Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Adversity bred a heroine in Charm Tong

The Shan minority is persecuted through systematic rape and torture in Myanmar, and has nowhere to run. One woman's crusade has focused internatioal attention to her people's plight


Charm Tong, a celebrated human rights activist and cofounder of the Shan Women's Action Network, exposed a campaign of sexual terror against Myanmar's women.


Charm Tong was just a child when she heard the word “rape” for the first time.

At six, her parents had put her on a donkey and sent her from Myanmar's war-torn eastern Shan state to Thailand, where they hoped she would live in peace and get a basic education, simple privileges denied to many Shan women in her military-ruled native land.

As a child growing up in an orphanage on the Thai-Myanmar border hearing words she was too young to understand, she had only questions, not answers.

“We saw what was happening on the other side of the border, we saw people fleeing,” she says. “We saw women and heard about rape. As I witnessed this I thought, what can I do?”

Twenty years on, Tong has done a lot. As a celebrated human rights activist and co-founder of the respected Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), she has visited the White House, addressed the UN and graced the pages of newspapers worldwide.

Her work exposing a campaign of sexual terror against Myanmar's women has earned plaudits from everyone from Britain's Conservative Party to Time magazine — and the scorn of her home country's rulers.

Myanmar, formally known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won elections in 1990, but the military would not allow her to take power. Instead authorities condemned her to house arrest and continued their suppression of opposition and ethnic groups, among them Tong's Shan people, who have been displaced in their thousands amid a campaign of torture, rape and execution.

“It is unbelievable how inhuman action and crime can still happen to the women, without any punishment,” says the young activist, who dare not return to her native land for fear of arrest.

Tong's path to activism began in a Catholic orphanage on the Thai side of the border, where her parents placed her before returning to Myanmar, leaving the six-year-old alone and confused.

Tong started school, where she was a voracious learner, picking up four languages: Thai, English, Chinese and Shan.

When Charm Tong finished school at 17, she happened upon a copy of a newsletter by the Shan Herald Agency for News, which documents human rights abuses in Shan state, and contacted it.

They put her in touch with organizations on the border, where she began volunteering, interviewing women who had fled Myanmar. As she heard tales of the rape of young girls and the forced labor of men, her anger grew.

She learned how Shan people are not recognized as refugees in Thailand, meaning they are denied education and healthcare. She saw friends forced into the sex industry, some returning with HIV and AIDS.

“It is very sad, the stories that each and everybody had,” she says. “The people are very traumatized, they lost their land and their children.”

While working with activist group Altsean-Burma Tong was asked to translate for a group of women who had fled Shan state, but were going to be repatriated to Myanmar.

“When I entered the room I could not believe how young they were. They were my age, 16, 17, some as young as 14 or 15,” she says. “They just cried ... it was very disturbing.”

Despite being overwhelmed with emotion, the teenage Charm Tong reassured the young women.

“They talked about how they were poor, how their parents were dead,” she says.

“I thought, if they go back to Burma and Shan state, how are they going to make a peaceful life?”

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