They would tell Mason, BS ’97, Journalism, stories of being beaten and locked up for the crime of asking to go home. And they would tell her about the ones who didn’t survive. Whose bodies were thrown into the sea or kept in ships’ freezers and buried in an island cemetery under fake Thai names. One man told Mason’s team, “I think our lives are in the hands of the Lord of Death.”
Tual had become the temporary home for hundreds of men who were in limbo between their recent captivity on a nearby island and their flights home to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. For some, their captivity was in months, for others decades.
They were enslaved to acquire the seafood that makes its way into our homes and restaurants in the U.S., Europe and beyond.
And they were freed after Mason decided to follow a story.
By the end of 2015, Mason and her team had helped to free more than 2,000 people. This April, their work led to the Associated Press receiving the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service.
MARGIE MASON, IN INDIA, 2005.
“I think our lives are in the hands of the Lord of Death.”
– ANONYMOUS BURMESE SLAVE
The plane trip was before the prize, when the number of men freed was in the hundreds and Mason was looking for that one person’s story that could show what it means to be enslaved. When she heard Myint Naing’s story, she knew she had the answer.
In 1993, Myint was 18. He lived in Mudon, a village in Myanmar’s Mon State. His father had died, leaving him to be the provider for his mother and five siblings. A broker offered him $300 to work on a fishing boat, which could help his family survive grinding poverty. He left home and unwittingly became a slave.
In 1993, Mason graduated from Clay-Battelle High School. She lived in Daybrook in West Virginia’s Monongalia County. Her parents still live there. Growing up surrounded by Vietnam War veterans, she wanted to one day become a reporter in Vietnam and write about the other side of the conflict that happened on the other side of the world.
Twenty-two years later, Myint and Mason met in Tual. All that time he had been enslaved or trapped as a runaway with no way of getting home.
“For the entire time he had not had any contact with his family at all back home, and so he didn’t know if they were dead,” Mason said. “He assumed they thought he was dead. And I thought ‘OK, I want to follow him back home and see if he can find his family.’ And I did that.”
MYINT NAING AND HIS MOTHER CRY AS THEY ARE REUNITED AFTER 22 YEARS./AP PHOTO
“I felt like I lost my young man’s life.”
– MYINT NAING
Mason wrote in the AP story, “Myanmar fisherman goes home after 22 years as a slave,” that eight years into Myint’s captivity, he begged his boat captain to send him home, wrapping his arms around the man’s legs. For that, the captain chained him to the deck for three days, leaving him to die. He was able to pick the lock and swim to shore where he spent the next 14 years in the jungle.
“I just wanted to go back home to Myanmar,” he told Mason. “I felt like I lost my young man’s life. I just thought that all of this time, I should have been in Burma having a wife and a proper family.”
Mason and her colleague, Esther Htusan, along with an AP photographer and videographer, were there in Myanmar as Myint found his family again.
“When we watched him see his mother and his sister for the first time, it was just — it was like a movie,” Mason said.
“We were kind of standing on the side of the road to stay out of the shot and watching this whole thing. And to see a grown man just basically crumble onto the road and weep and wail with his mother and then just collapse into her arms … I think for him it was bittersweet. He was so happy to be home but at the same time, it was the realization that he had lost such a huge chunk of his life.”
Watching Myint hold onto his mother, Khin Than, Mason had the thought that this reunion was the high point of her career. She and her teammates created a story that led to this moment. And she knew the moment was being repeated in hundreds of families throughout Southeast Asia.
AFTER MYINT NAING’S HOMECOMING, HIS SISTER, MAWLI THAN, RITUALLY WASHES HIM OUTSIDE THE FAMILY’S HOME./AP PHOTO
There’s an AP video online of Myint’s return. He is walking down a reddish dirt road when he’s met by his sister, Mawli Than. They’re both crying. His sister tells him, as quoted in Mason’s story, “Brother, it’s so good that you are back! We don’t need money! We just need family! Now you are back, it’s all that we need.”
Throughout her life, Mason has been interested in the stories of regular people. Like that of her father’s close friend who talked about his time in the Vietnam War. Like people she talked to as a reporter who struggled in the aftermath of SARS, or people who suffered when counterfeit medicine made malaria more resistant in Cambodia, or the fishermen held captive in Indonesia.
