Tuesday 1 June 2010

Cheery Zahau Interview, Human Rights Activist for Burma and the forgotten Chin people

Cheery Zahau
Human Rights Program Coordinator
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma

A few weeks ago i was the watching Simon Reeve's "Tropic of Cancer" while they were traveling from India to Burma, to get inside Chin land they got the help from locals and Cheery Zahau a Humam Rights activist for Burma and the Chin people exposing themselves to a grave danger. I was horrified to see and listen to what is happening to this people who have committed no crime and done nothing wrong except defending their culture and being what they are, at the same time i was so inspired with Cheery courage to go back in Burma and bring this story to us knowing that her life and others would be in danger .

"The Chin people, who number roughly 1.5m and live mainly in the hilly west of the country near the Indian border, are one of the most persecuted minority groups in Burma. The Chin are mainly Christians, having converted to the faith when the British ruled the area before independence after World War II, the persecution of the Chin dates back to the military takeover of Burma in the 1960s.
According to the US State Department, Burmese troops and officials have tried to forcibly convert the Chin from Christianity to Buddhism. " BBC

From what age did you realize about the problems in Burma ?

I knew there are problems with the soldiers since I can remember my childhood. My grandfather is a head-man of our village, he and his village council members talked and discussed how to deal with the military soldiers, how we can protect our Chin language and culture within the village since we are not allowed to learn Chin language, cultural and traditional practices. He always took me to this kind of meetings since I was about 4 years old. Our house was a kind of community center where everyone talked about their social and political problems.
During 1988 nation-wide student uprising, my aunty took me to the demonstration. I was 7 yrs old. She spoke in front of other students and said ' if we have democracy, we will have a better school building, playground, basic school facilities such as books and pencils, our teachers will get paid properly”. I was so inspired since we needed help at our school.
When I became high school student about 12 yrs old, I studied in another city. One day, I came back to visit family members, no one was there except my elderly grandmother. When I asked where everyone went, she said “ they are in the forced labour camps”. I knew the train-station was built about 20 miles away from my village. Hundreds of men and women were collected to do forced labour there. I was frustrated because my grandmother should not be left alone, she needs other family members to care. I could feel that something is so wrong with the authorities since that moment.

When did you decided that you could not cope with that situation anymore ?

I was a very active high school student in Burma. I often asked questions about our history book, which has one-sided story, military propaganda. I asked my teachers why we could not learn about Shan, Chin, Kachin,Mon, Arakan, Karen, Karenii and other ethnic groups, why we could not learn about Christianity, Islamic and other religion practices, why it has to be all about Buddhism (the military version of Buddhism) and all the Burman kings who invaded each other. They told me if I asked too much questions, I will end up in jail. I wanted to know the truth and I wanted to improve myself. I knew I could neither do nor learn to achieve what I wanted in Burma so I decided to leave for India at the age of 17.

What happen for your name to be on the Burmese army wanted list ?

We started documenting since 2005 about systematic sexual violence against Chin women by the military soldiers in Chin State, western part of Burma. We learnt the pattern of this impunity indicates that military soldiers rape or assault Chin women because they are Christians or they are Chin ethnic group. As a pioneer of this project, I had to speak about our facts-finding since 2007 to the Chin people and international communities including several members of parliament in United Kingdom, people at State Department and Congress in USA, members of European Parliament, some MPs in India. The military regime did not like it. So they attacked us through their mouth-piece news papers called New Light of Myanmar. I was informed that they had sent a letter to different departments in Chin State to find out where I am etc.

In April 2007, the military regime sent the Myanmar Women's Affiairs Federation members to Chin State and forced some prominent Chin women that there is no problems in Chin State. The Chin people are living in a peaceful culture and environment. The regime always tries to fool the people by showing how many bridges, hospitals, roads they have built in Chin State through newspapers. But we know the local Chin people pay the prices for this kind of projects and these projects are not sustainable and beneficial for the local Chin people.

How did the you get the opportunity to be on Simon Reeve's "Tropic of Cancer" and how dangerous it was for you to go back in to Burma ?

I get involved " Tropic of Cancer" through our other journalist friends. The BBC is banned in Burma, and they were looking for alternative ways to get into Burma. Through our friends, they found out that I underwent into Chin State, Burma on many occasions. So, they contacted us and we started the plan. It took several months as we need to consider security of everyone who was involved.

The most dangerous part is the military soldiers. If they caught me, I will be gone on the spot or end up jail and other people will be a big danger.

