By Swapna Majumdar
Friday, November 12, 2010
Last week's election victory by the junta-backed party in Burma is a setback for Charm Tong's work against military rape in the country, also known as Myanmar. Tong says that like her idol Aung San Suu Kyi, she will keep working.
NEW DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)-- The victory of the junta-backed party in the Nov. 7 elections for Burma--which the military government calls Myanmar--comes as no surprise to Charm Tong.
It only reiterates the belief that she and many others hold that the polls were conducted to legitimize the military regime. That means the continuation of military rape and sexual violence in conflict-affected areas of eastern Burma that Tong has been trying to stop for more than 10 years.
"People will continue to face human rights abuses, as the new constitution guarantees impunity for military personnel acting in the interests of national security," said Tong, co-founder of Shan Women's Action Network, (SWAN), in an interview with Women's eNews. "Troops in the ethnic areas will therefore be emboldened to continue committing crimes against civilians, particularly women."
A study by SWAN last year found the same patterns of sexual violence that the group, based in Chang Mai, Thailand, exposed eight years ago in its groundbreaking report "License to Rape," which documented 173 cases of sexual violence against 625 girls and women during 1996-2001. The report found that 83 percent of rapes had been committed by officers, in most cases in front of their troops. The rapes involved extreme brutality and often torture including beating and mutilation. Twenty five percent of the rapes resulted in death; 61 percent were gang-rapes. In some cases, women were detained and raped repeatedly for periods of up to four months.
The group's most recent study of military sexual assault in 2009-2010 found that officers were still raping women in front of their own troops. Half of the victims were under 18. Several had been killed.
It's been more than a decade since Tong stood before the U.N. Commission of Human Rights in Geneva as a 17-year-old to speak about the violence and rape endured by women in her native Burma.
Since then her work on gender equality and justice has drawn international attention and applause.
Tong, who lives in Thailand, was among the 1000 women from 150 countries nominated for the Nobel prize in 2005, the same year she accepted a human-rights award in Los Angeles from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, the philanthropy arm of the shoe and apparel company based in Canton, Mass. Vital Voices, the Washington-based women's rights group, bestowed its Human Rights Global Leadership Award to her in 2008.
Tong, a member of the Shan ethnic community of Burma, spent her early childhood moving with her family from place to place to avoid military abuse and learning first-hand the risks of being a female refugee. "When people are displaced and are forced to migrate, it makes them more vulnerable to trafficking," she said.
Fearing for their daughter's safety, Tong's parents left her at the age of 6 in the care of a Catholic orphanage in neighbouring country Thailand.
This is why one of the primary objectives of the Shan Women's Action Network is to help women along the border and inside Burma and oppose the trafficking of women from Burma to Thailand's growing sex industry.
SWAN is working with other community-based organizations in Burma to build health care systems to prevent diseases. The group is also documenting the serious health crisis in eastern Burma where women are dying of preventable and treatable illnesses such as malaria. It hopes the data will help attract medical assistance.
Despite the discouragement of the elections, Tong said that like her idol Aung San Suu Kyi--the Nobel laureate and dissident leader under house arrest for almost 14 years--she is determined to keep working.
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Swapna Majumdar is based in New Delhi, India, and writes about development, gender and politics.
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