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Interviews : Cheery Zahau

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Interviewed August 2010

Cheery Zahau is a human rights activist from Chin State, Burma, and is now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. As a high school student, she was advised by her teachers that her independence and intellectual curiosity would get her into serious trouble if she remained in Burma. She sought refuge in India, where she became an advocate for thousands of ethnic Chin faced with forcible return to Burma.

Zahau also became a leader of the Women’s League of Chinland, an organization that works to call international attention to the situation inside Chin State, including the use of rape as an instrument of conflict by the Burmese military regime. She has spoken at the United Nations and in other venues around the world.

When Zahau relocated to Thailand, she began working as an advocacy officer at the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, focusing on the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the ASEAN human rights process. She is also a management board member of the Network for Human Rights Documentation in Burma and is pursuing an advanced degree in international relations. 

It’s very difficult to have a definite judgment on the international development agencies’ work inside Burma: whether they are helpful or whether they are harmful for the communities. But one thing that really strikes my mind is that they cannot talk. They know human rights violations happen. They know children are being taken from train stations, bus stations, market, to be soldiers, but they cannot talk; because if they talked, the military regime will take off their registrations or MOU [Memorandum of Understanding].

So, as a development agency, they are trying to tell us or they are trying to tell the international community that criticizing SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, official title for the military regime in Burma at the time of this interview] does not work. But I think that is not the case in Burma. You have to tell the world what is happening inside Burma, or you have to tell the world what you see in Burma. And we are doing it. And these international development agencies are not willing to do that. So that’s something that I feel uncomfortable about: their activities or their involvement.

The military regime that rules Burma at the moment is called State Peace and Development Council, SPDC. The ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries have never been critical to the SPDC as much as they should be, because they’re worried that SPDC will not cooperate with them. And they still need the natural resources from Burma.

So the ASEAN policy, the not interfering policy, has been a big barrier for them to be very critical against the military regime in Burma. So in that sense they’re not very helpful. In the ASEAN charter they have good governance, transparency, accountability – all of those mentions that SPDC, Burmese military regime, has failed in every step. So it’s time for ASEAN to really be critical.

And also with the 2010 election coming up, ASEAN should have done a lot more pressure on SPDC to include all the oppositions and to make this election credible and inclusive. 

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 Cheery Zahau

Cheery Zahau: International Aid “You have to tell the world what you see in Burma. . . . And international development agencies are not willing to do that.” Cheery Zahau: Burma's Democracy Movement "The democracy movement in Burma needs help from the world.” Cheery Zahau: Sanctions and International Pressure Discusses how people outside Burma can help the victims of human rights violations there, including by supporting sanctions against the regime. More + Cheery Zahau: United Nations Cheery Zahau on the unintended consequences of United Nations programs in Burma. Cheery Zahau: How I Became a Dissident “The message from our teachers and the education system in Burma is silent is golden, which means never speak against the oppressors or the authorities.” Cheery Zahau: Military Abuse of Power Discusses forced labor, extortion, the rape of Chin women by Burmese soldiers, and the democratic resistance in Chin State. Cheery Zahau: Importance of Technology The Internet and other new technologies have helped the Burmese pro-democracy movement to spread its message, but radio and word of mouth are still the most important means of communication. Cheery Zahau: Role of International Media Why international news media often do not fully report human rights violations in Burma. Cheery Zahau: Overcoming Fear How the Burmese regime targets pro-democracy workers living in exile and their families inside Burma. Cheery Zahau: Nonviolent Inspiration How she has been inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, by the leaders who made the transition to democracy in the Czech Republic, and by Burmese students who went to the streets in 1988 to demand freedom and democracy. Cheery Zahau: Regime's Strengths and Weaknesses Discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the Burmese military regime. Cheery Zahau: International Support Talks about foreign governments that help the Burmese democracy movement and others that help the military regime.