Myanmar 'child slavery' outrage sparks investigation

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Yangon

image copyrightAFP/Ye Aung Thuye Aung Thu
image captionThe girls' hands and arms are covered in scars

The Burmese president has ordered an investigation into the case of two girls who say they were kept prisoner and tortured for five years in a tailor shop.

The teenagers were freed last week after a journalist helped them, but their families say that the police had on numerous occasions refused their pleas to get involved.

This Wednesday, with the case now generating headlines, the police finally arrested the tailor and two family members.

The two girls were aged just 11 and 12 when they were sent by their parents to the commercial capital Yangon.

For poor Burmese families it's a painful but depressingly common decision. The United Nations estimates that at least a million Burmese children are forced to give up on education and go to work.

image copyrightAFP/Ye Aung Thuye Aung Thu
image captionThe girls are now recovering in their home village, their future unclear

These girls became maids in a tailor shop in the centre of Yangon. But what started as paid work allegedly turned into modern-day slavery. The girls say they were denied contact with their parents, were unable to leave and were no longer being paid.

Then there was the abuse. Visited by the French news agency AFP in their village after their release, the girls had injuries and scars on their arms which they say were inflicted by their captors.

"I have a scar from where an iron was stamped on my leg and a scar on my head as well," one of the girls, now 16, told AFP.

"This was a wound from a knife, because my cooking was not OK," she said, showing a mark on her nose.

The other girl, now 17, has burnt, twisted fingers - the consequence, she says, of them being broken deliberately by her captors as punishment.

image copyrightAFP/Ye Aung Thuye Aung Thu
image captionThe girls' mother (centre) said she asked the police for help but got little until the case became widely known

The allegations of mistreatment are shocking, but it's the authorities handling of the case that has really enraged the Burmese public. Many see it as further proof of a judicial system stacked against the poorest and most vulnerable.

On several occasions over the last five years, the girls' families say they asked the Burmese police for help and were turned away.

It was only when a journalist called Swe Win became involved that things started to move. He approached the police, who again refused to help, before taking the matter to the national human rights commission.

To its credit, the commission did act, negotiating with the tailor for the girls' release and for a payment equivalent to about 4,000 dollars (£3060) to be made, effectively as back-pay. But there was public outcry when it emerged that no further measures were taken against the girls' alleged abusers.

"We figured at the time that we could solve the case satisfactorily to all parties involved with a compensation settlement," U Zaw Win, a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission told an angry news conference in Yangon.

image copyrightAFP/Ye Aung Thuye Aung Thu
image captionMany poor rural Burmese children travel to cities to work for the growing middle and upper classes

With the girls' story now front page news and reverberating around social media, the Burmese police were finally spurred into action. On Wednesday evening the tailor was arrested, along with her two adult children. They all now face charges related to human trafficking.

Questions are now being asked as to why it took so long for the authorities to get involved. In a rare public intervention, President Htin Kyaw released a statement.

He said he had instructed the relevant ministries to assist and protect the girls, their families and the journalist Swe Win from possible reprisals.

The president has also asked for a report on how the police handled the case and said he would be taking a close look at the work of the human rights commission.

Swe Win is receiving a presidential award for his work on the case.

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