While working in Myanmar over the last few years, I followed the news stories about forced labor and illegal human trafficking of Burmese workers. In 2016, I began to pursue this story myself. I visited the brother-in-law of a Burmese friend who was forced to work for ten years in fishing boats off the coast of Thailand. I learned that he had originally traveled hundreds of miles from his home to eastern Myanmar after being promised good pay to clear fields for palm oil plantations—but the conditions were terrible and he was never paid the promised wages. With no savings and few options, he took a job with a recruiter promising good jobs in Thailand. When they crossed the border, however, the recruiter promptly sold him into slavery. After escaping ten years later, he was devastated. He returned home to find that his family had thought he was dead, his wife had remarried, and the life he had known was gone. Following this interview, I traveled to the palm oil plantations to see how conditions had changed.
In 1999, when Myanmar was ruled by a repressive military regime, the government laid out a roadmap for development, which included an aggressive expansion of palm oil in its southern provinces. Since then, 44 large-scale palm oil companies—with access to capital and connections to the military—have transformed 350,000 hectares of pristine jungle into a series of plantations.*
I went to a few of these plantations and was interested to find that many of the other original workers disclosed that they were not paid while clearing the plantations. Even today, in 2017, workers tell stories of the difficulties they have faced working on the plantations, including inadequate living facilities, lack of proper educational and health resources, having months of wages withheld, and receiving wages so low that workers cannot return to their home village. Many oil palm plantations were built in areas where ethnic groups were displaced due to the decades-long civil war in Myanmar that still persists in 2017. Companies and individuals opportunistically seized the village lands, often illegally. I discovered that when these internally displaced groups return to their villages, they often find them converted into plantations. Companies have gone so far as to sue some of these villagers, putting them in a legal quagmire as they try to reclaim their homes.**
*John Patrick Baskett, "MYANMAR OIL PALM PLANTATIONS: A productivity and sustainability review." Fauna & Flora International, January 2016.
**Information gathered and recorded from interviews by Wudan Yan with palm oil workers, lawyers, and community service organizations for a print piece on palm oil, "These Burmese palm oil workers say they're trapped on plantations," published on pri.org.