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.
Well, I got involved in the movement since 1999 when I left Burma and I came to the India-Burma border, and I joined the Chin Women’s Organization. They were doing summer school for children, Chin children, teaching about Burma and Chin State. So I was volunteering with them. And when I was doing that type of volunteering works with them, there was a huge deportation against Burmese migrants and refugees leaving the India-Burma border by the Indian kind of NGO youth organization who are very much anti-Chin, anti-Burmese group. And so 20,000 people were deported back to Burma, especially in Chin State.
People died on the way and many children and women came to our office asking for help because they could not go back at all in Chin State. So I start complaining that these people will face prosecution if they go back to Burma, and India should not do this kind of deportations, mass deportations. So, yeah, that’s how I got involved. Especially in campaigning on the basic rights of the people, refugee rights of the Burmese people in India.
Going back further than that, when I was high school in Burma I asked questions. Some historical lecture that learned and some of the ideological teachings.
And there’s a huge teaching like in Burma -- the message from our teachers and the education system in Burma is silence is golden, which means never speak against the oppressors or the authorities. And I didn’t like the idea of, you know, putting people silent. Not being able to raise the questions in the classroom. So my activity started from high school.
Through all my high school, my teachers were very closely teaching me and guiding me. They always said I should not live in Burma because I will end up in jail. And also I know some of my friends’ brothers, sisters, they got arrested because of their activism. And I’ve seen the 1988 student uprising in Burma when I was seven years old, which I joined with my auntie. So I’ve seen if you talked about politics, human rights, democracy, we will be in jail. We can face serious problems. So, that’s what I’ve seen and I’ve witnessed.
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.