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Themes Women as Human Rights Defenders » 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. 

The Burmese military regime-- most of the power and the wealth are with Burmese military leadership, but not with the local military officer. And this is known all over Burma.

And that´s why when, where they come into the village, they collect everything from the villager. They force, they confiscate it, the land, their money, and also the food. You know, they force people to build an army base. They take the chicken and the pigs of the people. They force people to build, you know, the fence to secure the base.

Everything is taken from the villagers and the community. And this is known all over Burma. This is the real situation among the army. But at the same time, they´re increasing the Burmese military regime.

Our organization, the Shan Women´s Action Network, have been documenting about their use of systematic rape where women are raped by the regime´s troops, you know, in front of their families. Mother and daughter was raped at the same time. You know, young girl of six was raped and burnt alive. You know, and also involved with torture and gang rape and rape in front of the, you know, like military base. And some women are kept, you know, and raped up to, repeatedly up to four months.

And while they have to do the forced labor in the daytime. And this is what we have been documenting. And at the same time, we also document when one case, there was-- you know, like the daughter of one of the Burma army among, within the same battalion that was raped by a high-ranking officer of the regime. This was, this showed that no women, no one in Burma, their wife or their daughter will be safe including the Burmese military regime themselves.

So they should be thinking about this-- the, all their other military, also, you know, they know, you know, like that their family is not secure either. So, we've been giving the message that no one, and even their families, their wife, their daughters, their sister, whoever is not safe under this military dictatorship leadership. So these are the messages from the, you know, various groups and opposition movement have been, you know, raising these concern. And also trying to convey this message to people in the Burma military. 

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: 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.

Other videos 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. More +