Remarks to the Media at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma

Press Availability
Luis CdeBaca
Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Rangoon, Burma
January 11, 2012

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Good afternoon, everyone. As Secretary Clinton noted during her visit to Burma, if the Government of Burma keeps moving in the right direction, the U.S. is prepared to be a partner in the reform process.

One of the areas of reform that was raised in Secretary Clinton's meetings was trafficking in persons. As we examine potential new avenues for engagement, one possibility is fighting this scourge in concert.

No country is immune from modern slavery, and both the United States and Burma are affected with victims in our own countries and abroad. There are concerns with victim identification, investigation and prosecution of traffickers, and victims' access to justice and rehabilitation. Here, forced labor, whether by governmental actors or unscrupulous employers, is an ongoing problem, as is sex trafficking. Additionally, there continue to be problems with the recruitment of child soldiers and the use of villagers by municipal or military authorities for forced labor or forced portering.

All of these aspects of the trafficking problem were discussed in a series of frank and open exchanges in the last two days in Naypyitaw and Rangoon. Challenges of course remain, given the unfortunate record on this issue, but we saw in these discussions a recognition of the problem and an openness to act.

While this is a country endowed with many natural resources, the most precious is its people, and they deserve freedom from modern slavery whether here or abroad. I'm happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: You've met relevant ministers, including the Home Minister. I'm sure you must have discussed a range of issues regarding human trafficking. Are you now convinced that the Burmese Government is doing enough? Are they committed to eliminating human trafficking, forced labor, child conscription? As far as I remember, Myanmar was in Tier 3 of the annual report. What do you think Myanmar's status will be this year?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: The country was in Tier 3 of the annual report, this being the annual report [showing the report in his hand]. What we have seen in the annual report is an analysis of what governments are doing under 11 minimum standards set forth by the Congress on the elimination of trafficking in persons. And that ranges everything from victim identification to the laws that are in place. But most importantly, are the laws being enforced. And so one of the things that we discussed in the meetings, not just with the Ministers, but also with the inter-Ministerial working group (CBTIP) on this was… what are some of the things that are happening out in the field?

And there are some things that we've seen in the last few months that are encouraging. For instance, no longer requiring that victims who come home are then kept involuntarily for two weeks in a shelter which – what we've been hearing from many of the victims – the returning victims felt that that was more like jail. The Government has issued a decree stopping that practice, which we welcome. We're hoping that we'll see more such reforms and more such policies on the part of the Government going forward that would be able to be taken into account as we look at the ranking in the coming year. We don't presuppose a ranking. We still have three months left in the year that we look at. And there's plenty of time for the Government to continue to do positive steps towards compliance with these minimum standards. And we would certainly encourage them as we did in the meetings over the last couple of days.

QUESTION: Did you discuss with government officials anything about Burmese women being sold to China as brides? Do you have any concerns about that?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: This is one of the facets of human trafficking that we discussed, both at the Ministerial level, and also with CBTIP, this issue of the women being sold as brides in China. And it's something that I have raised as well when I have travelled to China. It's an issue that can only be dealt with both the sending and the receiving countries. But what we very much feel is that there not only needs to be education of women so that they know that promises of a better life in China could be hiding exploitation and abuse, so that they have the information when the men come and try to take them north, but also then that there are opportunities for the women if they come back home; to make sure that they are not rejected by their family; to make sure that they have rehabilitation services. And so we spoke with the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare about that issue of when people are coming home how they can best be served, how can they get the services that a trafficking victim requires. But it's something that's very much on our radar as we look at the problem of human trafficking.

QUESTION: Human trafficking most of the time is across borders. How do you see the cooperation between Burma and its neighbors on this issue? The second question is, how about the United States in helping combat this issue.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, first of all, much of the attention that's been paid here, and that the actors in Naypyitaw are looking at… you're correct that there's more attention paid to the cross-border aspect of human trafficking. And the reality of course is that the migrants are more vulnerable to exploitation. They're more vulnerable to enslavement when they're in another country, when they're afraid of the immigration services, when they don't speak the language. But the United Nations' definition of human trafficking, the international standards, are very much about… this is not about movement, this is a problem of enslavement and exploitation. And so we've seen cases where people have been held in modern slavery here at home without ever being taken across a border.

Having said that, we think it's very important for there to be regional focus on this because we recognize that a sending country has limited capacity to prosecute the factory owner who may be enslaving their people somewhere else. China, Thailand… these are the places that I think many people think of when they think of the human trafficking problem here.

