Charm Tong

An advocacy team member of the Shan Women's Action Network in Burma, and recipient of the 2005 Reebok Human Rights Award

Profile by Cate Malek
September, 2005

Charm Tong was lucky. At six years old her parents took her across the border of her native Burma to Thailand where she was raised in an orphanage.

As a Shan, an ethnic minority that makes up nine percent of the population of Burma, Tong would have lived her life in fear of the Burmese military, which systematically pursued a campaign of rape, torture and murder against the Shan.

Not that Tong's life in Thailand was easy. She grew up an orphan and again was lucky not to be trafficked into the sex industry as many of her friends were. Instead, Tong received an education.

At 23 years old, reporters describe her as poised young woman who laughs often. But they also describe her "coiled fury"[1] against the Burmese military regime and her incredible gutsiness.

Tong became an activist at 16 years old. She wrote:

The military has done lots of things to damage our hearts, our beliefs, our souls, and our rights... It is difficult for people to forget all kinds of violations that the military committed. There are still more and more violations of human rights in Burma, especially in the rural and border areas. The best thing we can do is to fight with our hearts and minds, so that we are not in fear and pain. [2]

In the past seven years, Tong has helped found a school for Shan refugees in Thailand, a network of women's groups, a program to educate women on writing a democratic constitution and a counseling center for rape victims. She also started the weaving and cooking projects that fund these initiatives. However, Tong's most important project was a report called "License to Rape" that she helped to research and write. The report describes the Burmese army's systematic use of rape to control the Shan people. [3]

The reports findings are horrific. Written by the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation, it documents the rape of over 600 women by Burmese troops. Tong writes about the report's findings:

The Burmese regime is still using rape as a weapon of war to terrorize, demoralize, and control local communities... Burmese military personnel, including high-ranking officers, are raping with impunity. Women who are seven months pregnant are being gang raped. Girls are being kept for forced labor during the day and raped at night for periods of months. Mothers and daughters are being raped together. Girls as young as 4 are being raped. [4]

The report has been widely publicized and has resulted in condemnation of the Burmese government, but little else. Tong says she is frustrated by the lack of international response, but not dispirited. She writes:

But does this mean we will surrender to this regime, with its battalions of rapists? The answer is no. We owe this to the women who have dared speak out about the sexual violence committed against them. Women who relate their stories say that each time they talk about rape it is like they are being raped again... Let us be inspired to continue the struggle to restore democracy and peace in Burma, and to fulfill the wishes of these brave women.

For more information on this general topic, see Women and Conflict, and Development, Gender, and Conflict.

[1] Fred Hiatt, "Victims of a Stalled Revolution," The Washington Post, March 7, 2005, A19. Can be found here.

[2] "Charm Tong," The Reebok Human Rights Award Program Press Release. Can be found here.

[3] ibid. Fred Hiatt

[4] Charm Tong, "The War on Burma's Women," The Boston Globe, June 28, 2005. Can be found here.