She's Behind Burma's First Pulitzer

Esther Htusan, of the minority, Christian, Kachin ethnic group, became Burma's first Pulitzer Prize winner after publishing a year-long investigation of modern slavery in the Southeast Asian fishing industry. 

Along with three colleagues at the Associated Press, Htusan won the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism in 2016 for their exploration of the human cost of developing a supply chain for shrimp exports from Thailand to international markets in the United States.

After the story was published, more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen working on Thai boats in Indonesian waters were freed. Indonesia's government also cracked down on fishing boats in its waters, making traffickers and boat owners flee. Some traffickers were brought to justice. 

“It was a bit scary at first, but I became more interested in helping them [enslaved Burmese fishermen] after I discovered their plight,” Esther said.  

Though she had been with the Associated Press in Rangoon for several years, Esther Htusan said she never expected to win such an accolade. Along with the Pulitzer, she has collected more than a dozen other awards for her journalism in 2016. 

“I have never thought I would win the prize...I just had compassion on these enslaved fishermen and wanted to help them. They also helped me and talked to me a lot. Because it is risky in some places, they went with me to interview people to make sure I was safe,” Htusan recounted. 

Htusan is no stranger to risk, however. She was born in a conflict-torn region in Hpa-Kant in Kachin State in the northernmost part of Burma. The ethnic Kachin journalist entered the field in 2012 when she worked as a freelancer, fixer, and translator for international media agencies. She started with the AP in 2013.

In her year of investigation, she traveled frequently to Thailand and Indonesia as well as islands in an archipelago close to Papua New Guinea in Indonesian waters. Some islands were close enough to Australia that she saw kangaroos. 

It was the inhabitants of those islands, many of them slaves, that shocked her, however.  

“I've never seen people who look like that. They looked like wild people. It looked like they were not civilized. None of them spoke English. I was praying along the way. I also prayed to God to protect me from anger,” said Esther Htusan, who is a Christian. 

However, after meeting several Burmese fishermen and talked to them, she gained their trust, and she began to feel welcomed and safe. 

She said, “When they [Burmese fishers] realized that a female from Burma came to them, they wanted to protect me instead of putting me in danger. I think it was safer since I'm a female.”   

“I felt as if I was their sister. They talked openly about their feeling that I was a sister. Maybe because I'm a woman they talked more,” she added. 

She said the enslaved men attempted to make a life for themselves there in exile. Some of the Burmese fishermen married local women for safety and inclusion. Once married to a local, the island's inhabits protected them. Many of the slaves married local women even though they did not love them. 

“I felt very sad for them. They told me that they wanted to go home. They told me they got married because they wanted protection for themselves. Some eventually left their families and returned home. But some didn't because they felt bad for their wives and children. Some also hanged themselves because they had no hope of ever going home,” the award-winning writer said.

Htusan traveled by boat among the numerous islands, visiting one village after another where she interviewed the enslaved fishermen. 

“It takes 20 days to reach these islands by boat from Thailand. It is very far and isolated. A man told me that they used to try to escape and almost died in the sea. He and his friends were rescued by a Chinese fishing boat. Many took risks to escape in many ways,” said Htusan. 

She said that the traffickers are also Burmese nationals who lie to their victims, saying they would give them jobs in factories. But when the trafficked victims arrived in Thailand, they were sold to fishing boats. They were later taken by Thai boats to fishing areas in Indonesian waters with no hope of returning home. They work day and night without rest or proper medical treatment.  

“Fishermen have no hope of returning home by themselves, since the archipelago is very isolated and far from Thailand's shore,” said Htusan. 

Cargo boats from Thailand would come and collect the fishing bounty regularly and bring more slaves. The fate of these unfortunate souls began to change, however, with the publication of Htusan and her colleagues' investigation. 

“After we published news on slavery, the Indonesian government started to crack down on the fishing boats in its waters. So some fishing boats escaped and many boats owners fled to Papua New Guinea. Some went back to Thailand,” said Htusan.