HLAING THAR YAR (Myanmar) • Enticed by work in China, hundreds of poor young Myanmar women are instead being duped into marriage with husbands they have never met.
In April, Ms Kyi Pyar Soe, 22, vanished from her community of squatters, who live in tents and flimsy bamboo lean-tos an hour outside of Yangon.
"She didn't say anything. She left after she argued with her younger sister. Her mother told her off and she left," her father Mya Soe told Agence France-Presse from the family's shelter in Hlaing Thar Yar township. He could not have known that his daughter was on her way to China, enticed along with another woman by job offers as maids paying US$210 (S$282) a month - several times more than what they could make at home.
Given a free journey by brokers to the shady Myanmar border town of Muse, in eastern Shan State, the pair were able to cross legally.
But once on Chinese soil, the deal swiftly unravelled. "They were taken to a Chinese woman's house and the woman brought some Chinese men to have a look at them," a police officer from Hlaing Thar Yar township told AFP, requesting anonymity. "She told them that they have to marry a Chinese man."
Demand for Myanmar brides is high in China, where a one-child policy has led to a massive gender imbalance.
Myanmar has drawn international praise in recent years for democratic reforms that have loosened the military's repressive grip and paved the way for human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to lead an elected government.
But the fledgling democracy faced a diplomatic setback on Thursday when the United States branded it one of the world's worst centres for human trafficking. The government has failed to meet the minimum standards for combating people-smuggling, the US State Department ruled in an annual trafficking report that downgraded the country to the lowest "Tier 3".
"Burmese women are transported to China and subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude through forced marriages to Chinese men," the report said, adding there is reason to believe that government officials "are occasionally complicit in this form of trafficking".
More than 3,000 people were trafficked to China between 2006 and this year, according to official figures. "Two thousand of them are women... 400 are children who are under 18 years old," said police major Ye Win Aung, of the Yangon-based Anti-Trafficking Task Force.
"They were offered job opportunities in China but, instead, were sold to be wives of Chinese men when they arrived on the other side," he added, saying 800 cases have been recorded so far. Non-governmental organisations say the real figure is likely to be much larger.
In the end, Ms Kyi Pyar Soe and the other woman were lucky. They met an old Myanmar woman in the Chinese town who helped them back across the border before they could be married off to the strangers.
They are now in a government-run women's refuge in Yangon where they are receiving job training.