Beijing Today (Beijing Youth Daily). 3 July 2009.
Twenty-eight-year-old Charm Tong is regarded as an enemy by
Myanmar’s junta but a “candle in the dark” by her fellow citizens. This
vivacious woman does not fit the stereotype of a “strong political
advocate” for ethnic minority rights and democracy in the military-run
nation formerly called Burma. Yet, she is one of the few who can get
the international community to sit uand take notice of the Southeast
Though her formal education ended in middle school, she has since
received a slew of awards and recognitions: She was one of for
international activists under 30 to be given the Reebok Human Rights
Awards in 2005; the same year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace
Prize and was named one of Asia’s Heroes by Time magazine. Charm Tong,
a member of Myanmar’s Shan minority, is now appealing to Chinese
investors to stop the construction of several hydropower dams in the
country’s minority areas, which will endanger indigenous culture and
for residents from their homes.
Dams threaten minorities’ existence
“I come from an ancient land, Yin Ta Lai, where people co-exist with
nature. Our life depends on the sacred Salween River. But my father
tells me soon the Burmese government will dam our river and our way of
life. If the dam were to be built, all our land will be submerged, and
the Yin Ta Lai will be no more,” a little Myanmar girl says in a
documentary produced by the Karenni Research Development Group.
The film, shown to Beijing Today by Charm Tong, gives a rare
glimpse of the remote center of Karen state in the country’s east, and
the life of the Yin Ta Lai minority, of whom only 1,000 people remain.
Footage depicts a distinct culture and a biodiverse rainforest that
will disappear if the Salween hydropower dam is built.
“Burma is China’s backyard, and its abundant resources have
attracted more a more Chinese companies to come and invest,” Charm
Tong said, adding that some of the projects imperil minority culture.
She appealed to investors to make a careful study of local situations
before implementing projects
In the past decade, at least 10 Chinese companies have been involved
in an estimated 20 major hydropower projects in Myanmar – a big source
of income for the Myanmar government. Aung Ngyeh, spokesperson of the
Burma Rivers Network, said that while China has strict laws governing
domestic dam-construction, these guidelines are not carried over
“We hope China will impose similar standards for its companies
operating in Burma,” Charm Tong said.
Lecturing the enemy
Charm 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, where they hoped she could live in peace and get basic
schooling, 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 for
Myanmar refugees in Thailand and some became victims of human
trafficking and the sex trade.
At 16, Charm Tong began volunteering with organizations that helped
“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 the
White House upon the invitation of then-President George W. Bush.
A life-long career
Since her UN speech, Charm Tong has traveled the world to speak of
the violence and oppression the Myanmar people continue to endure. She
co-founded the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) together wih over 40
women, which attracted global attention in 2002 with its ground-
breaking report “License to Rape," detailing rape cases against
Myanmar 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 human
rights, democracy, the media, the environment and other skills that
will help them work effectively with communities,” she said. Many of
their graduates have become HIV/AIDS educators in migrant and refugee
groups. Others work in women’s organizations, the media and youth
groups. “This is a lfe-long career for me,” Charm Tong said, adding
that 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 will
help 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 peaceful
life in a peaceful society. But we have important things to do to
change our people’s life and situation.BT: Have you seen your parents
since you were separated from them when you were six?
CT: I saw my parents when they came to the Thai-Burma border some
years ago. Shortly after that, my father passed away in 2004. So I
don’t have chance to get to know him anymore ... but many people who
leave 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 your
CT: This is a life-long career for me. My students represent hope
for the future, hope for a democratic Myanmar. I know I’m taking a
risk. I don’t know what will happen, but I know that we’re trying to
do our best to speak the truth and change the situation. No matter how
difficult it is, we have to continue to do it.