“There was no hope for us. Every day was the same. We’d wake up at 5am. I would have to do everything from catching the fish, jumping down into the nets, to cleaning them and even the cooking. There were those who just couldn’t work. They were beaten and if you fell ill, they’d give you the simplest of medicines. You’d be forced to work without any rest … What the captain did to us just wasn’t human.”
Hlaing Min, a 30-something Burmese man, is strikingly matter-of-fact as he describes his more than two years of virtual enslavement in a fishing fleet plying the waters of Benjina, part of the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia.
Hailing from the Myanmar town of Myawaddy, on the Thai border, he is one of hundreds of predominantly Myanmar nationals whose stories were exposed by the Associated Press (AP) in an extraordinary series of articles on slavery and tuna fishing in the Arafura Sea in 2015.
He is also a victim of the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to care for its most vulnerable peoples, just as its much-vaunted Asean Economic Community (AEC) is kicking into high gear.
Hlaing Min’s father died when he was four, leaving his mother to support him and his two sisters.
Once married, and coping with a weakened Myanmar economy after the 2007 Saffron Revolution, he sought a better livelihood – like so many Burmese – across the border in Thailand.
After many scrapes and with a baby on the way, Hlaing Min thought he had hit on the perfect opportunity: “These Myanmar guys came to see me and said, ‘Hey, you’re earning so little here, why don’t you come to Malaysia and you’ll get more?’ Since I was getting around 5,000bht (HK$1,080) a month then, the amount they offered – 10,000bht – was very appealing.”
Hlaing Min was promised work in Penang, Malaysia, and a 8,000bht advance. He gave the money to his wife, saying he would be away for six months.
In October, he made his way to the Thai port town of Samut Sakhon.
“I can still remember it was a big yellow-coloured boat. There were 17 of us, all from Myanmar. It was a very long journey and I began to get suspicious. Thirteen days later, we landed at our destination. Everyone laughed at me when I asked: ‘Is this Malaysia?’ No, they said. This is Indonesia. This is Benjina.”
The men ended up as virtual slaves on fishing boats, at the mercy of a group of Thai nationals, backed by Myanmar or Indonesian enforcers.
They were paid sporadically. There was no question of them returning home.
Onshore, the company that ran the operation, Pusaka Benjina Resources (PBR), deployed armed patrols to prevent escapes. Those that were caught were brutally beaten and caged.
The isolation helped to facilitate the company’s control.
The Aru Islands are actually closer to Darwin than Jakarta, let alone Yangon. “When we were out at sea, we had no idea of the day or the location.”
Fortunately for Hlaing Min, he eventually escaped, finding refuge with the locals. He still talks fondly of Pak Telli, a schoolteacher who welcomed him into his home: “He helped us, gave us food and shelter. The local people were very generous.”
Working as an odd-job man, he essentially became part of the community and learnt Indonesian, only emerging from the forests after the PBR facilities were raided by Indonesian authorities, some two-and-half-years later.
The AEC’s mercantilist obsession with the region’s large, 650 million-strong consumer market has ignored the real needs of predominantly low- or unskilled workers like Hlaing Min.
Given the almost non-existent legal protection, many of the 6.7 million Southeast Asian men and women who cross borders to find work have become victims of exploitation.
The human cost of this omission – some would say complicity – has been staggering.
Hlaing Min was eventually repatriated to Myanmar only to discover a country transformed: “It was all so different. Everyone had hand phones and there were cars and motorbikes everywhere.”
On a personal level, his family was fractured with his wife working in Thailand, his five-year-old daughter living with her grandmother in Moulmein and his own mother barely managing in opportunity-scarce Myawaddy.
While Hlaing Min doesn’t have a full-time job, his raw determination, charm and language skills have meant that he has become one of the leaders of the hundreds of former Benjina slaves who are seeking the wages that were denied them.
Hlaing Min acknowledges that his suffering was made worse by the failures of the previous military government, but critics say unless Asean does something about the plight of its semi- and unskilled workers, stories like Hlaing Min’s could become the norm.