and much of my adulthood) to be a kid, free to dream. I didn’t ask for this life. It just was. Therefore it should be the strength of those of us born into better circumstances that lend a hand in lifting others up.
Cases like Shine’s are rampant in Southeast Asia. People are born into awful situations everyday, and many more are being coerced into exploitative situations as we speak. I believe everyone deserves a chance to pursue their dream. More and more survivors of exploitation are coming forward exposing their traffickers and the trade routes, and improvements are being made. But to truly eradicate this problem, it’s going to take a global effort, for example making sure there isn’t slavery in the products we buy.
Similar to Shine’s story, a mother and her 11 year old son had also just returned home to Myanmar after they too were fooled into thinking they would have a nice job and a better life working at a snack food factory in Thailand. They too migrated via the illegal route across 8 dark nights of jungle terrain, witnessing young girls being raped, and children being injured on the narrow path. The group of 100 ran out of food and water on the 6th day, making everyone weak and irritable, but any noise or complaint warranted a beating from their guides.
Upon arrival into Thailand, the mother and son were forced into an overcrowded van and taken to a shrimp peeling factory where they were forced to work from 3am to late in the evening everyday for 4 months; the young boy standing on a crate to reach the tables, on his feet all day, everyday. At night the boy would check the gate of the factory to see whether or not it was locked. Thankfully, a gate was left open one night and the mother and child escaped into the darkness, phoning a friend with a mobile phone the boy had stolen inside the factory for use in this very escape. He had kept the battery off of the phone to save its power and to prevent the phone from ringing. They connected with authorities who conducted a raid, but by then the factory had been tipped off and deported it’s illegal workers before it could be accused of harboring slaves. There had been as many as 700 people working in the factory at one time.
The most shocking thing I heard of all the survivor stories came from the mouth of the mother. Had she and her 11 year old son been captured during their escape, she was going to demand they both be killed; starting with her son, so she could see before she fell that his suffering had ended. The thought of being tortured any longer in those conditions was too much to bear.
Other than her tears you would never know that such a horrible thing had happened. The mother had gained back the weight she lost in the ordeal, and the boy was anxious to get to school and be a kid again. He was smiling during much of our visit together. They are ordinary people like you and I, who just want to live happy lives.
In Myanmar, there isn’t yet a television in every home. But the country is coming into it’s own quickly and media giants like MTV and CNN are there on the front lines educating audiences. Until then, the majority of the work to educate citizens is still done at the grass roots level, peer to peer. Groups like AFXB, an interactive theater group, travel the country performing in monasteries and schools, teaching kids of all ages about HIV prevention and human trafficking. At the political level, the government has recognized trafficking as a huge problem and recently signed into action The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, criminalizing sex and labor trafficking.
NGO’s such as WalkFree.Org are pushing big businesses even harder to prove they don’t have slavery in their supply chain. See on their website how they’ve recently sited Nintendo, a popular Christmas time toy maker, for using conflict minerals; those mined with slave labor and violence in the Congo in Africa. Game over.
I worked alongside a passionate woman from the United Nations who was happy the issue is finally in the public eye because the problem is currently the largest it’s ever been.
If you’re like me and you believe we can end this in our lifetime, join the fight to end exploitation and human trafficking by learning more and taking action @ WalkFree.Org.
Thanks for reading. And thank you for making a difference that makes a difference. – Jason