She Escaped Strife, but Embraced Those Scarred by It

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Charm Tong was born in Burma's conflict-lacerated countryside 26 years ago. She was 6 when her parents stuffed her into a straw basket strapped onto a donkey and sent her to join a caravan of villagers snaking its way through lush jungles to an orphanage inside the Thai border. Their desperate choice seemed a better option as the country's repressive military regime moved through some 1,400 farming villages, taking ethnic Burmese from their lands and forcing them into labor, often after torturing them.

In that orphanage, Tong learned to read and study English. By the time she was 16, she was working with refugees and migrant workers who crossed the 2,000-kilometer border between Burma and Thailand. She listened to their heartbreaking stories, soothing them, counseling them and organizing women's networks among border villages.

For her leadership, she was one of six honored last night at the Kennedy Center by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of women around the world. The hall was packed with about 500 guests, including ambassadors, donors and A-listers, among them first lady Laura Bush and actress-activist Angelina Jolie, both of whom presented awards.

Introducing Tong, Mrs. Bush, who has embraced the cause of Burma's oppressed as the defining mission of her East Wing legacy, spoke of incarcerated democracy activist and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and about the repression of the Burmese, women especially. She described how unarmed monks protesting a spike in gas prices were beaten, arrested and killed. Mrs. Bush described Tong's efforts to form the women's action network as well as her work on the eye-opening 2002 report "License to Rape," about 600 women who were violated. Tong also has been to a school for the children of refugees coming from Shan province; Mrs. Bush said the students call Tong "a candle in the dark."

Mrs. Bush has become this administration's point person on the Burmese crisis, picking up the phone to express her outrage to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, hosting Burmese democracy activists at the White House, giving dozens of interviews on the subject and writing her own op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal marking Suu Kyi's birthday.

Jolie, greatly pregnant and radiant in a flowing taupe gown, stepped onto the stage to speak glowingly of award recipient Mariane Pearl, the widow of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, who was killed in Pakistan. Her book, "A Mighty Heart," was made into a film in which Jolie portrayed Mariane Pearl. Last night the actress talked of Pearl's special gift as a mother and an example in "courage, hope and tolerance."

Also honored were Kakenya Ntaiya, an education advocate from Kenya; political corruption activist Laura Alonso of Argentina; and human-rights advocate Khin Ohmar of Burma. United Arab Emirates minister of economy and foreign trade Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi, the first female minister in her Persian Gulf state, was presented the Global Trailblazer Award and introduced by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared confident and relaxed in a blue pantsuit, taking time off from her presidential marathon to help host this event, as she does every year with her Republican counterpart from Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The senators had made it to the evening "against all odds," said Vital Voices co-founder Melanne Verveer, who was Clinton's chief of staff when she was first lady.

The event grew out of the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, created in 1997 by Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to make the promotion of women's causes a U.S. foreign policy goal.

In an interview Friday, Tong described her life. After fleeing her home, she saw her parents briefly, every two or three years; to get to her, they had to trek for a week or longer along the same tortured and dangerous routes she took as a child. "I thought they did not love me," she said. She described the brief encounters with her parents as "happy, tearful and heartbreaking."

"You arrive from school one day and they are there. The next day you hurry back from school and they are gone. They would tell me what was happening and say, 'We cannot give you anything except this opportunity.' "

All she can remember are blurred patches of her childhood, scurrying from village to village for safety. Her parents bundled her and her younger sister along with rags, pots and pans as the children fled from the soldiers, who ransacked huts, killing and sexually assaulting those who resisted.

"With time I began to understand. Fresh out of junior high I began hearing about and seeing the scars from all the atrocities," she noted. By the time some women shuffled across the northern Thai border, they had been raped six to eight times. "They arrive with nothing," Tong said. "You never forget their faces. So many women believe it was their fault and ask us if they had done anything wrong. We were traumatized just listening to them relive their horrors," she added.

One case that tore up Tong's soul was that of Nag Hla, who was only 17 and six months pregnant when she escaped from her village of Laikha in 2002. She had been gang-raped from 10 in the morning until 4 that afternoon, Tong said, "her husband blindfolded and tied to a tree, close enough so he could hear" his wife's screams. Hla set off on foot and delivered her premature infant alone.

Thai government officials estimate that 3 million Burmese have taken up residence in Thailand over the years. Many who cross from Shan province, where Tong was born, find there are no refugee camps for them when they arrive, she said. Instead, they settle together or with Thai families as stateless, undocumented farmhands. Tong is active in organizing other women stationed along border passages to teach refugees about reproductive health.

Tong became a global advocate at 17, when she went to Geneva in a delegation of seven Burmese to address the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1999. Before an audience that included members of the military regime, Tong shook as she spoke and broke down tearfully as she testified about the women she had met along the border.

"I was lucky. I went to school," she says now with measured gratitude. She began reading a newsletter on human rights violations from Shan province at an early age. "It game me more answers than I found in school and it inspired me to do something to help."

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