Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Young activist seeks voice for Myanmar minority

An article from (Beijing Youth Daily). I knew Charm Tong for some time. I met her last near the Thai/burmah border last month.

Twenty-eight-year-old Charm Tong is regarded as an enemy byMyanmar’s junta but a “candle in the dark” by her fellow citizensThisvivacious woman does not fit the stereotype of a “strong politicaladvocate” for ethnic minority rights and democracy in the military-runnation formerly called Burma.
Yet, she is one of the few who can getthe international community to sit uand take notice of the SoutheastAsian country.Though her formal education ended in middle school, she has sincereceived a slew of awards and recognitions: She was one of fourinternational activists under 30 to be given the Reebok Human RightsAwards in 2005; the same year, she was nominated for the Nobel PeacePrize and was named one of Asia’s Heroes by Time magazine. Charm Tong,a member of Myanmar’s Shan minority, is now appealing to Chineseinvestors to stop the construction of several hydropower dams in thecountry’s minority areas, which will endanger indigenous culture andfor residents from their homes.Dams threaten minorities’ existence“I come from an ancient land, Yin Ta Lai, where people co-exist withnature. Our life depends on the sacred Salween River. But my father tells me soon the Burmese government will dam our river and our way oflife. If the dam were to be built, all our land will be submerged, andthe Yin Ta Lai will be no more,” a little Myanmar girl says in adocumentary produced by the Krenni Research Development Group.The film, shown to Beijing Today by Charm Tong, gives a rareglimpse of the remote center of Karen state in the country’s east, andthe life of the Yin Ta Lai minority, of whom only 1,00 people remain.Footage depicts a distinct culture and a biodiverse rainforest thatwill disappear if the Salween hydropower dam is built.“Burma is China’s backyard, and its abundant resources have attracted more and more Chinese companies to come and invest,” CharmTong said, adding that some of the projects imperil minority culture.She appealed to investors to make a careful study of local situationsbefore implementing projectsIn the past decade, at least 10 Chinese companies have been involvedin an estimated 20 major hydropower projects in Myanmar – a big sourceof income for the Myanmar government.

Aung Ngyeh, spokesperson of theBurma Rivers Network, said that while China has strict laws governingdomestic dam-construction, these guidelines are not carried overabroad.“We hope China will impose similar standards for its companiesoperating in Burma,”harm Tong said.

Lecturing the enemyCharm Tong’s path to activism began in an orphanage in Thailand.When she was six, her parents put her on a donkey and sent her from the war-torn eastern Shan state,home to the country’s biggest ethnic minority,to Thailand, wher they hoped she could live in peace and get basicschooling ?a privilege denied many Shan women.She considers herself “very lucky” as she was taken to an orphanage in the Thai-Burma border in which she studied for nine years. Many of her peers were less fortunate; survival is top of the agenda forMyanmar refugees in Thailand and some became victims of humantrafficking and the sex trade.At 16, Charm Tong began volunteering with organizations that helpedMyanmar refugees.“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,” she said International accolades soon followed, including a visit to theWhite House upon the invitation of then-President George W. Bush.A life-long careerSince her UN speech, Charm Tong has traveled the world to speak of the violence and oppression the Myanmar people continue to endure. Sheco-founded the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) together wih over 40women, which attracted global attention in 2002 with its ground-breaking report “License to Rape," detailing rape cases againstMyanmar military personnel.
Charm Tong’s current work includes running a school in he Thailand-Burma border that is training a new generation of Myanmar people.“The school trains them in English and computers, an also in humanrights, democracy, the media, the environment and other skills thatwill help them work effectively with communities,” she said. Many oftheir graduates have become HIV/AIDS educators in migrant and refugee groups. Others work in women’s organizations, the media and youthgroups. “This is a lfe-long career for me,” Charm Tong said, addingthat their students represent the hope for a democratic Myanmar.
BT: What does the Chinese voice mean to you?CT: People in Burma have no voice. But I believe your voice willhelp strengthen our voice and one day change the situation.
BT: Do you ever think about a peaceful life without any conflict,without the struggle for democracy?CT: I’m also human and like other women, everyone wants a peacefullife in a peaceful society. But we have important things to do tochange our people’s life and situation.
BT: Have you seen your parentssince you were separated from them when you were six?CT: I saw my parents when they came to the Thai-Burma border someyears ago. Shortly after that, my father passed away in 2004. So Idon’t have chance to get to know him anymore ... ut many people wholeave their land never see their parents anymore. Compared with them,I’m very lucky
BT: Do you plan on doing this kind of work for the rest of yourlife?CT: This is a life-long career for me. My students represent hopefor the future, hope for a democratic Myanmar. I know I’m taking arisk. I don’t know what will happen, but I know that we’re trying todo our best to speak the truth and change the situation. No matter howdifficult it is, we have to continue to do it.

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