Stuck at sea in the water prison

Stuck at sea in the water prison Myanmar sailors stuck at sea, unable to return due to the coronavirus restrictions. Photos: Supplied.

29 May 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times

Ko Aung Ye Zaw has spent more than a year at sea, in a place he refers to as "the water prison." The water prison is a colloquial expression that refers to being stuck at sea, as a Myanmar sailor.

Although sailors like Ko Aung Ye Zaw earn a good wage, they pay mentally – spending long months without friends and family, on a boat surrounded by thousands of kilometres of the open ocean.

They keep counting the days before they can return home, and dream about things to do onshore. But, unfortunately, all their plans have been ruined and smashed-up like the choppy sea.

"It's so sad that we can't go back home," Ko Aung Ye Zaw, a 27-year-old sailor from the LOI DREAM ship, said.

There are more than 30,000 Myanmar sailors currently at sea, with more than 10,000 over their contract. Aung Ye Zaw is one of those sailors putting in the extra hours, not able to return to shore because of COVID-19.

Though COVID-19 has bought a halt to life on land, the shipping industry continues to transport essential goods and supplies around the world. Though the sky is clear of commercial airlines, maritime transport continues to flow with the ocean.

Maritime trade is an important part of the world economy and an income stream for many Myanmar sailors working on the waves.

In order for the world to operate smoothly, freight will continue to move around the globe. Goods and money will continue to flow, but the flow of humans from place to place has been disrupted.

Many countries have cancelled flights in order to curb the spread of the COVID-19, and this makes it difficult for many sailors to return home.

As a result, the crew aboard the LOI DREAM had to sign a renewal contract. They were less than happy about working extra weeks at sea but had no option. Some sailors say the company has ignored their requests to return home, due to the high costs of travel during the COVID-19 restrictions.

In Taiwan, which is where Aung Ye Zaw's ship is docked, air traffic has been shut down and, even if it were reopened, the sailors still need to quarantine themselves before travelling elsewhere. The sailors are permitted to stay in hotel quarantine in Taipei, but the cost is around $3,000 for two weeks. "If you can afford it, you can return," a company official told the sailors.

"There's no way we can afford that, but the company could quite easily help us out," Aung Ye Zaw said.

As a result, the crew is still under contract. They are required to work on the ship, but many worry that the long hours and weeks at sea will cause psychological problems soon.

Surveys show that about a fifth of sailors have considered suicide, at least once whilst on a voyage.

The sailors even protested their situation last week, demanding to be allowed home, Aung Ye Zaw said. However, the crew were given a warning and told not to protest.

Loading supplies onto the LOI DREAM, before leaving shore.

"No one wants to work on the ship anymore," said Aung Ye Zaw.

When thinking about their motherland, some crew members said they were annoyed about paying high taxes to the government only to receive so little in return.

The International Maritime Organization (IOM) has warned maritime companies and governments to make crew changes in June.

International airlines have also announced that they will resume flights next month, giving the crew a glimmer of hope that their water prison sentence will end soon.

Captain Soe Min Aung, chairman of the Myanmar Maritime Federation, said he was unsure whether the crew could return in June, but urged governments and companies to maintain good records of those on board – helping to expedite their return when the time comes.

For those returning from their work at sea, whether commercial sailors or marines, a two-week quarantine period on-shore is still mandatory.

Whilst some sailors are itching to get back to life on the land, others are desperate to leave for the high seas.

Ko Ye Min Thu is a 29-year-old sailor living in Yangon, who has been living on-shore for nearly seven months. With the current COVID-19 restrictions, his work plans were temporarily halted – but he can't wait to get on the next ship, no matter what the cost.

"We are just making money on the water, so some of us really want to go back to work – which just happens to be on the ship," he said.

"It's going to be very frustrating if we have to wait until this pandemic is. We are already suffering from all the closures," he added.

People on the ship are eager to go home, and people on the land are eager to get back to their former lives at sea.

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