BURMA: Tier 3
The Government of Burma does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore Burma remained on Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government increased investigations and prosecutions of trafficking crimes, including those involving official complicity, and increased investigations of forced labor in the fishing industry. It also identified and referred to care more victims than in previous years and enacted long-awaited legislation enhancing protections for child victims. The state armed forces engaged in fewer instances of child soldier recruitment during the reporting period than in previous years. The government created policies and practices to increase and streamline the demobilization of child soldiers from the military and, for the first time, conferred permission to the UN to enter into child soldier demobilization agreements with all ethnic armed groups (EAGs). However, during the reporting period there was a policy or pattern of forced labor; the international monitor-verified use of children in labor and support roles by certain military battalions increased in conflict zones in Rakhine and Shan States. The military continued to rely on local communities to source labor and supplies, thereby perpetuating conditions enabling the forced labor of adults and children. Enduring military conflict with EAGs in several areas in the country continued to dislocate thousands of Rohingya and members of other ethnic minority groups, many of whom were at risk of human trafficking in Burma and elsewhere in the region as a result of their displacement.
Cease official involvement in compelling civilians to perform any type of forced labor for the military by strengthening, re-issuing, and fully implementing associated military command orders against all forms of forced labor, and by prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning officials involved in the practice. • Cease all unlawful recruitment and use of children by armed forces, including in non-combatant roles, and continue cooperation with the UN to facilitate ending child soldier recruitment and use by the military and EAGs. • Initiate the issuance of high security identity documents, with a nationwide priority of issuance to children, to prevent the use of counterfeit documents by children attempting to enlist in the military at the behest of their families or civilian brokers. • Finalize implementing regulations for the Child Rights Law, and in particular those related to accountability for crimes involving the recruitment and use of child soldiers. • Expand formal procedures to proactively identify and protect victims among vulnerable populations, including communities displaced by conflict and internal migrants working in the agricultural sector, using the new national referral mechanism. • Grant UN agencies and their partners immediate, safe, and unhindered access, including humanitarian access, to Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, and Shan States.• Provide legal status to stateless persons and facilitate high security official identity documents to stateless persons and other vulnerable populations in Burma to decrease their vulnerability to trafficking. • Eliminate restrictions on freedom of movement for internally displaced members of ethnic minority groups. • Strengthen efforts to identify, prosecute, and convict civilian brokers and military and other officials complicit in the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, and impose significant prison terms. • Amend the anti-trafficking law to explicitly state that a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion is not required to constitute a child sex trafficking offense. • Strengthen efforts to prioritize and increase resources available for victim protection, including victim shelters, provision of services for male victims, and reintegration support for former child soldiers. • In partnership with civil society, increase the capacity of relevant ministries to enforce labor laws, raise public awareness on deceptive recruitment and safe job placement channels, and proactively prevent and detect forced labor in the agricultural, extractive, domestic work, and fishing sectors. • Establish and implement a comprehensive criminal justice record-keeping system to track data on anti-trafficking investigations, prosecutions, convictions, and sentencing.
The government increased some law enforcement efforts; however, military authorities did not use civilian courts to seek criminal accountability for military personnel involved in the use and recruitment of child soldiers. The 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law criminalized all forms of labor trafficking and some forms of sex trafficking and prescribed penalties of five to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine for trafficking offenses involving male victims, and penalties of 10 years’ to life imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving female or child victims. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with international law, the 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law required a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense and therefore did not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. However, in July 2019, parliament enacted the Child Rights Law, which criminalized all forms of child sex trafficking, thereby addressing this gap. The new law prescribed penalties of one to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of one million to two million kyat ($1,360), which were also sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Forced labor, including the recruitment and use of children in military non-combatant roles is a criminal offense under the 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, the 2012 Wards and Village Tracts Administration Act, Section 374 of the Penal Code, and the newly enacted Child Rights Law. The military continued to cite provisions in military law to punish individuals who used or recruited children for forced labor in non-combat roles; punishments included demotions, pension reductions, and geographic reassignments, which were disproportionately low compared to the seriousness of the crime. Authorities drafted legislation in late 2019 to replace the 2005 anti-trafficking law in an effort to criminalize all forms of trafficking in accordance with international standards and expand law enforcement mandates for certain interagency stakeholders; the draft was pending cabinet approval at the end of the reporting period.
The government improved collection of anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics during the reporting period through the use of a database maintained by the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATIDP). Most identified trafficking cases continued to involve Burmese women subjected to some form of exploitation through forced marriage to Chinese men. In 2019, the government reported initiating investigations into 207 trafficking cases, a slight increase from 205 in 2018 and 185 in 2017.
