The Chin National Front (CNF), an ethnic armed group from western Burma, reached a ceasefire agreement with the country’s government in January 2012. Edith Mirante from Project Maje, which documents human rights and environmental issues in Burma, recently interviewed Cheery Zahau, 31, a Chin who promotes women’s empowerment and human rights training through her local and international work.
QUESTION: The Chin National Front is in a peace process — do you think this has been inclusive enough for women?
ANSWER: During the peace talks between the government and CNF, there was just one women observer. In the lead up to the negotiations, CNF should have emphasized participation of women and their concerns. If you look at the outcome of the peace talks, the 28 agreement items do not reflect what women are concerned about for their lives, their children and their families.
Q: What are priorities for empowering women in Chinland?
A: In Chinland, most of the women work at their farms with very limited access to markets. The way to alleviate poverty is to educate women to know better skills, and investment capital that they would need to manufacture and have access to the market. Once women have regular income, they can go for further education. The sad thing is the government does not invest enough in basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, water-supply to enable women to improve their lives. Despite Burma being swamped with foreign visitors, Chin State does not see any tourism.
A: There are many small villages with no school or very bad schools. Chin State does not have enough high schools. Many kids finish at primary school levels because they cannot afford to go to the city to continue high school. Many schoolgirls drop out of schools earlier than their brothers — many girls end up taking care of their siblings and house-chores and it’s not a matter of choice, it is their family survival. The education curriculums need to improve a lot and this is not that expensive if the government is committed to do so. Areas that need to be improved include science, geography, political science and environmental issues because Chin State has an agro-based economic system so the children should learn their connection between their livelihood and environmental issues.
Q: Is there concern among the Chins about the current Kachin situation?
A: Yes, many Chin churches inside and outside of Chin State are praying for peace in Kachin State and for the Kachin people. For political stances, religious similarities, geographical and historical connections, the Chin people think they are close to Kachin people.
Q: Most people in Chin State are Christian — should this have an influence on politics?
A: My concern is more on church institutions and the politics. I have said on many occasions that politics should be separate from church politics. In Christian beliefs and values, there are many good things that we can apply to our political systems like anti-corruption, fairness, remedy to those who suffer from any harm, respect and love for one another, and so on. It seems to me that the Chin people cannot differentiate what the true Christian values and what the church institutions are. Many Chin people are caught up in the church institutional politics and that leads to power-corruption. And of course it is a completely male-dominant institution. Women are marginalized in every level of church hierarchy.
Q: Indigenous people [in Chin State] identify themselves in different ways: Chin, Zo, etc. Does this affect how they can work together?
A: The Chin and the Zo connotation divide us in our social interaction but I don’t think it has impact on our political stance. We all want a genuine federalism, equality between the majority Bama and ethnic groups. However, there is some room for improvement especially at the leadership levels, those who cling to “Zo” and “Chin” in the way they interpret the meaning of “Zo” and “Chin.”
Q: Can protecting the environment and seeking development be balanced?
A: In my view, development means providing the basic needs of the people without harming the environment. Making roads across Chin State and extending its connectivity with other parts of Burma and neighboring countries are essential, providing electricity, water, telecommunications are something that people need. We should preserve the rivers at all cost because we need water for our survival. We can also replace our jhumming [shifting] cultivation into a more income-based employment and that will save the environment.
Q: Should exiles and refugees return home yet?
A: The refugees should decide when and how they want to go home. They have been terrorized in their own lands and forcing them to go back to the same place where they fear for their lives is morally wrong. There are not only physical needs to be provided before their return, but also to address the psychological healing, and redress and remedy for some of the legal issues, be it their lands or human rights violations. For activists, I think people want to go back; it is a matter of time and the situation.