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?”
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.