Speech by Charm Tong, Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN)

Good evening,

I am very honoured to be here today at the first hearing on Burma by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. I feel that every single action, every statement made around the world to ensure genuine progress for human rights in Burma, is making sure that my brothers and sisters have a future in our own country.

I was born in a conflict area in Shan State, where civil war and oppression by the Burmese military regime has been continuing for over half a century. I’m only one of the millions of people who have fled to Thailand.

As a Shan refugee growing up on the border, I have witnessed and experienced so much suffering of our people. I started working for human rights when I was 16 years old. Since then I realised that my sisters and brothers from other ethnic nationalities, especially women and girls, suffer a lot from the militarisation of Burma.

We struggle to survive in the face of many challenges and threats, but we know it is a struggle worth doing. We are fighting for our future, for our families to be free of war. We all have the same vision – a future with education, jobs, democracy, peace, where all of us can live our lives in the way that we want – without fear. Every day, with every small step forward we realise the importance of working together regardless of our backgrounds.

We are not just waiting for the military regime to change their mind. We are working for what we want despite all the challenges. I am from a women's organisation named the Shan Women's Action Network, one of many women's groups that are actively working to address women's and community needs in Burma's border areas. Women are working hard to educate themselves in issues of human rights, women’s rights, politics, languages, confidence-building and other skills that can empower them to work effectively within their own communities. Women are also advocating from the community level to the international level for gender equality and political change.

This is why an event like this is so important to us. It is a message of solidarity that the world has not given up on us, on our hopes and future. It is a sign of your belief that my brothers and sisters in Burma, regardless of their religion or ethnic background, will have a future worth living. I want to tell you that your work is making a difference, to help build a future for ourselves. So, please keep on supporting our struggle.

Our brothers and sisters in Burma are facing persecution and the threat of brutal killing, rape and torture under the Burmese military regime. Some are hiding in the jungles as Internally Displaced Persons, searching for food secretly, and trying their best to survive day by day in land-mined areas until they cross the border as refugees. They have been forced to leave their homes and farms, and some even may not see their family members again in their life-time.

The war in Burma is still going on. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still in detention. The recent life-sentences of Hkun Htun Oo and other Shan political leaders and the continuing detention of 1,500 political prisoners show that the regime still fears change in Burma.

As you know, Burma now has the largest number of child soldiers in the world. About 70,000 children have been forced to join the army. Those who are able to escape this have very few opportunities to go to school. In fact, most people have to work and even do forced labour for the military. Many of my brothers and sisters are malnourished in a country that was once considered the rice bowl of Asia.

Our young people live in communities where forced relocation by the military is a fact of life. Hundreds of thousands of us have been forced at gunpoint from our homes. The military regime has been consolidating control of the ethnic states so that it can increasingly exploit our natural resources, like timber and gems. Now, together with our neighbouring country, they are planning a series of mega dams on the Salween River, which will permanently displace tens of thousands of villagers and impact the livelihoods of millions.

The Burmese Army still holds a Licence to Rape. Their troops systematically use rape as a weapon of war in order to terrorize, demoralize and control the people. There is no safe place for women and children to hide from such violence.

For us, we know that we cannot expect justice or legal redress in a country like Burma whose rulers hold absolute power – a country with no rule of law. But does this mean that we will surrender? The answer is NO.

Please do not view my brothers and sisters only as victims of human rights violations. More importantly, they are human rights defenders, who are bravely speaking out about the atrocities committed against them, in order that pressure can be brought on the Burmese military to stop such acts of violence.

This is why your support is important. There are so many ways you can support us beyond this event. Last September Czech leader Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu, called for the UN Security Council to move a resolution on Burma. The resolution will call for the Burmese military to honour their commitments to democratisation. This is an initiative that is supported by the movement for human rights and democracy in Burma. Everyone can do something to make sure this happens.

We also urge you to continue humanitarian support not only for Burma’s refugees but also for Internally Displaced People, through community-based organizations, particularly women’s organizations, who are actively participating in the movement for social and political change in Burma. Please ensure that any humanitarian aid to Burma reaches those in need.

There are so many creative and practical ways that all of you can support us wherever you are and whatever your job is! Please tell everyone about our situation. Please support our programmes and initiatives. Please write to the governments of Burma’s neighbouring countries to allow us to do our work in peace, without fear. Please encourage your government to support us. Please don’t give up on democracy and human rights.

We want to live in a country that will allow us to work peacefully to help each other. We want education. We want peace. We want a government that we trust and can work with for a better future. We know this is something that will not be easy to achieve, but like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we won’t give up.

Thank you.