A young activist calls attention to a cause

Charm Tong's parents were so concerned for her safety in Burma that they sent their daughter across the border into Thailand at the age of 6, where she grew up in an orphanage - never to return home to Shan State.

Over the years, atrocities against the Shan and other ethnic minorities by the Burmese military regime have produced a steady flow of refugees across the border. Charm Tong, as witness to these women and children, began to advocate for their rights as a teenager. Now, at 23, she is a veteran activist and a winner of the 2005 Reebok Human Rights Award.

Three years ago, she started a school to educate Shan refugee children and before that, at the age of 16, she joined with others to establish a network to support Shan women escaping violence in their homeland.

But it was a report called "License to Rape" in 2002, which she helped publicize, that brought to international attention the Burmese military's routine use of gang rape. It detailed 173 cases in which 625 women and girls were raped by Burmese soldiers, according to Reuters.

"The report gives a chance to tell the world what's really happening on the ground with the women in the ethnic areas," Charm Tong says, "and how women suffer systematic brutal violence, even torture."

Her organization, the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), uses the report to educate local communities about sexual violence. "Women get punished twice," she says, because the communities often blame the women and consider the rape a stain on the family. What the women need, she says, is protection and support. It's the Burmese military who "should be ashamed of what they have done."

Despite the report's wide release and positive international and local response, the situation on the ground has not changed. If anything, it is worse, Charm Tong says.

In February, in a followup to the original report, her group recorded scores of additional rape cases.

"The rape cases we are able to collect might be only the tip of the iceberg," she acknowledges, representing the women who are willing to come forward and testify with their family members about what happened. At the same time, she says, the Burmese military harass and intimidate villagers not to speak out about rape. They try "to block the flow of information," she says, even from refugees coming across the border.

The regime in Rangoon has consistently denied the rape charges and "until now, there is no punishment against the rapists," Charm Tong says.

What further complicates SWAN's work is the illegal status of those who slip across the Thai-Burmese border. Not officially recognized as refugees by international authorities or the Thai government, they receive no shelter, food, healthcare, or education and often get exploited as illegal laborers, Charm Tong says.

"Because of their status, they have to be afraid all the time," she says. "They might be easily tracked down and arrested by the authorities and pushed back [across the border]."

The Shan, the largest ethnic group in Burma, make up 9 percent of the 43 million population. Charm Tong's father, who died last year, was a colonel in the Shan State Army. Many Shan and ethnic leaders were arrested in February and remain in prison, Charm Tong says, part of a long-running regime of oppression that has failed to yield to international pressure.

Reebok's recognition of her work brings with it a $50,000 award, which she will receive Wednesday at a ceremony in Los Angeles. The prize will help fund her school and women's network, she says.

"I would say we have achieved a lot in supporting the women, the refugees, the young people's education," she says. "On the other hand, we also have to look at the root cause of the problem."

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