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

AFP , BANGKOK

Charm Tong could not prevent the women being deported, or others since, but she counsels those facing deportation, and helps them with translation so they can understand the legal process.

It was not long before Charm Tong's dedication to the women of Myanmar caught the world's attention. In 1999, she gave an articulate and passionate address to the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva.

“My voice was shaking. It was very emotional (but) I felt I had to do my best,” she says.

Charm Tong's position as the voice of oppressed Shan women was cemented in 2002 with License to Rape, a report by SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation documenting the reported rape of 625 Shan women by Myanmar's military.

“We can't believe how human beings can be treated like that,” she says of the report, which she helped publicize.

“Mother and daughter were raped at the same time, girls as young as four were gang raped and tortured, women who were seven months pregnant were raped.”

International attention soon followed the report. But for someone voted one of Time magazine's Asian Heroes of 2005 and a recipient of Reebok's Human Rights Award, Charm Tong is surprisingly modest.

“I think the awards and the recognition are not because of me,” she shrugs. “The work is made collectively by the groups. The women who fled, they are not only the victims, but they want to stand up and speak out.”

In October 2005, Charm Tong was invited by US President George W. Bush to the White House to discuss human rights in Myanmar.

“She has a very strong presence of integrity,” says Debbie Stothard, coordinator of Altsean-Burma. “She refuses to be a victim ... she is so resourceful and determined it is hard for people not to support her.”

Charm Tong divides her time between international campaigning and a school for Shan children that she set up in 2001, which she hopes will give them the educational opportunities she feels so lucky to have had herself.

Stothard recalls Charm Tong telling her about plans to set up a school for Shan children. She warned her that is would not be easy, but very soon the activist was on the phone asking for Altsean-Burma's old computers, and the school is now a great success, training a new generation of human rights activists. “Her mind is always thinking, wondering how to make things better,” says Stothard.

So busy is Charm Tong, that she sees her mother and six siblings, who now live on the Thai side of the border, just a few times a year.

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