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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. 

For our movement, we’re very inspired by all the movements that have been fighting the injustice and now they are free. And we know that the struggle and injustice still continues, you know, as we speak at many levels, at many places. But we know and we see that many places and countries have changed the situation.

And they have freedom. And they still have to struggle for, you know, like many things as just the beginning of another struggle. So, I think it is very inspiring to see. You know, I think first of all to learn, you know, that we are not the only ones who suffer, you know, by the Burmese military regime. And Burma is not the only country that continues to suffer this military dictatorship. And to learn that we have friends and people who want to support us, I think this is very inspiring. And we will have to continue to learn, you know, from many other models that will help us to bring, you know, to inspire us and to bring change.

But for me, my inspiration is also the people of Burma, you know, who continue to resist and continue to live, you know, their lives under this military regime. And still, you know, they want to see change, you know, inside Burma.

My inspiration is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to fight, you know, this fight many years under house arrest. And her vision, you know, to see the change and freedom in Burma, is still very strong. And she is our role model, and role model not only for the people of Burma, but also as women, you know, and also young people, young generation from 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: Sources of Inspiration “My inspiration is the people of Burma.” Charm Tong: Crimes Against Women “Women are raped in front of their families.” Charm Tong: Unified Democratic Movement Responding to the claim that only the Burmese military regime can hold the country together. More + 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: 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: Necessity of Defending Women Empowering women is necessary to advance the cause of human rights in Burma. Charm Tong: Sham Elections in Burma “The election will just bring more legitimacy to the Burmese military regime.” 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.