Fishing boat captive barely survives daring escape

Because Kyaw Zin Myat is stoutly built and over six feet tall, villagers called him Godzilla.

But they could hardly recognize Godzilla when he returned home this October.

When the 34-year-old finally made it back to Phonegyithaung village, in Pyapon township, he was sallow and emaciated, his body wrapped in bandages and casts. A colostomy bag hung from his abdomen.

“I can’t believe that’s Godzilla”, villagers said.

Zin Myat had been held captive and forced to work on a fishing boat for a month, enduring torture and beatings before making a desperate escape.

After an emergency operation at Yangon General Hospital, Godzilla now must defecate through a tube.

He’s currently recovering at his parents’ house in Shwe Pauk Kan Myothit, in eastern Yangon, but money problems—which got him into the whole mess in the first place—are keeping his wife and four daughters back in Phonegyithaung.

A lawsuit for causing grievous hurt under Article 325 of the Penal Code was filed on 13 December against boat supervisor Win Ko and two partners, according to Daw Nyein township police deputy sheriff Htin Kyaw.

Win Ko is currently out on bail. If found guilty, he faces a maximum seven-year sentence.

Kyaw Zin Myat goes to Yangon General Hospital once a week for continuing treatment. (Photo- Kay Zun Nway)

Hell at sea

Win Ko is actually a neighbour of Kyat Zin Myat’s. When the latter told him he was in debt, Win Ko offered an 800,000-kyat advance to work on the boat, promising him the work was safe.

Kyat Zin Myat wanted to buy his family a home. His wife, Za Za, told Myanmar Now the couple currently pay about 7,000 kyats a month in rent, and that a house would cost about 700,000.

He took Win Ko up on the offer, leaving a job as a labourer. Though he had no experience and believed the job to be dangerous, he says, he did it for his family. Za Za had just given birth to their fourth daughter.

“He said if a stint at sea could pay off his debts, he would do it”, she told Myanmar Now.

But after two days at sea, Kyaw Zin Myat was overcome with seasickness.

“I told him ‘I am sorry, big brother… I’ve never experienced this before, but I can’t stand these waves. I cannot work’”, Kyaw Zin Myat told Myanmar Now.

He pleaded for Win Ko to bring him ashore, promising he’d pay back the advance by working on land. Win Ko refused.

One day, Win Ko’s brother-in-law and right-hand-man, Tin Oo, dragged Kyaw Zin Myat to the mast and ordered him to climb it.

“I was on my back, and I was too dizzy to get up,” he said. “I couldn’t lift my feeet, so they shot at my legs with stones and a slingshot” he said.

He said Win Ko would beat him in the stomach with whips and the boat’s anchor as the other three men on board held him down.

Finally, Kyaw Zin Myat grabbed two ring buoys and jumped overboard.

“I was scared and I didn’t want to die at their hands,” he said. “They would slowly torture me to death. I didn’t want to die like that. I thought if I drowned I’d lose consciousness and die quickly.”

Kyaw Zin Myat said being dragged across a coarse bamboo floor by his fear have left a wound on his rear. (Photo- Kay Zun Nway)

Rescue and recovery

He did lose consciousness.

But when he came to he realized he’d been saved by the owners of the boat he’d been held captive on.

Kyaw Zin Myat said he told them what happened and how he’d been treated but they seemed to dismiss the allegations. They took him to a clinic in Phonegyithaung villagae but did not contact his family.

The owners, a husband and wife, said Win Ko and the others on the boat told them Kyaw Zin Myat had been refusing meals and tried to avoid working by eating uncooked, hoping it would make him ill.

At the clinic, Kyaw Zin Myat ran into a cousin.

She stared at him, thinking that, despite the long hair and gaunt face, he looked familiar.

“Are you Godzilla,” she asked. He could only nod.

She contacted Kyaw Zin Myat’s family and friends, telling them about his condition.

Doctors told his mother, Khin Mar Lwin, that Kyaw Zin Myat had pancreatitis and that an x-ray had shown no complications, she said, but Kyaw Zin Myat told her he’d been tortured and needed further medical help.

When his condition did not improve, Khin Mar Lwin transferred her son to Yangon General Hospital, where doctors immediately performed an emergency surgery.

Kyaw Zin Myat’s family later tracked down the boat owners and asked for help paying the hospital bill. The owners asked them to sign a paper then gave them 350,000 kyats, the family told Myanmar Now.

Doctors at Yangon General Hospital told Khin Mar Lwin her son had only a 50 percent chance of surviving. They urged her to press charges against Win Ko and the boat owners as soon as possible.

“Why did they try to have him treated at the village hospital and cover up the extent of his condition without contacting his family,” she said. “If he had died, they’d have just said he died at sea. Wealthy boat owners do it all the time.”

The boat’s owners deny covering up the injuries, arguing Kyaw Zin Myat’s condition was preexisting.

Dr Ye Ni, the doctor who first treated Kyaw Zin Myat when he returned ashore, told Myanmar Now there was no evidence of major injury when he treated Kyaw Zin Myat, who he said was suffering only a swollen abdomen – a common condition among sea workers.

Kyaw Zin Myat signed a contract with the Lae Lae Win fish warehouse with his fingerprint. (Photo- Khin Moh Moh Lwin)

A widespread problem

Khin Mar Lwin filed charges at the Daw Nyein police station in Pyapon township on October 31, but police didn’t come to Yangon to speak with Kyaw Zin Myat and his family until December 2.

“I told the police my son could have died. They didn’t come around even though they knew his life was in danger,” Kyaw Zin Myat’s father, Myint Lwin, said. “When they refused to show up, I sent complaints to the district and posted about it on Facebook”.

Police at the Daw Nyein district station referred Myanmar Now to the Kalardeik station, but when Myanmar Now called that station on December 4, police refused to speak about the case, saying they needed permission from a supervisor.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission was investigating rights violations on fishing boats in the villages of Pyapon township.

News that Dangon university senior Myat Thura Tun had endured a similar ordeal had recently caused waves in local media.

Media attention of trafficking and human rights violations in the fishing industry began picking up in 2016, and Pyapon township MPs have recently announced plans to and investigate the Fisheries Department, which is tasked with regulating the industry.

According to Pyapon MP Thein Swe, 57 people were lost at sea near the township between September 1 and October 7.

Myanmar Now requested a list of the dead and missing from Pyapon district police several times but was told that information is confidential.


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