According to the ATIPD, 137 were cases of forced marriage that featured corollary sex trafficking or forced labor indicators. Of the remaining cases, 22 were cases of forced labor (21 in 2018; 22 in 2017; 44 in 2016), 18 were cases of “forced prostitution” (20 in 2018), and one involved forced surrogacy. Another case constituted an instance of forced adoption, which was outside the standard definition of trafficking. Media reports indicate the government increased attention to forced labor in the fishing industry following a highly publicized case in the Ayeyarwady region in late 2019; police arrested and charged 19 individuals in connection with the case, and their prosecutions were pending at the end of the reporting period. Authorities recorded an additional 42 cases pending investigation at year’s end. Among the 207 total cases investigated, authorities reported initiating prosecutions against 624 suspects during the reporting period, a significant increase from 342 prosecutions in 2018 and 532 in 2017; however, many of these were conducted in absentia, as the traffickers had fled prior to arrest—in most cases to China. Unlike in prior years, authorities attempted to provide comprehensive conviction and sentencing data. According to the ATIPD, courts reached a verdict in cases involving 163 traffickers in 2019 (unreported in 2018; 156 in 2017; and 145 in 2016); this included 97 convictions, 10 cases discharged without conviction, two acquittals, and 57 guilty verdicts for defendants who had absconded. Sentences ranged from four years’ to life imprisonment (unreported in 2018), with longer sentences associated to cases involving organized groups or defendants who had previously absconded. During the reporting period, the government also initiated prosecutions of dozens of brokers under the Overseas Employment Act for crimes involving illegal recruitment practices impacting hundreds of potential trafficking victims; conviction data was unavailable, but penalties for violation of the law were limited to one year imprisonment, a fine, or both.
The ATIPD maintained dedicated anti-trafficking task force (ATTF) police units throughout the country and increased the number of regional offices from 32 to 60 in 2019. Burma’s Central Body for the Suppression of Trafficking in Persons (CBTIP) coordinated the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, including training for the ATIPD offices. It also continued to host training sessions and coordination meetings on trafficking for government officials independently and with foreign donor assistance. Police capacity to address human trafficking continued to improve, but progress was limited amid challenges in interagency coordination. Limited training and training capacity for non-specialized Myanmar Police Force (MPF) officers, coupled with regular law enforcement turnover, continued to hamper the success of some investigations and prosecutions. Some civil society organizations observed in prior years that non-specialized police officers were sometimes unaware of how to pursue human trafficking investigations without consulting ATTF; it is therefore possible that some victims human trafficking were turned away when attempting to report their cases. ATIPD and ATTF officers consulted and cooperated with law enforcement agencies in China, Laos, India, and Thailand, as well as through ASEAN mechanisms, as part of formal dialogues on human trafficking and border security issues. Law enforcement and justice sector officials had limited ability or authority to exercise their investigative mandates in geographic areas not controlled by the government.
Some government and law enforcement officers reportedly participated in, facilitated, or profited from human trafficking. Corruption and impunity reportedly continued to hinder law enforcement in general; this included police officers and other public officials acting on bribes, as well as individuals claiming to have ties to high-level officials purportedly pressuring victims not to seek legal redress against their traffickers in some cases. In late 2019, the government’s anti-corruption commission reported initiating the prosecution of a Burmese labor attaché for allegedly accepting bribes from employment agencies in exchange for issuance of fraudulent documents, leading to the placement of thousands of Burmese workers into vulnerable sectors in Thailand; the trial was ongoing at the end of the reporting period. Additionally, for the first time, the government reported arresting, detaining, initiating court martial proceedings, and proposing civilian criminal investigations into two different cases involving military officers for their alleged role in facilitating the sex and labor trafficking of Burmese women in China in 2019; both defendants remained in prison awaiting trial at the end of the reporting period. In one of the cases, four associated civilian perpetrators were sentenced to 20 years in prison each in February 2020. Authorities also convicted and imprisoned the spouse of an auxiliary police officer for her involvement in a trafficking crime prosecuted in the previous reporting period.
The newly enacted Child Rights Law strengthened penalties for any individual who, knowingly or through “failure to inspect,” engaged in child soldier recruitment or use. However, authorities did not report data on its implementation. Some international observers continued to express concern that Burma’s array of relevant laws were insufficient to adequately deter commission of child soldier-related crimes. The constitutionally-guaranteed power of the military continued to limit the ability of the government to address cases of adult forced labor and child soldier recruitment and use by the armed forces. Burmese law provided for separate judicial procedures for military personnel accused of criminal misconduct. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) reported taking disciplinary action against 18 military personnel for child soldier recruitment in 2019, compared to 27 punished in 2018 and 19 punished in 2017; penalties included reprimands impacting promotion, service recognition, and pensions. The MOD did not report punitive measures for military personnel guilty of subjecting adults to forced labor within Burma. In past years, most of these cases reportedly culminated in reprimands, fines, or pension reduction—penalties significantly less than those prescribed by criminal law. The government did not provide data on the prosecution of civilians involved in the recruitment of child soldiers, despite ongoing media, NGO, and international organization reports.
