A worthy winner
Last Friday, Charm Tong from Burma received the Student Peace Prize for her work.
Although the military junta in her country seems to show little respect for human rights, the prize-winner is convinced that the only route towards peace is through dialogue and non-violence.
- I am very concerned about young people’s rights in Burma, she says.
|NON-VIOLENCE Charm Tong believes that the only way to solve the problems in Burma is through dialogue and peaceful methods.|
Sex-trafficking, violence and torture
Charm Tong is a Shan, an ethnic minority group in Burma. She was only six-years old when she was taken across the border to Thailand where she grew up in an orphanage. The Shan is an ethnic group that lives under constant fear from the Burmese regime. Tong knows of many people who have been exposed to abuse and suffering under the military regime in Burma.
- Many of my friends have been involved in the sex industry and returned with HIV/AIDS, Tong explains.
What can I do?
The winner of the Student Peace Prize was 16 when she started to think what she could do for her people in Burma. At the age of 17, she spoke in front of the United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights about the problems in the country.
- It was tough to stand in front of the UN and tell the stories about what is happening in Burma, Tong remembers.
She joined women’s organizations and women's groups. In 1999, she started her own organization Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), where she is an Advocacy Team Member. Tong has also started the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth where young people from Burma can get educational and training and study for a brief time. Today, she works as director and teacher at the school. She is also trying to raise money for an education programme.
- The education system in Burma has collapsed after the junta came to power. The regime has closed down all the schools and ethnic minorities are not allowed to learn their own language, she adds.
An unacceptable budget
The Burmese people's welfare is of no importance to the military junta that rules the country. The Junta spends more than 40 per cent of the GNP on military equipment and defence. Under one per cent of the GNP goes to health and education. Tong confirms that the situation is very serious. People are often victims of diseases like malaria and AIDS. The mortality rate in Burma is high, especially for people who are forced to hide in the jungle because they are under attack by the military junta. The military regime is also confiscating land from the people in Burma and inhabitants are forced to work as slaves for the junta. Tong has little doubt that the military regime is to blame for the health- and educational problems in Burma.
- A lot of the official infrastructure has been built by slave labour, for instance roads, bridges and railway tracks, Tong explains.
Abundance of natural resources
Charm Tong wants international support for refugees from Burma as well as for the suppressed people that are still living in Burma. She believes that the only way to destroy the regime's terror is through international pressure. Tong is adamant that no country should cooperate with the regime until it respects human rights and stops the torture and killing. Unfortunately, there are many countries that trade with the regime. Among these are great nations like China and India.
- There are many companies around the world that want access to the rich natural resources in Burma. The people have little to say, although these are rightfully their resources, she says.
Believes in the United Nations
Great leaders like Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel have tried to put the issue of Burma on the agenda for the UN Security Council. There was recently a proposal concerning this matter, but the Russians and the Chinese did not support it. Tong wants the world community to put pressure on the Burmese regime and demand that human rights are respected before any type of cooperation can be discussed. She is convinced that the problems in Burma cannot be solved by force.
- It's clear that the conflict must be solved through dialogue, Tong confirms.
The UN has issued 28 resolutions to speed up the process of democratization in Burma. The regime has not been willing to meet the demands of the UN so far, and continues to attack villages in the country. Tong believes it is important that leaders from the entire world put pressure on the regime, especially leaders from Asian countries.
The importance of media coverage
The media plays an important role in the fight for democracy and freedom in Burma. Through the media, it is possible to reveal the details about the conflict and the abuse the Burmese people are suffering. The media can also give information to the people inside the country, and in this way strengthen the opposition within. There is no freedom of the press in Burma, and the Internet connection is almost broken. Thus very few people there have access to the Internet. Tong believes therefore that it is important that the media gives rapid coverage of the conflict to remind the world about the situation in Burma. .
- We're trying to break the silence concerning the suffering of the Burmese people, so that the violence can end, Tong tells
Tell your friend
Charm Tong thinks that the Student Peace Price is a symbol of the solidarity of Norwegian students with the young people in Burma and that their suffering for democracy and freedom has not been forgotten. The prize is also a token of the students’ recognition of the work that has been done to promote peace and democracy in Burma.
- The Student Peace Prize is very important to young people in Burma. I have received it on their behalf, she explains.
Tong believes that students around the world can help young people in Burma in many ways. One way is to put pressure on their own governments and make them help the refugees from Burma and support the organizations that promote democracy and freedom. The prize-winner also thinks that students around the world can be of great help by telling the story of contemporary Burma.
- The more people that know about this conflict, the stronger the pressure we can put on the military regime. The most important thing is that the hope is never lost and the conflict is never forgotten, Tong concludes.
The Student Peace Prize was awarded for the fifth time during the International Student Festival in Trondheim, Norway (ISFiT) 2007. The prize is awarded every second year on behalf of all Norwegian students, and is the only peace prize in the world to and from students. In giving this prize we wish to highlight the important role of students in the struggle for peace, democracy and human rights http://www.isfit.org/peaceprize
The International Student Festival in Trondheim is the world’s largest student festival with a thematic focus. Every second year since 1990, ISFiT has been arranged in Trondheim at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. 400 students from about 100 countries attend the festival and past speakers include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, former Director-General of WHO Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Dr. José Ramos-Horta and Professor Wangari Maathai,
Text and Photo: Knut Sørheim