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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. 

Burma military will continue to oppress and try to control the information or any action, especially the crimes that they have committed against the people, so that no other people in other international community will know what is really happening inside Burma committed by the Burmese military regime. So, any actions, you know, inside Burma or anywhere, the military regime will continue trying to intimidate in various forms.

For our organization [the Shan Women’s Action Network], after we released the report, "License to Rape," which documented how the rape has been used systematically against women inside Shan State in 2002, when we exposed how the military committed all these crimes against women, the military regime, after the report triggered international outcry and international attention, the regime had the press conference every week in Rangoon saying that our organization is telling the world, that all the accounts are not true. And the troops never ever commit crimes or rape against any women.

But we know that that is happening. So, some friends said that, “Oh, you have to be very careful.” And also to some of the members in our organization, including myself, villagers and our friends told us that, "Oh, your price has been put on our head by a Burma army," and that you know, we should be careful when we travel or when we go here and there; but I think this is the normal intimidation that the regime will commit anyway.

But because we are speaking the truth, and because we are speaking what is really happening, and even though the regime will try to stop any information to come out, we still have to speak and break the silence of what is happening to our people. 

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 on this theme from Charm Tong

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: Finding a Purpose Why she became a human rights defender.

Other videos from Charm Tong

Charm Tong: Crimes Against Women “Women are raped in front of their families.” Charm Tong: Necessity of Defending Women Empowering women is necessary to advance the cause of human rights in Burma. More +