The government increased some victim protection efforts, but the use of children in support roles by the military reportedly increased in conflict areas in Rakhine and Shan States during the reporting period. Burma’s new Child Rights Law, enacted in July 2019, featured language strengthening some protections for child victims of forced labor and sex trafficking, including for children recruited and used in armed conflict. The government also ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. With the help of an international organization, the government finalized a national referral mechanism featuring a national standard operating procedure (SOP) on victim return, reintegration, and rehabilitation—a process that began in 2016. Civil society groups viewed the new Child Rights Law and the establishment of these mechanisms as important steps in improving interagency coordination on victim identification and protection issues.
During the reporting period, police identified 335 victims of trafficking, including 64 men and 271 women, in addition to 216 women and three men who may have experienced some form of exploitation in China and one individual from Indonesia who returned to Burma; this marked a significant increase from receipt and identification of 312 foreign referrals in 2018 and 289 in 2017. Many of these cases involved forced marriage that included corollary forced labor or sex trafficking. The exact number of domestic victims identified by Burmese authorities was unknown, but police reported assisting 16 victims of trafficking within the country (29 in 2018 and 44 in 2017). The military granted most UN monitors’ requests within 72 hours to access and inspect military installations for the presence of children. However, due to ongoing conflicts, the government sometimes prevented assistance from reaching displaced Rohingya and other vulnerable populations during the year by implementing access restrictions on the UN and other humanitarian agencies. Continued violence in Rakhine State and conflict in Kachin and Shan States also limited some monitoring efforts.
The Child Rights Law set the minimum age of voluntary military recruitment at 18, addressing a key ambiguity in preexisting legislation and fulfilling a long-held recommendation from international human rights organizations. It also included language strengthening certain protections for children subjected to recruitment or use by state and non-state armed forces, including automatic dismissal of criminal charges and referral to protective care for certain crimes they were forced to commit as a result of said recruitment or use. However, although the law increased the age at which a child could legally be considered a criminal from seven to 10 years, some international observers were concerned it remained too low to fully protect children from penalization for certain crimes.
International monitors received at least 33 new allegations of child recruitment by the military, but did not verify any of these (at least two new instances of recruitment and 36 cases from previous years verified in 2018; 49 total cases in 2017). Past recruitment methods have included deception, force, and coercion by both informal civilian and military brokers, as well as intake of minors joining at the behest of their families. International monitors noted that, while instances of recruitment continued to decrease, the production of increasingly sophisticated counterfeit identity documents by civilian brokers continued to complicate age verification measures, which could have led to some inadvertent acceptance of children into the military’s ranks. In prior years the government issued explicit military command orders prohibiting the conscription of civilians and prisoners in portering; the use of civilians in military base maintenance and construction; and the use of children under 18 for non-combat roles. Despite this, some military battalions based in conflict areas continued to use children for short-term labor or other non-combat support roles, including in barracks cleaning and camp maintenance, paddy harvesting, guiding, portering, and cooking. International monitors verified 191 such cases of short-term child use by the military in northern Rakhine State during the reporting period; observers attributed this relatively high figure to ongoing and increasing military conflict in several areas of the country, including Rakhine State and Shan State, but noted that increased family facilitation may have been a factor. According to media reports, soldiers forced four girls in Shan State to march with their patrol, possibly to serve as human shields. The Border Guard Police also reportedly used children for forced labor in Rakhine State. The military removed from its ranks at least 22 children and young men suspected of having been recruited as minors in response to notification letters from international monitors, who observed increased and expedited efforts on the part of the MOD to clear backlogged child soldier cases during the reporting period (75 in 2018; 49 in 2017 and 112 in 2016). International monitors did not report how many of these, if any, had been removed from frontlines (12 in 2018). Among improved efforts was the implementation of a new “benefit of the doubt” policy, under which the military agreed to immediately demobilize any individuals serving without proof of age upon suspicion of minor status, rather than waiting on age verification.
