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Interviews : Charm Tong

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Interviewed August 2010

Charm Tong co-founded the Shan Women’s Action Network, when she was only 17. The organization is dedicated to stopping the exploitation of and violence against women and children in 1999.

Three years later, recognizing that their lack of education leaves the Shan young people more vulnerable to being trafficked or lured into other forms of exploitation, Tong founded the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth. The school works to empower and build the capacity of students to become leaders in their communities. It is regarded as a model for human rights education and training of young people from Burma and elsewhere.

Tong has also been instrumental in launching a campaign to bring attention to the systematic use of rape of Shan women by the Burmese military. The campaign, based on a report called “License to Rape,” has received considerable international attention.

Tong has received several international awards, including the Marie Claire Women of the Year Award and the Reebok Human Rights Award. In October 2005, she met at the White House with President George W. Bush. 

As you know, Burma is very male-dominated community. People not only suffer from the increased militarization and the political oppression by the Burma army. For many women’s organizations and community-based, we are trying to build this capacity and also at the same time change, you know, the way, the attitude of the men in our community for a better change for the women in empowerment. And also to have equality among people in all the community.

Because what we want and fight for – our vision – is for the social and political change in Burma. So, we still have to work on, for example, when rape, you know, happens to a woman, committed by the Burma military, sometimes women are blamed, you know, of being raped because it is the social stigma. You know, this is also like a second and double punishment against women. And this is due to the long tradition and deep-rooted way of, you know, people’s perception of the women.

So we want to change this attitude and we want to oppose this kind of violence against women at different levels from the community – in the family until, you know, at the national level. At the same time, this is what we are doing at the local community, so that the women will be able to also participate in the decision-making, you know, in the political movement at different levels. So we have to continue to work and bring the struggle, you know, for the gender equality as well as for political change in Burma. And women will be one big force, you know, for changing human rights and democracy in Burma. 

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Charm Tong

Charm Tong: Necessity of Defending Women Empowering women is necessary to advance the cause of human rights in Burma. Charm Tong: Military Crimes Against Women How the Burmese military tried to intimidate Shan women who documented the military’s use of mass rape as an instrument of conflict. Charm Tong: Sources of Inspiration “My inspiration is the people of Burma.” More + Charm Tong: Crimes Against Women “Women are raped in front of their families.” Charm Tong: Sham Elections in Burma “The election will just bring more legitimacy to the Burmese military regime.” Charm Tong: Technology in Burma Government control over the internet and other new technologies in Burma and the continuing importance of international radio and television broadcasts. Charm Tong: Role of International Pressure How support for the Burmese military regime from other governments has harmed the Burmese people. Charm Tong: Unified Democratic Movement Responding to the claim that only the Burmese military regime can hold the country together. Charm Tong: Ethnic Groups and Human Rights The relationships among ethnically based human rights organizations and other pro-democracy groups in Burma. Charm Tong: Finding a Purpose Why she became a human rights defender.