Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 2nd 2015 Contents B8
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, July 2, 2015
•From Page B5
On islands scattered throughout the
Maluku chain in Indonesia, also known
as the Spice Islands, thousands of
migrant fishermen who have escaped
or been abandoned by their captains
quietly hide out in the jungle. Some
start families with local women, partly
to protect themselves from slave catch-
ers. It s risky, but one of the only ways
to find a semblance of freedom.
An Indonesian family took mercy on
Myint until he healed, and then offered
him food and shelter in exchange for
work on their farm. For five years, he
lived this simple life and tried to erase
memories of the horrors at sea. He
learned to speak the Indonesian language
fluently and acquired a taste for the
food, even though it was much sweeter
than the salty Burmese dishes his mother
fixed. But he couldn t forget his relatives
in Myanmar or the friends he left behind
on the boat. What happened to them?
Were they still alive? Sometimes Myint
quietly visited other runaway Burmese
slaves on the island to talk about home,
bringing a big bag of vegetables he grew
himself. "He was a bit afraid to go
around," remembered Naing Oo, another
former Burmese slave in Tual."It was
very brutal on the fishing boats."
Winds of change
In the meantime, the world around
him was changing. By 1998, Indonesia s
longtime dictator Suharto had fallen,
and the country was moving toward
democracy. Myint wondered if maybe
things were getting better on the ships
too. In 2001, he heard one captain was
offering to take fishermen back to Myan-
mar if they agreed to work. He was
determined to find a way home. So,
eight years after he first arrived in
Indonesia, he returned to the sea.
Right away, he knew he d fallen into
the same trap again. The work and con-
ditions were just as appalling as the first
time, and the money still didn t come.
If anything, the slavery was getting
worse. Thailand was rapidly becoming
one of the world s biggest seafood
exporters, and needed more cheap
labour. Brokers deceived, coerced or
sometimes even drugged and kidnapped
migrant workers, including children, the
sick and the disabled. After nine months
on the water, Myint s captain broke his
promise and told the crew he was aban-
doning them to go back to Thailand
Furious and desperate, the Burmese
slave once again pleaded to go home.
That, he said, was when the captain
chained him to the boat for three days.
Myint searched wildly for something,
anything, to open the lock. Working it
with his fingers was useless. Then he
managed to fashion a small piece of
metal into a makeshift pick and spent
hours trying to quickly and quietly
unlatch freedom. Finally, there was a
click. The shackles slid off. He knew
there wasn t much time, and if he got
caught, death would come swiftly.
Sometime after midnight, he dove
into the black water and swam to shore.
Then he ran without looking back, in
clothes still weighted by sea water.
He knew he had to disappear. This
time, for good. After he ran the second
time, Myint hid alone in a bamboo shack
in the jungle. But just three years later,
he fell ill with what appeared to be a
stroke. His nerves seemed to stop firing
properly, leaving him easily chilled
despite the oppressive tropical heat.
When he became too sick to work,
the same Indonesian family cared for
him with a kindness that reminded him
of relatives back home. He had forgotten
what his mother looked like, and knew
that by now his favourite little sister
would be all grown up. They likely
thought he was dead.
Mother prayed every day
What he didn t know was that his
mother was like him: she never gave
up. She prayed for him every day at the
little Buddhist altar in her family s tra-
ditional stilt house, and asked fortune
tellers year after year about her son.
They assured her he was alive, but in
a faraway place difficult to leave.
At one point, another Burmese man
told the family that Myint was fishing
in Indonesia and married. But Myint
never wanted to be tethered to the coun-
try that had destroyed his life.
"I didn t want an Indonesian wife, I
just wanted to go back home to Myan-
mar," he said."I felt like I lost my young
man s life. I just thought that all of this
time, I should have been in Burma hav-
ing a wife and a proper family."
After eight more years in the jungle
without a clock or calendar, time began
to blur. Now in his 30s, he started to
believe the captain had been right: There
really was no escape. He couldn t go to
the police or local officials, afraid they
might hand him over to the captains
for a fee. He had no way to call home.
And he was scared to contact the Myan-
mar embassy because it would expose
him as an illegal migrant.
In 2011, the solitude had become too
much. Myint moved to the island of
Dobo, where he had heard there were
more Burmese. He and two other run-
away slaves farmed chilies, eggplant,
peas and beans until the police arrested
one in the market and put him back on
a boat. The man later fell sick at sea
and died. It was yet another reminder
to Myint that if he wanted to survive,
he needed to do it carefully.
One day in April, a friend came to
him with news: an AP report linking
slavery in the seafood industry to some
of the biggest American grocery stores
and pet food companies had spurred
the Indonesian government to start res-
cuing current and former slaves on the
islands. To date, more than 800 have
been found and repatriated. This was
his chance. When the officials came to
Dobo, he went back with them to Tual,
where he was once a slave --- this time
to join hundreds of other free men.
After 22 years in Indonesia, Myint
was finally going home. But what, he
wondered, would he find?
In this May 16 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing, centre, hugs his niece Kyi Wai Hnin, right, and
nephew Kyaw Min Tun following his return to his village in Mon State, Myanmar. AP PHOTO
to his new life
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