Ethnic Issues are Not Complicated Matters: Interview with Cheery Zahau
22 October 2011 [CG Note: Ms Cheery Zahau has been a voice not only for women in Chin State but also for democracy, human rights and peace in Burma. Based in India and Thailand working with different organisations, the Chin human rights activist made several trips across the globe to raise ethnic and Burmese issues.
Recently, she went to the US and met with former US President Bush at his invitation. In this interview with Chinland Guardian, Cheery Zahau talked about her experiences, ethnic issues and views on current changes in Burma.]
Chinland Guardian: How long have you got involved as an activist working for Burma?
Cheery Zahau: I left Burma in 1999 after finishing my high school in Burma and joined the Chin women’s group operating in Mizoram along the India-Burma border. Since then, I have got involved in women’s groups, human rights groups and political groups.
Chinland Guardian: In which capacity did you start getting involved first?
Cheery Zahau: I started volunteering with the Chin Women Organisation, on the India-Burma border since 1999, teaching Chin and Burmese languages to Chin children who were born or growing up in Mizoram. Then, I continued volunteering with the organisation with small fund-raising activities by selling kitchen utilities, and we went from house to house where the Chin people are living. People thought what these punches of girls are doing.
In 2003, I was interning with the Central Chin Women Organization and I was helping to publish a quarterly bulletin “Rih Lasi” which featured articles and stories written by women in different Chin dialects, and to organize monthly Women’s Exchange as well as other office works.
Then, the mass deportation of Chin people erupted from 20 July till the end of October 2003. On the night of 20 July, many women and children came to our office. It was raining hard, cold, dark and the announcement of eviction via loud-speakers was everywhere. Our president, my supervisor and I went out and approached a prominent Mizo politician and asked for help. He let us use his empty house located outside of the city and the people who had no place to go home in Chin State or Burma took a temporary shelter.
During this time, my supervisor and I tried to spread the news as much as we could, but no one really knew the Chin refugees were there. It was so unknown. Since that day, I have become a human rights activist abandoning my education and future that I have dreamt of. I particularly mention this because I heard that some people assume activists outside of the country just got knowledge, travelled abroad and attended conferences. That’s not the case with many activists, young and old; they all have paid the price to be able to do what they are doing today.
Chinland Guardian: You have made many trips to several countries speaking for freedom, human rights and democracy in Burma. When was your first trip and who did you meet?
Cheery Zahau: In 2004, I was an intern with Alternative Asean Network on Burma (Altean-Burma) that gave me a chance to explore about the Chin situation in Mizoram and Chin State. I met with political leaders from Burma and other countries. In 2007, I went to speak at the British Parliament along with other Chin delegates, and that was the first time the Chin political activists were speaking at the parliament. It was organised by Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART). During this trip, we met about 20 British parliamentary members, European Union, high level officials at State Department, Congress and White House in the United States of America. Since then, the list goes on.
Chinland Guardian: Recently, you made a trip to the US at the invitation of former President George Bush. What can you tell us about it?
Cheery Zahau: I was emphasizing that Burma democracy movement needs a stronger political support including establishment of UN mandated Commission of Inquiry.
Chinland Guardian: As an activist, how do you see the current situation of changes in Burma and what could be the effect on women?
Cheery Zahau: We are seeing release of political prisoners, halting Myitsone dam project, more and more civil society groups in Burma emerge and become active, less censorship on media etc. I don’t want to be so cynical about some changes occurring in the country. Unfortunately, the fighting continues in ethnic areas, mass-displacement of people still happen, the Chin villagers contact me and tell me the Tatmadaw troops are still present, their villagers have not got proper schools, no roads, no electricity. Nothing has changed in their lives in that part of Burma.
In regards to women, we have only 22 women at the parliament who cannot raise their voices against the army-backed 600 men. So, women’s political participation is almost non-existent. Recently, 35 cases of rape were documented in Kachin State although we have been documenting hundreds of cases over the past years by different women’s groups in Burma. Can these women, parliamentary members, raise this issue at the parliament? Absolutely no. The new parliament budget allocation for education was 3 % of the national revenue; it is too small to help girls and boys in all parts of Burma, particularly girls in rural areas. So, if I conclude my remark, nothing has changed in Chin State and no tangible change for women yet.
Chinland Guardian: Many believe that ethnic issues cannot be ignored in Burma’s political arena. But some people think it is so complicated that it should be addressed at a later state. What’s your view on that?
Cheery Zahau: Ethnic issues are not a complicated matter; it depends on who says and who views it. It is the most crucial part to solve the problems in Burma. If we ignore more than 40 percent of the population and more than 50 percent of the land, the problems will not be solved. It’s been decades the dictatorship in Burma is trying to build a homogenous nation state. So, in order to have a centralized political power, what is the result? Civil war, refugees, mass-displacement of people, and poverty?
The simple fact is that General Aung San said, “If a Burman gets one kyat, you will get one kyat.” The ethnic people are upholding this principle the dictators, even the new military dominant government, are ignoring for decades. In my opinion, only if we resolve ethnic issues, then we can find solutions to tackle other problems. The public (majority) in Burma also need to have deeper and comprehensive understanding of ethnic issues with a broad mind.
Particularly, we, the young people, should not be fooled by the old propaganda that ethnic issues are problematic. We can change this attitude; we can challenge the military institution or military government that brainwashes us for so long. It is time for us, young people, to work toward unity, and to shape our country’s political destiny with mutual respect for each other.
Interview by Van Biak Thang