As Chin plight is hardly mentioned in mainstream media, we felt we had to do it and the villagers are very supportive as they want to be heard.

Many parts of Chin State is so called "gray-zone" by the military regime, this means tourists can not go. Tourists can go to certain places with the authorities tight control. However most of the parts are not allowed for the tourists because of fear of revealing severe human rights violations and the failure of the State to help the people.

Who are the "Women’s League of Chinland" ?

Women's League of Chinland is comprised of 10 different Chin women's groups based on different Chin tribes. The main goals are to promote women's participation in political and social activities, raise awareness about the gender-base discrimination and strengthen unity among the Chin people. It also works extensively work on chidlren's education both inside Chin State and along India-Burma borders.

The Chin are unsafe in Burma and unprotected in India, in your opinion what would be the best solution ?

The best solution is a peaceful and democratic change in Burma, then the Chin people can enjoy the basic human rights.

What are "State -Sanctioned" sexual crimes ?

State-sanctioned sexual crimes is the most grieving crimes against a person, where this kind of crimes are condoned by the State, where the victims do not have any means of protection, where the crimes is widespread all over the country, then it becomes “ State-sanctioned”.

Could you explain the origin from the elaborate facial tattoos on Chin Women ?

In the past, there were kings or warriors around Chinland who invaded Chin villages and captured the women to be their slaves or mistresses. So in order to make themselves safe, they made tattoos on their faces so that they looked ugly and the enemies will spare them.

Inside the already problem with the Chin people there is another big problem with the rights of women being violated, what can be done to reverse this situation ?

In the Chin society, women are considered to be inferior. There is no concept and understanding of gender quality in the society. Despite the facts that the military regime has already ratified the CEDAW, which they are obligated to full-fill the articles to eliminate gender base discrimination, promotion of women's participation in politics, right to education and right to healthcare, this obligation of the treaty has not become reality in Burma. The government has not done enough. We need to speed up education and capacity building programs for women. For the long-term, we need a democratic change and federal constitution where women are allowed to enjoy their political and civil rights as men.

Russia and China are very strong Burma allies, Do you think that's why the International community isn't doing enough ?

China and Russia give signal to the military junta to continue human rights violations and oppressions of the people of Burma by blocking the UN Security Council resolution on Burma. There is no political will from the governments of China and Russia to see democratic change in Burma for several reasons. This blockage limits the united voice and criticism from the governments around the world. The government of India and ASEAN are bending their stances because of China's strong support the generals. If Burma is free and democratic, it will help flourishing democracy in the region, which perhaps China is concerned. However, we are grateful to our friends around the globe who are supporting and helping our cause.

What is your biggest fear for the Chin people and what do you think is gonna happen with their future and culture ?

The regime systematically commits cultural genocide against Chin people by not allowing to teach Chin language, history and cultural practices in schools, churches and other social institutions and suppress religious freedom where the Chin people can express their faith. To make the matter worst, the military regime commits human rights abuses such as forced labour, arbitrary arrest, rape, extortion, arbitrary taxation, recruitment of child soldiers and religious oppression, thousands of people have left Chinland in order to avoid these abuses.
My biggest fear is “brain-drain” not only in Chin State but also in other parts of Burma. As young people are not given opportunities, sufficient education and skills development, many young people end up their lives on streets or leave the country. With the rapid inflation and increasing prices of commodities, the young people can only think of basic survival, there is no bright future or hope for them. Burma neighbouring countries such as Thailand, China and India are growing so fast whereas Burma is left decades behind. We, the young people would have to speed up the overall developments to help our country and our people but we can not help because of the regime's oppression.

What is the situation with Aung San Suu Kyi at this moment ? Do you see in a near future any possibility of her freedom ?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house-arrest. The regime makes sure she will not be able to participate in the military's organized election as she remains a threat to their power. It is unlikely that the regime will release her unless China, India and ASEAN along with EU, US and other governments raise the same voice and same demands that this election is inclusive, free and fair.

What message would you like to leave for everyone about Burma and the Chin people ?

The people of Burma, including Chin people resist against dictatorship in their daily lives with forced silence. The democracy movement raises these voices. The international community should not divide the people of Burma as exile groups or inside Burma. The regime has divided each and everyone of us. We have to be careful not to be trapped by the regime. We need unity among the international actors along with the democracy movement. We, the Chin people and all people of Burma must always remember that the regime can not stop us from loving, caring and serving for each other.

*** All photography's except 1 and 5 by Jens Unrau

Watch | Tropic of Cancer inside Chin Land