RANGOON — Ethnic Chin activist and human rights educator Cheery Zahau has announced plans to contest the general election slated for later this year.
A member since 2012 of the Chin Progressive Party (CPP), for which she currently serves as one of three secretaries, the 33-year-old told The Irrawaddy that young and female voices were relatively absent from public life in Chin State.
“There is a gap there, and we need to raise the needs of young people and the women,” she said.
Cheery Zahau has yet to decide whether to contest the election at a state or union level, but looks set to secure the endorsement of her party either way. Of particular concern to the activist is the paucity of resources being allocated to Chin State, the poorest state in the country.
At a state government level, services such as health, education and social welfare are all are being provided by one ministry, which she said has led to a lack of detailed understanding about the needs of the community.
Born in Sagaing Division, Cheery Zahau has spent most of her life in Falam Township, a sparsely populated area of the Chin hills near the Indian border. Her political beliefs were nurtured during a childhood spent in the company of a large extended family, including her grandfather, who served as a village chief.
If elected, she will aim to improve local job opportunities for local women and youth, along with negotiating improvements to road and telecommunications infrastructure in Chin State.
In the course of her travels across the state, Cheery Zahau said she learned there was a widespread perception that infrastructure projects in the area were an expression of the government’s goodwill towards the people, rather than a service provision to which the local population were entitled.
“Our people must be continuously informed about their basic rights and civic rights,” she said. “It is in fact the government’s responsibility to ensure that they meet the need to provide basic human rights to their citizens.”
In the past, Cheery Zahau said it was difficult for her to be taken seriously in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. Many of the initiatives she proposed were not taken seriously because a woman was proposing them—a situation she says has changed as her community “learned that my aims were for our own people”.
No stranger to vicious personal attacks, the aspiring politician said that the invective hurled against her on social media, focusing on her lack of a husband, has steeled her for similar incidents on the campaign trail.
“My pictures were Photoshopped by anonymous Facebook users trying to defame me, saying I was pregnant and had an abortion,” she recalled.
As per CPP policy, Cheery Zahau has called for greater devolution of powers from Naypyidaw to state governments. Along with other ethnic parties, the CPP is pushing for constitutional reform for a federal system of governance.
“For ethnic minorities, we cannot just rely on a parliament where majority votes decide every issue,” she said. “There is no mechanism to adequately address the concerns of minorities in the [Union] Parliament.”
The CPP won five state government seats out of 18 constituencies in the 2010 elections —a further six seats are filled by military appointees, who currently hold a slim majority alongside the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). At the next election, the CPP will likely face three-cornered contests with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), which presently has no representation in the Chin Parliament, and the Chin Nationalities Party, which holds five seats.