From China with love, or time behind bars

Young bride and groom stand in their golden silk threads, ready for the photographer to take the shot that will commemorate their love forever. It was nine days before the start of Buddhist lent, the marriage season in Myanmar.

It was a normal Myanmar wedding by all other measures, until five people dressed in casual suits walked in to stop the ceremony.

Once they appeared, the smiles turned to looks of anxiety and confusion. The wedding music was cut off – silence reigned.

“Those people came in at exactly 10 am, ordering us to turn off the speakers. The atmosphere became a bit chaotic after that,” said Ma Sandar, the bride at the wedding.

Those five people were members of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force, as well as officers from the township administration and immigration departments. They took the couple to the Htaukkyant station for further questioning.

Weddings require a lot of preparation but are intended to be memorable events in the lives of the lucky couples, so authorities are always warry about interrupting them.

But Ma Sandar’s husband-to-be isn’t a Myanmar citizen, and this raised questions in the eyes of immigration officials. He isn’t even part Myanmar, or a visitor with Myanmar ancestors. He is Han Chinese, from the north east of China.

Ma Sandar was 19 at the time of the wedding, and is the youngest of three sisters. She grew up in Htaukkyant township in Yangon. Her fiancé is six years older, and his name is Lay Kham. He comes from a village near Huangmei City in Hubei province.

Ma Sandar was introduced to the Chinese bachelor through a friend at work, Ma Phu Phu, who gave Lay Kham her contact details. Ma Phu Phu, who has a Chinese husband to help with the translations, helped facilitate the conversations.

Lay Kham decided to come to Myanmar a month after they met, arriving in Yangon on June 10 and fronting K10 million ($6,595) to secure Ma Sandar’s parents’ permission to marry their daughter.

Like many other young Chinese bachelors, Lay Kham’s quest to find a wife on the mainland has been a difficult one.

The one child policy

The Chinese Communist Party introduced the one-child policy in the late nineteen-seventies, with a national-wide implementation in 1980, as a means of controlling population growth. The policy limited couples from having just one child and, with most couples preferring boys, it wasn’t long before the massive gender imbalance opened up.

China’s current population nears 1.4 billion, with 34 million more males than females. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were 119 males for every 100 females born between 2000 and 2010, meaning that the disparity is set to increase.

Showing concerns that the imbalance would have a negative impact on the country’s future, the Communist Party finally abolished the policy in 2016.

The shortage of women, particularly in rural parts of China, has led men to rethink approaches to finding a wife. That’s where Myanmar women enter the picture.

A report released earlier this year by Human Rights Watch highlighted cases where women were sold to Chinese men, who would promise their ‘wives’ jobs or a home in China. The price of one woman in this ‘market’ can fetch between K5million ($3,297) and K20million ($13,190).

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in a research report released last year that, in the past five years, about 7500 women were sold to brokers in China as spouses of Chinese men.

Amidst these cases, the arrival of tourists from western countries suddenly declined due to ongoing unrest in Rakhine State. As a response, the government relaxed visa restrictions to some East Asian countries, including China.

The number of Chinese travelers in Myanmar increased significantly in 2017 and 2018. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, there were about 1.6 million Chinese travelers who visited Myanmar with visas that allow a stay of 28 days. Some 338,882 Chinese travelers visited Myanmar by air from January to June 2019.

The Invitation to the thwarted wedding.                              The Invitation to the thwarted wedding.

Myanmar marriage laws

It is difficult to know why Ko Lay Kham wanted to marry Ma Sandar, but he is currently being charged under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law (2015), sections 24/23.

Some locals questioned why the police arrested him, saying that the couple genuinely loved each other.

“Do anti-trafficking police separate people who love each other? People think that we do,” said Police Major Khin Maung Kwel from No.6 Anti-Trafficking Task Force of Yangon Region.

According to the Marriage Law for Buddhists in Myanmar two people are allowed to marry if they take an oath in front of the judge, declaring that they are from the same religion and unmarried, said Daw Soe Khet Khet, a judge for the Yangon Region High Court.

“We examined if there are proper documentations to marry. Witness names have to be stated in the marriage agreement; and, their relationships also. Witness may be siblings, friends, uncles or parents. We don’t really know if these witnesses receive money or not, and we aren’t required to ask about it either,” she said.

If a foreigner wants to marry a Myanmar Buddhist woman, and is able to prove that he is Buddhist, the district court shall make a marriage agreement, according to the instructions issued on May 9, 2012 by Union Supreme Court.

As there are loopholes in these instructions, many brokers seek permission to marry at the court but later commit human trafficking offenses with the ‘married’ women, said Police Captain Wai Lwin.

The Myanmar Times conducted a survey regarding the prices for notaries, marriage deeds and affidavits at the shops situated on 36th street Kyauktada township of Yangon in July. The price of an affidavit stating that a non-Buddhist has converted to Buddhism is around K1million ($659).

The process involves submitting three different profile pictures, from the front, back and side of the applicant’s head, together with photos of the couple making an offering at a pagoda.

According to the record of the northern district court, there are 577 women who married foreigners (Buddhist) in 2018. Most of the bridegrooms were Chinese.

Ongoing cases

Amidst the lack of transparency regarding marriages between local and foreign citizens in Myanmar, and the ease of forging documents, it remains difficult to differentiate between genuine and fake marriages. In October last year, the police filed charges against two people who arranged a marriage for a local underage woman to a Chinese citizen. The woman was underage, and the brokers changed the birth date on her NRC card in order to register the marriage.

After several months of married life in China, the girl came back to Myanmar and the case was formally investigated by the Anti-Trafficking Task Force. The forgery was discovered, and those involved arrested.

“It’s hard to control. It’s very important for the responsible persons to consider all of the variables,” said Police Major Kyaw Nyunt of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force, Muse.

There were a total of 206 human trafficking cases across the country in 2018, with 152 cases involving marriages with Chinese men.

The relevant courts and township administrators are responsible for the fact that Myanmar women continue to fall victims of human trafficking under the guise of “marriage”, said U Khin Maung Myint.

Although the authorities had their suspicions about Lay Kham, Daw Akari – an acquaintance of Ma Sandar – still insists that the two entered the marriage purely out of love.

“This is really disturbing. They got married out of love, but I think the complaint was made by someone in the ward who does not like to see them happy,” said Daw Akari.

Every day, Ma Sandar sends food and clothes to her Chinese fiancé, who now waits for a decision from the court on his marriage.

Does Lay Kham truly love Ma Sandar? At this stage in Myanmar, only Lay Kham knows the answer to that question.

From: Myanmar Times