One of the things we've started doing in the United States is, in working with our Mexican counterparts on cross-border trafficking, is doing the cases simultaneously. So we will share our evidence with the Mexicans so that they can prosecute the recruiter in the village and we can prosecute the employer in the United States at the same time. And that's the type of model of cross-border cooperation that we think would be effective in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region as well. And it's the type of thing we think that ASEAN and the other regional entities would be good at helping foster. But we certainly have raised the issue of Burmese migrants when we talk to Thailand because those are so often the people who are being exploited, whether in prostitution, whether in factories, whether in the shrimp and fishing industries. So often when you see the exploitation and you meet the victims they are from here, and that needs to stop.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on what sort of recommendations you have made to the Government authorities so that Myanmar will be upgraded from its present tier, or scrapped from the blacklist?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Again I'll repeat that we don't presuppose the ranking until we have the evidence each year. But there are a number of recommendations that we made both in the report when it came out last year and again in the conversations in the last few days. And we discussed those recommendations frankly and with a spirit of openness. And we felt like there was a good discussion of those recommendations. Not from a place of accusation. It was not received with defensiveness, but rather a good dialogue between us and our counterparts in the Ministries.

But those recommendations… and I would certainly refer you to the trafficking report itself… include ceasing the use of forced labor by military and civilian authorities, increasing investigations, increasing the victim care, working to end the involuntary detention of the adult victims in the shelters (which they did do), releasing and moving away from charges against some of the political prisoners who were in prison because of their activism on labor rights against forced labor. At the end of the day, I think one of the biggest recommendations is the need to focus more on the internal trafficking of victims. Not solely thinking that this is a problem that happens in Thailand. Not just thinking of this is being a Chinese problem, but recognizing that this is happening in Yangon; that this is happening in Mandalay. It's happening up at the lake. It's happening in so many areas, not just in the tourist areas. Not just in sex, but on farms, in little factories and things like that. And once that recognition flows, we think that that will make a very positive step forward, as far as the ranking is concerned.

Hillary Clinton said a couple of years ago when the rankings come out that countries come to her and they express dismay about their ranking. And she tells them that the best way to improve their ranking is to get results. And results are very easy. It's: traffickers go to jail, and victims get helped. And so we are very much looking forward to a situation where, through cooperation, through regional efforts, but at the end of the day, through political will on the part of the Government, we see more traffickers in jail, and more victims helped.

QUESTION: So far, what do you think are the biggest obstacles that you are facing now to improve the situation?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: One of the biggest obstacles to improving the situation here seems to be the archaic legal structure, especially in the villages and towns act, which allows the civilian authorities to conscript labor for building projects or other things like that. So that it basically says that it is legal for the municipal government or the military to use forced labor. And even though there are positive things happening with transnational sex trafficking, and those types of trafficking, as long as it's still legal for the Government to use forced labor in that manner, it will be very hard for there to be improvement under these international standards. And so in some ways, it's not just an issue of resources or better training or political will to fight the criminal traffickers. It's changing the law to make it clear that the Government cannot actually hold its own people in forced labor. That's probably the biggest challenge that we see. But it's also a challenge that could be solved very easily if Government and Parliament took steps to end that practice.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up to the previous question. So what is the role of the U.S. Government and you in assisting this Government to solve this problem? What kind of offer have you made in Naypyitaw?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well we didn't make an offer on this trip. I think what we see in this trip is an opportunity to engage with our counterparts in the spirit of the last few months, as we look at these new avenues for potential collaboration. What we do in countries around the world ranges from supporting shelters, supporting police training, supporting the training of judges and other members of the Governmental response, but also making those linkages between civil society and Government. We have some limited funds that we spend each year in countries around the world. But we also have technical assistance, and we work within the international bodies. So, for instance, with ASEAN, the United States participated in a training that was held in Singapore last year under the auspices of ASEAN in which our counterparts from the Burmese prosecutors' offices were able to come and receive best practices from a host of prosecutors from around the world. Those are some of the types of things that we could see going forward, but much of the trip was to assess the situation, to see what the possibilities are, and to begin a conversation with our counterparts here. So we don't have an announcement for you about a particular pledge, or an amount, or anything like that. But when we do have an announcement… if we do have an announcement… we'll certainly let you know.

QUESTION: When you went to Naypyitaw, did the authorities mention the role of the local media in combating trafficking… because in Burma we are still under heavy censorship.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: This is not something that we saw in these particular discussions, but I think it's something we will take under advisement for future discussions because one of the things that we've seen is that the role of the media in uncovering these situations and calling it to people's attention is critical. We talked earlier today to a number of the non-governmental and international organizations that are working on this, and they certainly raised this as being very helpful to their work in the last six months or so, as more news stories have come out about the human trafficking. And so we would certainly encourage all of you to continue to report on this issue and to intensify your reporting. It's not just for the print media either. Any of you who've seen the work being done on CNN International and otherwise, there are some very interesting ways to do reporting on this issue of modern slavery in series type of work. So not just reporting on one particular case, but reporting on the phenomenon of the women going to China, reporting on what's happening to the men who are on those Thai fishing boats, or even if there are people going on the Western borders into Bangladesh or India and being abused. Probably the most important is calling attention to the problems right here at home. But it is something that we'll want to continue to take on board and in fact it's something that, at the Embassy, press freedom is something we care about very deeply and if you have instances that you'd like to call to our attention, it's something that our Embassy staff would love to hear from you if there are impediments to your reporting on this issue. It's something that we not only can raise with Government, but something we would be very interested in raising if there are situations where you feel your coverage of this is being impeded.