New Internationalist

Learning for life

Issue 400

Burma’s generals consider her an enemy of the state, but human rights activist Charm Tong has a mission to educate.

Nestled in a secret location on the Thai-Burma border is a house full of youngsters from Burma’s Shan state. They live here at close quarters and are under a form of ‘house arrest’, keeping a low profile and staying under the radar of the Thai authorities for the nine months they will spend in the house.

Let’s call the house by its name – the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth. It was founded by a remarkable young woman, Charm Tong (above left), in 2001 when she herself was just 20. According to Charm Tong: ‘We decided on training that would provide some basic skills for young people in a short time. The school trains them in English and computing, but also in human rights, democracy, media, the environment and other skills that will help them work effectively for the community. Many young graduates have become trainers raising awareness of HIV/AIDS among the migrant and refugee populations. Others work in women’s organizations, as well as in media and youth groups. So the school exists not only to address the education needs of refugee youth, but also to help them be more active in promoting other people’s rights – to get more involved and to participate in social and political change in Burma.’

People from Burma’s Shan state who escape to Thailand are viewed as economic migrants. The Thai Government refuses to recognize them as refugees, regardless of the well-documented atrocities of the Burmese military regime. There are an estimated 100,000 troops in the Shan region and they have been responsible for massacres and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of villagers. ‘I witnessed how refugees from Burma suffer – especially the Shan. They have escaped from killings, torture and persecution. They have lost their land and belongings. Young people do not have access to any education and many of them end up in the sex trade. Even my friends when I was young, I know what happened to them.’

Indeed, at 16 Charm Tong was busy working with human rights groups interviewing Shan refugees about the horrors they had faced. A year later she stood with a racing heart before members of the Burmese junta as she recounted their crimes to the UN Commission on Human Rights. At age six, Charm Tong was separated from her family and smuggled across the Thai border to be raised at a Shan orphanage. She had the chance of a proper education, whose value she realized in retrospect, when she came to respect the decision her family had made. Today she puts it to good use in her tireless resistance to Burma’s regime.

...she stood with a racing heart before members of the Burmese junta as she recounted their crimes

‘Because the Shan are not recognized as refugees in Thailand, they do not have access to any basic supports like food, shelter, education or healthcare. Women who’ve been raped or survived sexual violence cannot go to hospital. It’s very difficult to get any kind of psychological support or counselling. They can also face other kinds of abuse when they are working in Thailand.’

Charm Tong is one of the founders of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a group which exposed the use of rape as a weapon by the Burmese military. ‘After the release of our report, License to Rape, [in June 2002] the regime was in total denial – a state in which they remain today – that troops have ever committed violence against women in Shan state. They actually sent the military intelligence to interrogate villagers. They threatened that whoever talked would be punished, they would cut out their tongues and kill everyone in their family. They also organized a women’s group led by generals’ wives to visit villages and force the people to sign a declaration that rape never happened. They forced local women to protest against the report.’

SWAN has also helped open several schools for refugee children, as well as clinics for the community and job-training programmes for Shan women. The Shan Women’s Action Network continues to be a thorn in the side of the Burmese regime – documenting their atrocities and denouncing them to all who will listen. And Charm Tong just keeps on organizing and speaking out. •


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This article was originally published in issue 400

New Internationalist Magazine issue 400
Issue 400

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