By CAROLINE HENSHAW & HLA-HLA HTAY | AFP
YANGON — Scars lace across 16-year-old Than Than Ei’s face, each line bearing testimony to the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her adoptive family, the latest case of child abuse piling pressure on Myanmar’s government.
She was just nine when her father sent her to be adopted by a family in Yangon. By her tenth birthday she had become their virtual slave, beaten with bicycle chains and kitchen implements almost daily for five years.
“My lips were whipped with an iron chain,” she told AFP at her aunt’s house in South Dagon, east of Yangon. “They also use it to slash my hands and threw hot water on them.”
“As they did not feed me, I ate without their permission. Then they accused me of stealing food and crushed my fingers with pliers.”
Her story is increasingly familiar in Myanmar, where tens of thousands of youngsters from poor families are also sent to work as servants in middle-class, urban households.
Activists say the government has done little to address the issue, while police and authorities regularly turn a blind eye to allegations against wealthy and powerful families.
“The justice system throughout the country is broken and generally not seen as protecting the rights of the least advantaged,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights.
“Authorities in a position to help have been negligent.”
The issue came to light this month with the case of two girls, aged 16 and 17, who described shocking abuse during five years held captive in a tailor’s shop in Yangon.
The victims’ families say police refused to help them free the girls, whose story of being beaten, burnt and stabbed by the shop owners hit headlines after they were rescued this month.
They were initially paid $4,000 in compensation but, under mounting public pressure, police pressed criminal charges and the president has ordered an enquiry into how authorities handled the case.
Six members of the tailor’s family appeared in court on Thursday on human-trafficking charges.
Campaigners say more needs to be done to address the issue in Myanmar, rated the seventh-worst country for child labour in the world by risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft.
But it is also a complex task given grinding poverty that leaves many families dependent on income from working children.
“We’re going to find more and more of these types of cases,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, urging lawmakers to get ahead of the issue.
Than Than Ei’s family said authorities did nothing when alerted to what was happening.
Twice, neighbours complained but the local ward officer — a relative of the alleged abusers — did nothing.
Than Than Ei finally managed to flee the house and her uncle, Myo Oo, filed attempted murder charges against the family in July 2015.
One member of the family was arrested, but nothing was done for a year. Then last week police, galvanised by the tailor shop case, arrested three more people.
“If the authorities had helped us like this since the beginning, our case would not take this long,” said Myo Oo. “I also want to ask them why.”