In this May 16, 2015 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia's seafood industry. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

In this May 16, 2015 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing and his mother, Khin Than, cry as they are reunited after 22 years at their village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Myanmar fisherman goes home after 22 years as a slave

I am struck by how very sheltered my life has been. I live in the United States, and although poor, have lived a life of tremendous privilege when compared with the rest of the world, especially those who live in third world countries.

If the primary problems were the lack of food, potable water, shelter, sanitation, education, medical care, and other life necessities, that would be one thing. We could figure out ways to provide some of those things and build the infrastructure to levels of sustainability over time where many of the remaining needs could be met.

It is the corruption and human rights abuses adding hellish dimensions to each of these challenges which make it nearly impossible to resolve them in any way that will stand the onslaught over time.

The realities of abject poverty and starvation around the world are not new to me. In my work tracking disasters and humanitarian crises around the globe I have become somewhat inured to seeing people living and dying amid dire circumstances. But from time to time I will come across a story that will take my breath away with the depths of utter depravity it shows and the unimaginable courage required of those who are fighting incredible odds in order to just survive. Such is the above story of Myint Naing.

The impact of just one person having to endure this hell is tremendous. But there are literally thousands who have been subjected to these horrors. There is, in reality, no word in the English language that is adequate to describe what they have endured and many more who remain undiscovered are currently enduring. The word “outrage” pales in comparison to their plight.

It goes without saying that most of us who are the end customers for the goods provided are clueless of what is being done by the people who commit these crimes against their captives. But should we be? What are our responsibilities for knowing where our goods and services come from?

Somewhere between Myint Naing and the fish which appears on our dinner table are people who are aware of what has been happening and have turned a deaf ear to all of it in order to maximise their profits. Somewhere up the supply chain are others who have heard rumblings and done nothing. Somewhere in the companies who put these products on the grocery shelves are people who may not have been aware of these practices, but it is their responsibility to find out. And they have not.

We can say that we could not have known. We can wring our hands and say that this is not our fault. But are either of these things true? Or do most of us go through our lives concerned with only what is immediately in front of us with no regard whatsoever as to how it got there and why?

We need to ask the hard questions and demand answers from the manufacturers; from agribusinesses; from those in the meat, poultry, and fish packing and canning industries; and from our governments. What are the sources of what we are being sold and are human rights guaranteed for all involved along the supply chain?

But more than that, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: When is enough enough? In our relentless drive to acquire more, to experience more, we are going to any lengths to attain our goals. We are out-stripping our resources in any number of areas, yet, we demand more and we demand it faster.

What price has been paid by others so we can live in the opulence we enjoy?

How many men, women, and children have died so that we can gain whatever status points from the society in which we live, empty acknowledgements which mean absolutely nothing? They shift and change like the wind. What gives status today is passé before nightfall.

This man was a slave for 22 years. Primarily in the fishing industry. He was stolen from his family and his community and held captive for longer than he had lived when he was taken. He was maltreated, his life was under constant threat, he was fed swill, and chained so that he could not escape. So we can have fish for fancy cat food?

We say we want justice and fair practices for everyone, yet, our mindless greed to have whatever “they” say we should in order to have “respect” out in the streets is exactly what drives stories like this one.

In truth, many of us do not care one whit about what it takes to get it to us as long as it is there.

The question is not about the outrageous treatment he received. The question is how many others are going through this particular hell and what we are going to do about it?

So, the next time you go to buy fish from Southeast Asia, are you going to ask yourself who died in order to put that catch on your table? Harsh as it sounds, that may very well be the reality of it.

The next time you want fish for dinner and you are shopping at Walmart, Sysco, Krogers, or another company, are you going to ask yourself the question of where the fish came from and whose life and freedom was on the line in order for you to have the catch that is in front of you?

The next time you go to feed your cat Fancy Feasts, Meow Mix, or Iams cat food, are you going to ask yourself if another human being had to go through the tortures of the damned in order for that can to be in your hand?

Or are you going to be aware and responsible for telling the packing and canning companies that you will not support these horrific practices and instead buy brands that verify their sources are companies who guarantee their employees are treated humanely and their human rights are respected?

We each vote with the dollars we pay to these industries for goods and services rendered. It is the leverage we have to either make these practices stop or to allow them to continue.

Vote wisely.

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