Trapped on a fishing boat, a determined Burmese man escapes and helps expose crimes against humanity in the name of profit.

Hlaing Min, a 30-something Burmese man, is strikingly matter-of-fact as he describes his more than two years of virtual enslavement in a fishing fleet plying the waters of Benjina, part of the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia.

Hlaing Min was a victim of trafficking and slave labour, working on fishing boats in the Arafura Sea. He spent a total of five years stranded in the Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia. Photo: Karim Raslan

Hlaing Min was a victim of trafficking and slave labour, working on fishing boats in the Arafura Sea. He spent a total of five years stranded in the Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia. Photo: Karim Raslan

Hailing from the Myanmar town of Myawaddy, on the Thai border, he is one of hundreds of predominantly Myanmar nationals whose stories were exposed by the Associated Press (AP) in an extraordinary series of articles on slavery and tuna fishing in the Arafura Sea in 2015.

He is also a victim of the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to care for its most vulnerable peoples, just as its much-vaunted Asean Economic Community (AEC) is kicking into high gear.

Hlaing Min’s father died when he was four, leaving his mother to support him and his two sisters.

Once married, and coping with a weakened Myanmar economy after the 2007 Saffron Revolution, he sought a better livelihood – like so many Burmese – across the border in Thailand.

Hlaing Min with his mother, Khin Thida, and nephew. As the only son, Hlaing Min is the main breadwinner in his family, supporting his mother, sisters and their children. His father passed away when he was just four years old. Photo: Karim Raslan

Hlaing Min with his mother, Khin Thida, and nephew. As the only son, Hlaing Min is the main breadwinner in his family, supporting his mother, sisters and their children. His father passed away when he was just four years old. Photo: Karim Raslan

After many scrapes and with a baby on the way, Hlaing Min thought he had hit on the perfect opportunity: “These Myanmar guys came to see me and said, ‘Hey, you’re earning so little here, why don’t you come to Malaysia and you’ll get more?’ Since I was getting around 5,000bht (HK$1,080) a month then, the amount they offered – 10,000bht – was very appealing.”

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Hlaing Min was promised work in Penang, Malaysia, and a 8,000bht advance. He gave the money to his wife, saying he would be away for six months.

In October, he made his way to the Thai port town of Samut Sakhon.

“I can still remember it was a big yellow-coloured boat. There were 17 of us, all from Myanmar. It was a very long journey and I began to get suspicious. Thirteen days later, we landed at our destination. Everyone laughed at me when I asked: ‘Is this Malaysia?’ No, they said. This is Indonesia. This is Benjina.”

Former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labour in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry. Photo: AP

Former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labour in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry. Photo: AP

The men ended up as virtual slaves on fishing boats, at the mercy of a group of Thai nationals, backed by Myanmar or Indonesian enforcers.

They were paid sporadically. There was no question of them returning home.

Onshore, the company that ran the operation, Pusaka Benjina Resources (PBR), deployed armed patrols to prevent escapes. Those that were caught were brutally beaten and caged.

The isolation helped to facilitate the company’s control.

The Aru Islands are actually closer to Darwin than Jakarta, let alone Yangon.

“When we were out at sea, we had no idea of the day or the location.”

Fortunately for Hlaing Min, he eventually escaped, finding refuge with the locals. He still talks fondly of Pak Telli, a schoolteacher who welcomed him into his home: “He helped us, gave us food and shelter. The local people were very generous.”

Working as an odd-job man, he essentially became part of the community and learnt Indonesian, only emerging from the forests after the PBR facilities were raided by Indonesian authorities, some two-and-half-years later.

The AEC’s mercantilist obsession with the region’s large, 650 million-strong consumer market has ignored the real needs of predominantly low- or unskilled workers like Hlaing Min.

Given the almost non-existent legal protection, many of the 6.7 million Southeast Asian men and women who cross borders to find work have become victims of exploitation.

In 2015, Indonesia dealt with a humanitarian crisis after it rescued hundreds of fishermen who were being treated as slaves. Photo: AFP

In 2015, Indonesia dealt with a humanitarian crisis after it rescued hundreds of fishermen who were being treated as slaves. Photo: AFP

The human cost of this omission – some would say complicity – has been staggering.

Hlaing Min was eventually repatriated to Myanmar only to discover a country transformed:

“It was all so different. Everyone had hand phones and there were cars and motorbikes everywhere.”

On a personal level, his family was fractured with his wife working in Thailand, his five-year-old daughter living with her grandmother in Moulmein and his own mother barely managing in opportunity-scarce Myawaddy.

While Hlaing Min doesn’t have a full-time job, his raw determination, charm and language skills have meant that he has become one of the leaders of the hundreds of former Benjina slaves who are seeking the wages that were denied them.

Hlaing Min acknowledges that his suffering was made worse by the failures of the previous military government, but critics say unless Asean does something about the plight of its semi- and unskilled workers, stories like Hlaing Min’s could become the norm.

Ceritalah ASEAN is now on AEF. Read the introductory piece by Karim Raslan on ‘Why Ceritalah?‘.

 


Karim Raslan is a well-known Southeast Asian commentator and columnist. Follow Karim on Twitter: @fromKMR | Instagram: fromkmr

This article is published in collaboration with Ceritalah ASEAN. It is also published on the South China Morning Post.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.