R Zarni is one of Myanmar's most successful pop stars. Normally busy turning the heads of young girls, he is now busy creating awareness about human trafficking.
At the beginning of March, R Zarni presented a documentary film in Yangon about human trafficking. He recounted stories of victims, young girls, who are sold for a little bit of money, and of their traffickers who sell them as prostitutes or slaves.
The documentary film was part of the "MTV Exit" campaign to promote awareness, especially among young populations around the world, against human trafficking and exploitation. The music TV station has already produced short films on the topic in a number of Southeast Asian languages.
To reach as many people as possible, the films are presented by stars of their regions.
MTV started the campaign in 2004. It now receives support from ASEAN, the US, Australia, various NGOs and the United Nations. There is a Facebook page for the project which already has over 90,000 fans. It also has its own Twitter channel.
The hub of human trafficking
Myanmar is an Asian hub for human trafficking. In line with the country's democratization, it has become easier to talk about the subject openly. Myanmar's most prominent figure, Aung San Suu Kyi has brought up the issue of trafficked women and children in public speeches. Julia Marip of the Kachin Women's Association in Thailand told Deutsche Welle this is an important step in the country's development.
The country that was ruled by a repressive military regime for the past five decades plays a prominent role for traffickers and the victims of their trade. A 2011 report by the US State Department found Myanmar to be a country of origin and a transit country for sex slaves. Burmese victims are trafficked to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, South Korea and Macau. And victims from Bangladesh meant for the Thai and Chinese markets are usually sent through Myanmar. The struggle to fight trafficking goes on, according to Marip, because of corruption.
"Officials are involved in trafficking. They receive bribes. Bribes, corruption and inadequate laws are the main obstacles."
People of ethnic minority groups are trafficked to various parts of the country and are forced to work on government infrastructure and farming projects. The wide-spread use and deployment of child soldiers in Myanmar is rampant and is virtually unmatched by any other country in the world.
Exploitation in Thailand
In Thailand alone there are currently around 100,000 Burmese domestic workers. The conditions in which they work are often extremely poor, according to Awatsaya Panam of Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social.
A recent study conducted by the institute examined the conditions under which people from Myanmar work in Thai factories. They are paid extremely low wages, are not allowed to leave the factory premises, live in over-crowded, windowless shacks and often become victims of sexual abuse.
In recent years, the Burmese government has undertaken steps to stop the export of sex slaves in the bordering areas near Thailand. Yet it has done nothing to stop forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers.
"You can't say the situation is better or getting worse. Currently, the Burmese government has tried to press reforms as a democratic country. But the root causes of human trafficking are of economic nature. Poverty and high unemployment are big factors," Marip explains.
MTV's new Exit campaign is taking advantage of Myanmar's new reforms to spread awareness about human trafficking.
"The worst part of human trafficking is that seemingly strong people take advantage of people's weaknesses," says R Zarni.
Other stars are also working on the MTV project. Burmese female singer Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein, who is active in UNICEF, has been supporting MTV's Exit since 2009.
Marip hopes the project will be a big success. "If it is done well, it will be very good for the people." With the government focusing on legislation to curb trafficking and organizations creating awareness, Marip believes the battle is sure to be won.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams