Forced Labour


img_9940.jpgLike most other Arakans from Myanmar, OO tells a similar story of forced labour. This time, the village he was in was divided into three groups and forced to carry rocks at a quarry. They worked for 2 – 3 days at a time and then the next group would have to work in rotation. They usually worked 13 hour days, working from 6 in the morning till 7 at night.

One day, OO had to work very late. It was 10 at night, and after working for 16 hours carrying stones, he was tired, and hungry, and wanted to stop. And so he asked the soldier on duty if he could go back. The soldier turned on him.

“He hit me with a stick and I fell down, cutting my chin. When I was on the ground, he wanted to hit me again”.

OO instinctively picked up a rock and threw it at the soldier, (more…)

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“My elder sister drowned because of forced labour. She was picking stones from the river. Every house has a quota of stones to pick, to be used to build roads”.

MM went on to describe big boxes by the side of the river. Each house had their own box to fill – their quota of river stones.

“That day, she was picking stones in the middle of the river when the tide came in. Water was up to her chest. She was making her way back to the bank but the river bottom was uneven so she went under. The current was very strong. She can swim but she is not a very good swimmer. She drowned”.

“The next morning the soldiers came to look for her. I think they knew she died but acted as if they didn’t know”. (more…)

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As the bus joined the main road, my interpreter pointed at the lone man talking on his handphone by the side of the road and shouted “my friend!” I pressed the bell and a few seconds later, we were shaking hands with this man. He smiles, but then looks around, mumbling something about a police car, and immediately crosses the road, walking fast.

He acts like a man being hunted. JJ scans both sides of the road, alternating between looking far ahead and then behind his shoulder. He does this continuously, and as we approach the bus stop on the other side of the road, he veers off into a laterite side road and hides in the palm oil plantation, refusing to wait for the bus at the shelter.

“The police car, the one with the lights on top and with the siren, they will stop me. (more…)

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HH is 29 years old. Hailing from one of many islands of the Arakan coast, he has been a fisherman all his life. He had a small 2 man boat which he used to go out to sea with to fish.

But it seems, every military or military linked agency came to ask him to do forced labour. Forced labour to cut wood for the brick kiln. Forced labour to build buns for the military controlled prawn farm. Even forced labour to sow and reap rice from the military owned rice fields. As these “requests” came from different sections of the military, he could not turn any of them down. If he refused, they threatened to torture and jail his wife and parents. And so he ended up being forced to pay multiple compensation instead. Most of the money he made selling the fish he caught went to pay his way out of forced labour. He ran out of money, causing his wife to leave him and his baby boy.

And so, unable to make a living and with his family under constant threat of detention and torture, he fled to Malaysia in 2004. (more…)

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I am amazed. Amazed that she is still sitting in front of me, telling me her story in her soft voice, punctuated once in a while with tears and sobs, but still here, still full of spirit.

She will be only 26 years old this year. Born on the fourteenth of June 1998, LL is the middle child of five – the oldest and youngest being boys, and the middle three girls. Her parents are farmers, and so she worked the land, planting paddy in her village in Arakan State, Myanmar. LL has fine straight hair up to her shoulders, and today she has it centre parted, and pinned on the right side with a delicate pin of two small crystal flowers to prevent her hair from falling across her face. She has strikingly fine features, and her face is framed by two striking crescent shaped eyebrows and thin lips.

She married when she was 19, and only a few years after that, her husband had to flee Myanmar after refusing to work as forced labour and fought with the military. She too had been conscripted several times to build roads, where from between 2-4 weeks, she had to work from 8 am to 5 pm without pay, without food, and without water. The workers had to carry their own food and water.

Afraid of the insecurity and continued forced labour, LL decided that she too would flee Myanmar, and in November 2005 crossed into Ranong in Thailand and made her way towards Malaysia, eventually arriving in Taiping where she had relatives.

It was around this time that her father and mother passed away in quick succession. The father after a long illness and paralysis from a stroke, and the mother from cancer. Being poor farmers, they could not afford hospital treatment.

For two months LL tried to find work in Taiping but failed. Eventually, she managed to contact her husband, who came from Kuantan and brought her to KL, where they stayed in Selayang. Still, she could not find work and for 5 months they both survived on the husband’s wages. When she finally found work, it was with her husband peeling and sorting prawns at the wet market before it was frozen and distributed. It was hard work. Working 12 hour days, from 4 am till 4pm, LL was paid the princely sum of RM25 (approx. EUR or USD ).

They lived in a small room provided by the employer. it was this big“, LL said, gesticulating as her arm drew a line across our already small interview room. In this tiny little room, no more than the size of my brother’s bathroom, was “…where we slept, we sat and we cooked“. (more…)