She heard the stories of everyday people while working in West Virginia at theDominion Post in Morgantown during college and at the AP in Charleston. And then at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla., followed by the AP bureaus in San Francisco, Hanoi and Jakarta. Her ability to talk to people is coupled with her lifelong interest in Asia, where she developed the AP regional medical beat.
There was one meeting that helped get her there. At West Virginia University, while studying at what is now the Reed College of Media, she met George Esper, BS ’53, Physical Education, who was the AP bureau chief in Vietnam for 10 years during the war and covered the fall of Saigon. He was on campus for a visit and she was writing a story about him for the Dominion Post.
“At that point we kind of hashed out this plan to get me to Vietnam at some point someday,” she said. “... George was very special to me. He was a guiding light in my career and he really did help me get overseas, and he supported me and right up until he died [in 2012] we were in touch, and he knew the stories that I was working on.”
Esper was famous for a body of work that culminated in his remaining in Saigon after U.S. troops evacuated, where he offered North Vietnamese soldiers food that he had in the AP bureau — Coca-Cola and stale cake — and heard their side of the story.
Now Mason’s work has culminated in hearing a new side of a different story in the same area of the globe.
The Secret Everyone Knew
In late 2013, Mason and her colleague Robin McDowell were reporting the latest in a series of stories about migrants from Myanmar, a persecuted Muslim minority called the Rohingya. During that reporting, a source in Indonesia told Mason to take a look at reports on human trafficking, which showed that more and more trafficking victims, typically fishermen from Myanmar, were being discovered in the seas of Indonesia.
The official number of discovered slaves had increased in the past four to five years. She took that to McDowell.
“I said, ‘We need to figure out a way to make people care,’” Mason recalled. “And we came up with the idea that we needed to try to find men who were still captive and we needed to try to follow their catch back to American grocery stores and restaurants and dinner tables, and we needed to name names in the process.”
WORKERS SORT SHRIMP AT A SEAFOOD MARKET IN MAHACHAI, THAILAND./AP PHOTO
Back in the U.S., while we were shopping for fish in Kroger, Safeway and Wal-Mart, or buying Meow Mix or Fancy Feast or having dinner at Red Lobster, we were consuming products that Mason and her team confirmed to be part of a supply chain tainted with products acquired through the spent lives of slaves.
Mason said the knowledge was an open secret before their story. Other news organizations had reported about people who had been rescued from slavery. There was little outrage, she said.
For years the U.S. State Department had placed Thailand on a watch list because of its trade in slave-produced goods, the AP reported (as of July, Thailand was removed from the list). But the country was still receiving millions of dollars in aid and considered a military ally in the war on terror. One loophole that allowed trade with Thailand, Mason said, was a provision in the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 that said, in essence, that products that came from forced labor could be imported if consumers had a “consumptive demand” for the product.
“In our mind we needed to be as specific as possible because if you could nail it down and really pinpoint it, at that point there would be no way for companies both in Thailand and in the United States to deny that this was happening,” Mason said.
So they set to work in 2014, starting off small with the story humming in the background of their daily stories. Their team included Htusan, who was stationed in Myanmar and spoke Burmese; Martha Mendoza in California; and their international enterprise editor Mary Rajkumar, stationed in Miami.
"There must be a mountain of bones under the sea."-HLAING MIN, BURMESE SLAVE
The biggest time zone difference between them was 14 hours, Mason said. It was a challenge and an opportunity.
“We found a way to make it work in that we could almost keep the whole thing running 24 hours because Robin and I would work on something all day in Asia, and then Martha would wake up and we would hand it off to her and she would work all day on it in California, U.S.-time, and then we would catch up again the next evening or the next morning and just keep going,” Mason said.
They checked customs records, traced shell companies and offshore accounts, followed the haul from the trawlers at the docks to warehouses, linking the fish to wholesalers and finally brands in stores.
BURMESE FISHERMEN PREPARE TO BOARD A BOAT DURING A RESCUE OPERATION AT THE PUSAKA BENJINA RESOURCES FISHING COMPANY IN BENJINA, ARU ISLANDS, INDONESIA, APRIL 3, 2015./AP PHOTO
All the while other stories were clamoring for their attention. Mason and McDowell were the AP reporters covering the story on Dec. 28, 2014, when AirAsia Flight 8501 went down in the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board. After the team broke the first story in the seafood series, there was a massive Rohingya migration out of Myanmar with people dying at sea as they tried to flee to other countries. The team covered that, too. And then Mason reported on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which marked the end of the war that had inspired her to become a reporter and go to Asia in the first place.
