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Burma: the land of broken dreams

In the dead of night, military troops attacked a village, terrorizing every man, woman and child. In one of the thatched houses, men with guns raped a woman many times over in front of her helpless husband.

Just last May a 13 year-old girl suffered the same fate. Men twice her age and size took turns raping her, leaving scars that will, without doubt, take decades if not a whole lifetime to heal.

Activists are under attack. There are many displaced persons. Women are still on the run and are struggling to survive as rape is being used as a weapon of war. In this land, the men have licence to rape.

I am listening in disbelief to these horrific tales of ordeal in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, but dubbed the Land of Broken Dreams.

I am seated in the middle of a conference hall in a hotel here in New Delhi, India, where a worldwide global summit on leadership and female empowerment is taking place.

Around 250 women leaders fill the room. My eyes are dancing to the coloured designer saris, silk pashmeena scarves and shawls and klieg lights, and to the elegance of every woman at this huge event.

For me, however, one woman stands out from all the rest, her bravery and courage reverberating beyond the confines of the hall.

Nang Charm Tong, a Burmese human rights activist, speaks with a fierceness born out of an urgent need to fight; with an incredible bravery that is prevalent only among victims of dictators and gun-wielding regimes; and a determination that is driven by hopes for genuine change.

Nang Charm Tong. Photo credit: Iris C. Gonzales.

Speaking of the plight of the Burmese people, Charm Tong says that the situation in her country under the hands of the ruling military junta has not changed.

‘The situation on the ground remains the same. People all over continue to suffer,’ she says in a soft but feisty voice.

As she speaks around the globe about the situation in Burma, Charm Tong is risking her life.

She lives somewhere in the Thailand-Burmese border because her parents took her across when she was young. She grew up in an orphanage but is well aware of the atrocities happening in her own home.

She became a human rights activist at the age of 16. She is a member of the Shan, an ethnic minority in Burma and an advocacy member of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a group fighting the military regime.

SWAN has documented 173 incidents of sexual violence involving 625 women and girls, committed by the Burma Army in the Shan State between 1996 and 2001 alone.

Charm Tong is often in and out of the Thailand-Burmese border, speaking in different countries about the situation in her country. She strongly believes this is the only way for the world to know about the atrocities taking place there.

‘Our hope lies in the hands of people. That is why there are women who speak out, women who continue to document all this violence and speak about the root cause of what is happening in Burma,’ she says.

Charm Tong believes that it is important for the international community to be constantly informed and aware. Awareness, she says, can lead to actual actions from individual countries and regional support.

‘It gives people hope that the war is not forgotten.’

It is this same hope that Charm Tong has for her country. However, she isn’t counting on anything from the upcoming elections in November. ‘The election will only legitimize the military regime. We do not expect things to change for the better,’ she explains.

Genuine change should start with policy changes. ‘They [the regime] should start a tripartite dialogue. They should release political prisoners and stop human rights violations,’ says Charm Tong.

Indeed, atrocities continue to today, and women like Charm Tong continue to collect and document the situation on the ground.

‘We will not stop,’ she says, as she calls on the international community to continue to support the struggles of the people of Burma.

‘Someday,’ Charm Tong continues, her eyes filled more with hope than sorrow, ‘there will be real freedom in Burma.’

And this is what the military regime does not know. It does not know that none of its guns or weapons of war can ever silence the voices of the men and women of Burma.

And that for every victim of atrocity, there would be hundreds who would rise up and speak against such evil deeds.

And that even in hushed whispers and fervent prayers inside its sacred temples and golden pagodas, the tales of atrocities are retold again and again.

New Internationalist also covered Charm Tong's take on Burma's generals in our May 2007 issue. Here's the story: 'Learning for life'.

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