For almost a decade 25 year old Charm Tong, has been working to help educate exiled children who have fled from the ongoing civil war in Burma.
She grew up in a refugee community on the Thai-Burmese border, she parents sent her to live with orphans from the Shan State when she was six-year-old.
Realising how difficult it was to get an education, at the young age of 16 she started helping build schools for exiled children like herself in the jungle.
Charm has just been named the winner of Norway’s Student Peace Prize. Ronald Aung Nai tells her extraordinary story.
Charm Tong was born in Burma’s Shan State. Her father was a Shan rebel commander who was fighting for her independence from Burma.
At the age of 6, Charm Tong was sent to an orphanage on the Thai-Burma border. It was there that she received a strict Catholic up-bringing.
This is the place where Charm Tong went to school. Today there are around thirty children learning Chinese. Teacher Mary now in 70’s was one of Charms teachers.
“She is natural and no different. But, she is very good. She tried her best. In everything, she can be patient. I’m proud of her. Every time when I teach the children, I take the example say the name of Charm Tong, ‘you must be like that. You must try. I am the one to teach you. You are the one taking education. You must try’, I told them. Charm Tong is very good. But, I am very strict you know.
Charm was educated in a very strict way by Teacher Mary at this orphanage.
“I was taught by the nuns. They taught me and I imitate the nuns and I did it on the children. Early in the morning, at 4:30 they have to get up. They have to do their cleanliness. And then half (past) five, they must be ready for the English class up to 6:30. After that they have to pick up their pocket money, change their clothes and go to Thai school. After Thai school, again, they have to do their homework. After that they have their dinner. Six to seven they have to learn Shan. Seven to eight, they have to weave. Eight to nine they have to look their lessons and homework. At nine they have to sleep.
Growing up in this multi-lingual orphanage Charm Tong can speak Shan, Thai, English and Mandarin.She says although all the children love teacher Mary they were at the same time afraid of her.
“Teacher Mary is a very strong woman. And, (She is) very out spoken and very hard working person. And also, she is very generous to not only the children in her house but every body that meet her and know about her. And also her skills and then her knowledge that she tried to give to people as much as she can.
Instilled with a respect for knowledge and education; at the very young age of 16 Charm Tong started campaigning for her people’s rights.
When she was 17 she spoke at the UN Human Rights Commission telling world leaders about the suffering of her people.
She also set-up the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN). Through this organization Charm Tong has helped trafficked Burmese women in Thai sex industry and created schools for Shan exile children.
In a coffee shop at Chiang Mai University she explains why they set up the schools in exile.
“We formed it because there is no recognition for Shan as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Therefore, refugees receive basic support like food, shelter, education and health at all. And for the young people and the women is worse. They have just work day by day for their survival. I work at the school as the director now. So, we teach different subjects like human rights, democracy, computer, and English skills so that they can go and work in their communities. And also we want them to help promote other people’s human rights as well. So, right now, some of them are community radio broadcasters. They are the trainer on HIV/AIDS. They are teachers, health workers. They are working with the women’s groups, media groups and as well as some are international advocates, to raise, awareness on Burma’s human rights and situation of women.
This work has gained her international attention. She was awarded the Trondheim Student Peace Price this year in Norway.
In 2005 she spent nearly an hour with the US President George W Bush telling the world’s most powerful man about the suffering of her people. Yet she says so much more needs to be done.
“Even though there are a lot of international recognition of the work of us, but, at the same time, it is very sad because the situation on the ground, you know, where the Burmese military commits all the crimes. And, all the atrocities against people are going on. And, I think it is very clear and something we have to join hand together. And, I think we would not give up what we are calling for even though we know that it is not easy to achieve. But, from our work we have trying to step to build in our community and the work we built for international community for support, I think there will be change some day. And, we have to keep our hope and we have to not give up on any obstacles that happen.