First of all, the democracy movement in Burma, from my point of view, is comprised of all these movements, you know, inside Burma. And we cannot separate that this is the ethnic movement or democracy movement. It is one movement, you know, comprised of various actors and various groups who want to bring human rights and democratic change in Burma.
The human rights and democracy, you know, and equality will be brought for different ethnic groups as well as, you know, for the whole Burma. If you look at the situation of when we hear this kind of statement, that usually mostly come from the Burma army, that if the Burma army do not maintain their power, the country will break away.
But if we really look at the real situation, the one who is breaking this union is the Burmese military regime, which has been in power, stage a coup, you know, since 1962 until today – even though they announced there will be election inside Burma. But the people have been suffering for, you know, over a half a century. So this is what is really happening.
And I believe that the movement for human rights, for equality and justice, is formed, you know, in Burma. You now, have this diverse action from various groups to bring about change in Burma.
Interviewed August 2010
Charm Tong co-founded the Shan Women’s Action Network, when she was only 17. The organization is dedicated to stopping the exploitation of and violence against women and children in 1999.
Three years later, recognizing that their lack of education leaves the Shan young people more vulnerable to being trafficked or lured into other forms of exploitation, Tong founded the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth. The school works to empower and build the capacity of students to become leaders in their communities. It is regarded as a model for human rights education and training of young people from Burma and elsewhere.
Tong has also been instrumental in launching a campaign to bring attention to the systematic use of rape of Shan women by the Burmese military. The campaign, based on a report called “License to Rape,” has received considerable international attention.
Tong has received several international awards, including the Marie Claire Women of the Year Award and the Reebok Human Rights Award. In October 2005, she met at the White House with President George W. Bush.
Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.
Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.
In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.
The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.
Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election.See all Burma videos