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Fred Hiatt

Victims of a Stalled Revolution

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A19

You can tell a lot about a government by the enemies it keeps.

The dictators of Burma, for example, have, since 1991, imprisoned a gentleman by the name of U Saw Nay Don for the crime of supporting democracy. When his wife died last year, security agents visited his prison cell and offered to free him if he would confess the error of his beliefs. U Saw Nay Don refused. He is still in prison. Later this month he will turn 85.

Aung San Suu Kyi, during a brief respite from house arrest in Burma, speaks at a rally in December 2002. (Courtesy Altsean)

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Charm Tong, now a poised young woman of 23, has been an enemy of the Burmese state since she was 6. Her parents, members of the persecuted Shan nationality, sent her across the border into Thailand at that age to escape the pillaging Burmese army, notorious for raping girls as young as 4 and press-ganging their parents into forced porterage.

She grew up essentially an orphan, watching friends forced out of school to work as farmhands on Thai plantations, or as domestic workers or prostitutes. By the time she was 17 she had become a human rights activist.

While Burma's paranoid generals may reveal only their own insecurity when they lock up 84-year-olds, you can't help thinking that they are absolutely right to fear Charm Tong. As she talks about the suffering in her native country, she radiates coiled fury, disciplined determination and empathy. At an age when many Americans are still bringing laundry home to their parents, she has helped found a school for refugees, a network of women activists, a center to counsel rape survivors and to train other counselors, a program to educate women about writing a democratic constitution, and weaving and cooking enterprises to help fund all these ventures.

For Charm Tong, becoming an activist was in part a process of attaching names to horrors she had grown up with. "At first, we know what happened," she says. "But we didn't know, Oh, this is 'forced labor.' This is 'extrajudicial killing.' This is 'extortion.' "

Victims of the regime, she said, are desperate to attach those names and inform the world. In 2002 she helped research and write a groundbreaking report, "License to Rape," that documented the military's use of rape, torture and sexual slavery as systematic weapons of war and tools of terror. The report triggered widespread condemnation of Burma's rulers. But Charm Tong sounds almost puzzled by what has not happened since.

"Now many people know," she says. "And still there is no change."

The persistence of evil is worth pondering amid the exuberance sparked by pro-democracy movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon and elsewhere. Burma had its own democratic moment. In 1988 thousands of students bravely protested against the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, the serene and until then apolitical daughter of Burma's independence hero, emerged as reluctant leader of a democracy movement. In 1990, though she was under house arrest (as she remains today), her National League for Democracy won four out of every five seats in a parliamentary election.

Burma's corrupt generals, having utterly miscalculated their popularity, clamped down. The parliament never met. Many of its elected members sit instead in prison. And, if you discount the occasional internal bloodletting as one greedy general purges another, the regime has succeeded in maintaining power.

So democracy movements can fail, or at least stall. This is so if a regime is genuinely unconcerned with the misery of its population and ruthless enough to threaten and torture not only activists but their relatives -- and if the rest of the world chooses to shrug its shoulders.

In Burma's case, the United States has imposed economic sanctions, which impinge on the regime. But their effectiveness is undermined by the Japanese and Europeans, who cluck disapprovingly but are reluctant to jeopardize commercial ties to a resource-rich Asian nation. China and India want Burma inside their spheres of influence. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose envoy hasn't even managed to get a visa into Burma for more than a year, expresses concern from time to time.

So Charm Tong continues to tell the stories of her Shan people. She says soldiers rape and murder girls and dump them on well-trod paths, threatening any relatives who would reclaim their bodies. Villages are destroyed, pigs and chickens slaughtered, and families forced into relocation camps. From there they are prevented from returning to their fields, and they begin to go hungry. "People try their best to survive, until they can't," Charm Tong says. And so the refugees keep coming.


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