BANGKOK, Mar 8 (IPS) – At 17 she was in Geneva, not as a tourist but as an invitee speaker at the annual sessions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 2005, aged 24, she had a celebrated hour-long meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush
Charm Tong has been showered with honours such as sports goods manufacturer Reebok's Human Rights Award and figured among the ‘Marie Claire' magazine's ‘Women of the World' in 2004. And she is on the ‘Time' magazine's list of ‘Asian heroes'.
This year Charm Tong, now 25, flew to Europe to receive her latest accolade: winner of the 2007 Student Peace Prize at the International Student Festival in Trondheim, Norway.
Those who know this champion of human rights, in particular for victims of her own Shan ethnic community from Burma, do not wonder at the praise being showered on her. ‘'She was born to become what she is now — one of our leading activists,'' Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News, told IPS. ‘'She amazes me with her commitment, talent and dedication. She is unique.''
Charm Tong was born in Burma's north-eastern Shan state, but was sent away when only six to an orphanage on the Thai-Burmese border. Touched by the suffering of other Shan exiles like her in Thailand, she began working with human rights groups. By the time she was 20, she had helped set up a school on the Thai-Burma border for Shan refugees to learn politics, human rights and communication skills.
Her extraordinary feats have also helped shed light on a pattern that has taken root along the Thai-Burma border, where women from Burma who have been forced to live as refugees or exiles have converted uncertainty and fear into opportunity. They have emerged as leading voices for political change, confidently stepping into an area, once the sole preserve of men.
The Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) is typical of female collectives that have succeeded in exposing the cruelty of Burma's ruling military generals. In 2002, it published ‘License To Rape,' a chilling account of the systematic way in which the Burmese troops had raped over 600 girls and women from the Shan community. This report by SWAN, of which Charm Tong is a leading member, triggered international outrage.
Two years later, the Burmese junta was under pressure for even more numbing revelations from women on the Thai-Burma border belonging to another beleaguered ethnic community, the Karens. That report, ‘Shattering Silence,' by the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO), documented the Burmese junta's use of rape as a weapon of war over an 18-month period. Over 120 cases of sexual violence were reported in areas where Burmese troops were locked in a battle for territory with Karen rebels.
The Karen and the Shan are two of Burma's many ethnic communities that have suffered at the hands of the military regime that has ruled the South-east Asian country since a 1962 coup. Torture, forced relocation, forced labour, torching villages, jailing political opponents and killings are among the charges levelled at the regime dominated by the country's majority Burmans.
‘'Women living along the border are finding new ways of using the space they have to expose the sexual crimes and abuses by the military regime,'' says Nang Lao Liang Won, coordinator of the women against violence programme at the Women's League of Burma (WLB), a collective of 11 women's organisations, which includes those from the Burman, Karen, Shan, Kachin and Karenni communities. ‘'Inside Burma, the space is limited for us.''
The events planned for International Women's Day, marked on Mar. 8, convey the popularity of the view. ‘'Women's groups along the border Burma shares with Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India will be observing this day with many activities,'' Nang Lao Liang Won said in an interview. ‘'Our theme this year is to stand up together to end discrimination and violence.''
The triumphs these women activists have achieved since fleeing Burma — some over 15 to 20 years ago — reveal the dual struggle they had to wage, unlike the men in their midst. In addition to facing the common enemy — the repressive arm of the Burmese regime — the women had also to deal with restraints placed by customs and social conventions that circumscribe the role of women in politics.
‘'The majority of the men thought we were not capable of taking on leadership roles when it came to politics, national issues,'' Khin Omar, head of the Network for Democracy and Development (NDD), a coalition of Burmese political activists in exile, told IPS. ‘'Even now, you find few women in decision-making roles among the major opposition groups in exile.''
Her life on the run, first away from Rangoon to the forests east of Burma, and then to a town in northern Thailand, tells a tale of the discrimination women endure as they stake a claim to be political leaders.
‘'All of us constantly face situations of men having doubts about a woman's capacity to make sound decisions,'' says the former chemistry student from Rangoon University who emerged as a leader in 1988 when students led a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 that was brutally crushed by the military regime, killing thousands.
The Burmese regime, however, has taken another route to attack the outspoken women massing along the country's borders. KWO, which released its second report of Burmese troops raping Karen women in February, has been labelled a 'terrorist' organisation. ‘'The military regime has called us a terrorist group and accused us of wanting to breakdown any hope for peace,'' Blooming Night Zar, joint secretary general of the KWO, which has a 30,000-strong membership, told IPS.
Such broadsides from a powerful symbol of male dominance in Burma have only encouraged the women along the border to soldier on with their mission, as one said, ‘'to work for women at risk in the country, because if we don't, who will?''
At other times, the activists draw inspiration from the one female figure who dominates the political landscape inside Burma, Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent over 11 years as a prisoner of the junta. ‘'She is charismatic,'' says Khin Omar, of NDD.