In late 2014, their seafood reporting finally led to their most compelling proof, the village of Benjina on an island so remote there was no phone service and it was unreachable for part of the year due to high seas. McDowell went there, talked to the men held captive, saw the graveyard with fake names. These accounts were the proof that human beings were starved, beaten and trapped. And they told stories of the men who died in captivity.
THAI OFFICIALS INSPECT THE GRAVES OF FOREIGN FISHERMEN AT A GRAVEYARD IN BENJINA, ARU ISLANDS, INDONESIA, APRIL 1, 2015./AP PHOTO
One man who had run away from the slave boats, Hlaing Min, told them, “If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. ... The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”
By 2015, they had the story. It had been their goal to “name names,” Mason said. But there were other names at stake: Kyaw Naing. Tun Lin Maung. Aung Naing Win. Hla Phyo. Maung Soe.
Everyone involved in the project agreed. Their guys were getting out. Or they would not publish their names or images with the story.
Mason went to a source in the International Organization for Migration, showed him video of the men in the cage and asked for his help. With the assistance of the Indonesian Marine Police, they got the men into a boat and off the island. They were safe.
On March 25, 2015, the AP published the first story, “Slaves may have caught the fish you bought.” And they didn’t stop publishing.
A Never-Ending Story
Mason and her fellow reporters went on to tell the story of how the Indonesian government leaped into action to rescue the enslaved men. Then the reporters tracked fishing boats via satellite to determine where other enslaved people might be.
Toward the end of 2015, the stories centered on shrimp warehouses in Thailand where forced labor was used to peel shrimp. The team sent an email to reporters in all 50 states asking them to shop for shrimp at local grocery stores and determine where the affected brands were being sold. In the AP story “Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves” there was a line saying that shrimp from 40 affected brands were found in more than 150 stores across the U.S. “from Honolulu to New York City to a tiny West Virginia town of 179 people.”
That tiny West Virginia town? Blacksville, not far from Mason’s hometown of Daybrook.
That intrepid shopper? Her mom.
The entire series of stories led to an outcry in Congress. And that led to a change in the law. On Feb. 24, President Barack Obama signed legislation to close the more than 80-year-old loophole that allowed the U.S. to import goods produced by slave labor if there were a demand for them. Mason said she believes a few shipments of seafood produced by slaves have already been stopped from entering the U.S.
TWO FREED FISHERMEN HUG AS THEY WAIT FOR THEIR DEPARTURE HOME./AP PHOTO
But the story isn’t over. Mason says the team is still reporting. And what they’ve uncovered is only a small part of the whole picture.
“We only looked at one thread of this,” she said. “That’s the main point that we’ve been trying to make with people is we looked at one little thread, and it went everywhere, and so the entire industry, the supply chains are very murky.”
In fact, Mason says some of the men originally rescued after the AP stories came out — she calls them “our guys” — were lured again onto fishing vessels and were never paid. The team reported that after a shrimp processing warehouse was raided in Thailand, the owners set up shop somewhere else.
People tell the team all the time: This is happening? In the 21st century?
Mason said the reporters wanted people to be horrified by what they’ve found. To question. To push for change.
Mason has been asked what people can do to avoid buying seafood handled by slaves. Purchasing local seafood is a good option, she said, though it’s still possible that local fish was processed abroad. No matter where you are, you can always ask questions, she said.
“The more times that people ask their servers at the restaurant or they ask their fishmongers or they ask where this fish is coming from or where this shrimp is coming from at the grocery stores, it puts more pressure on people to pay attention to the supply chains and the sourcing,” Mason said.
MARGIE MASON CELEBRATES WITH MYINT NAING AFTER HE REUNITES WITH HIS FAMILY.
So what are her plans after people are freed and after the Pulitzer? Jump into another project, of course, with her around-the-globe team.
“We’ve seen from this project how much of a difference our work can make in people’s lives,” Mason said, “and if that doesn’t excite you about doing more journalism of this type — more investigative journalism — I don’t know what will.”