The government continued to operate five centers for women and children who were victims of violent crime; all five could shelter trafficking victims, and one was dedicated to female trafficking victims. Another housed repatriated trafficking victims. Prior to their reintegration, these victims had the alternative option to stay in any of four transit centers run by the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement (MSWRR); these facilities were called “Women’s Vocational Training Centers,” and a fifth was in development at the end of the reporting period. The government reported a total of 532 individuals were referred to temporary shelter services during the reporting period, including 370 female victims and 162 male victims (unreported in previous years); some of these were likely victims of crimes outside the standard definition of trafficking. The government also operated three facilities funded by a foreign donor that could serve both male and female victims. Services in government facilities remained rudimentary, but authorities allocated increased funding for trafficking victim protection, and some victims received psycho-social counseling, travel allowances, support for obtaining official documents, and assistance in returning to home communities. NGOs and foreign donors funded and facilitated delivery of most services available to trafficking victims. In conjunction with an international organization, MSWRR continued to implement child protection programs that featured services for victims of trafficking. CBTIP reported allocating to a central fund 64 million kyat ($43,390) for victim support during the reporting period (unreported in 2018). MSWRR provided 15.6 million kyat ($10,580) to fund reintegration services for 78 trafficking victims, compared with 19.75 million kyat ($13,390) for 175 victims in 2018. The ATIPD contributed an additional 60 million kyat ($40,680) to assist with reintegration, transport, meals, and medical care for the same victims. In an effort to improve coordination on victim protection, the government significantly increased DOR staff to 202 (132 in 2019, 72 in 2018), but it reportedly remained under-resourced. DOR also provided separate assistance to 16 Burmese nationals subjected to trafficking within Burma, including five child sex trafficking victims, during the reporting period.
The new Child Rights Law mandated social service referral procedures for children identified among state- and non-state armed groups. Overall government support to demobilized child soldiers remained minimal, with most services provided by civil society partners. DOR provided up to 19 million kyat ($12,880) for the rehabilitation and reintegration of 38 former child soldiers during the reporting period (unreported in 2018). Longer-term support was limited to vocational training for some former child soldiers and women in major city centers and border areas; the lack of adequate protective measures for victims—particularly males—increased their risk of re-trafficking. The government trained 60 diplomats and 35 attachés on human trafficking during the reporting period. It maintained labor attachés in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Republic of Korea whose responsibilities included assisting trafficking victims, and ATIPD officers staffed liaison offices established by the UN and international organizations at the Chinese and Thai border to facilitate victim repatriation. DOR reported repatriating and assisting 491 Burmese nationals from abroad with the help of an international organization; this figure included 314 women subjected to forced marriage in China with possible sex or labor trafficking indicators; 16 child sex trafficking victims from Thailand; 161 male economic migrants returning from Thailand, some of whom may have experienced forced labor; and at least one victim of unspecified trafficking circumstances returned from Indonesia (unreported in 2018). As was the case in 2018, the government received repatriation requests from a large volume of Burmese economic migrants from both Thailand and China, but ATIPD reportedly assessed that their cases did not meet the definition of trafficking; however, it is possible that some victims went undetected amid insufficient or inconsistently applied screening procedures. Authorities reported repatriating four foreign women subjected to sex trafficking in Burma during the reporting period, including two from Thailand and two from Vietnam (unreported in 2018); they also assisted in the repatriation to Thailand of a transgender woman in commercial sex, but they did not report if she had been subjected to trafficking.
The government maintained Department of Social Welfare (DSW) offices throughout the country, each with full-time case managers, to provide health care, reintegration assistance, psycho-social care, and legal services to trafficking victims, including child soldiers. The government also maintained a working group on victim repatriation, reintegration, and rehabilitation under the DSW. However, the DSW continued to lack the resources necessary to adequately provide these services to trafficking victims, and high ATTF turnover and lack of awareness impeded the coordination required to ensure victims identified by law enforcement officers would be connected to DSW protection. While police and border officials continued to proactively identify suspected victims en route to China for marriages likely to result in sex or labor exploitation or to Thailand for potential sex trafficking, concerns remained that authorities did not follow standardized, nationwide procedures for the proactive identification of victims across all sectors.
Trafficking victims frequently declined to cooperate with authorities due to the lack of adequate victim protection or compensation programs, language barriers, a lengthy and opaque trial process, fear of repercussions from their traffickers, and general mistrust of the legal system. A cumbersome investigative process sometimes required victims to give statements multiple times to different officials, increasing the likelihood of re-traumatization; however, the authorities’ increased use of police-prosecutor guidelines on trafficking case cooperation reportedly generated some improvement to this trend. In 2019, the government initiated a pilot court program allowing video testimony for victims, and ATIPD cited two ongoing cases using this technology at the end of the reporting period. The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution, nor did it provide temporary legal status to any foreign victims, although foreign victims were entitled to temporary shelter while awaiting repatriation. There was at least one instance of victim penalization during the reporting period; in September 2019, authorities filed charges against several factory workers for going on strike after having been subjected to forced overtime at a Chinese-owned factory in the Ayeyarwady region. The case was pending at year’s end.