DVB spoke this week with Cheery Zahau, a renowned Chin activist and women’s rights campaigner who has switched hats to focus on winning a seat in the upcoming general election.
Brought up in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Division, she studied abroad, first in India, then at Mahidol University where she undertook a Master’s Degree on Human Rights and Peace Studies. Cheery currently lives between Falam Town in Chin State and Rangoon.
Q: Was there any one moment or person that inspired you to become an activist or made you politically aware?
A: My grandfather was a leader/ village head in Minhla and he allowed me to join him at the village council meetings at a very young age. I heard them discussing all sorts of local issues and listened as they tried to resolve problems. He taught me who the Chin people really are, and about Chinland and other ethnic groups. He told me that the Chin people would need a national leader. So I grew up with those memories and the ambition that we, the Chin people, would strike for our rights as a united group. As I grew up, the sentiment and determination became stronger.
I also joined a student protest in my village at the age of six. My auntie, who was at high school, made the announcement that all pupils would march to a neighbouring village to join the student uprising in the big cities. She said that our schools would be better equipped if we had democracy, so I followed her and her high school mates. I was too young to understand the whole situation, but excited because I thought our crumbling village school would get better facilities. I knew something was not right and things needed to improve.
There are many forms of rights violations that our villagers have to go through, such as forced labour, arbitrary arrest, arbitrary taxation, and physical ill treatment by the authorities. All of these life experiences made me aware that we have a big problem, a political problem. When I grew up, I understood the problems more deeply and that led me to become a human rights activist.
Q: Why did you decide to make the transition from activist to politician?
A: There are many factors. As a politician, I can contribute to make better policies that have direct impacts on the people. I see that the basic human rights of the people are not being fulfilled or respected yet. I believe I can bring my knowledge and experience from the human rights field into policy change. This is the first factor why I decided to get involved in politics.
As our country opens, I believe we must try to improve our society by getting involved in the political system. As an activist, I can play a role as a watchdog and that is necessary in strengthening democracy. That’s why I encourage fellow activists to continue their very important work.
As ethnic people, we have always called for a federal union. I felt that I have a responsibility to contribute to make this political inspiration become a reality. All these are reasons why I decided to get involved in national, parliamentary and party politics.
Q: Can you tell us about your policies, your political ideals and what you want to achieve in your township?
I will contest the general election in Falam Township, Chin State, on behalf of the Chin Progressive Party (CPP), the biggest Chin political party since 2010. CPP Falam Township will hold its second conference on 31 July in Falam where delegates will decide whether to endorse the candidates and allocate constituencies to each candidate. So, please stay tuned!
The long-term goal of our party is to form a federal union that safeguards equality and equalises political power between the central government and the states/regions. But this will be a long journey. During the CPP’s second convention in January, we adopted a political philosophy or political foundation, which is what we call ‘Social Liberal Democracy’. We envisage that the government’s functions and actions should be based on ‘democratic values with political freedom, social welfare and liberalism to respect individual and collective rights’.
According to a UNDP report in 2011, the poverty rate in Chin State is 73 percent, whereas the nation’s poverty rate is 26 percent. This leaves us a big responsibility on how we tackle poverty in Chin State. I have several ideas and plans, which will require a collective effort and political will from all political forces. We will need collective action. As we get nearer the election, we will elaborate on our plans more.
Q: Do you know which hluttaw [house] you will be running for? How would you rate your chances of winning?
A: I will know which parliament I will contest by 31 July; many people have different ideas and perspectives. A decision will be made by end of this month.
Some Chin observers say my chance of winning is 80 percent due to my long struggle for human rights and gender equality. Over 14 years, I have built a good relationship with the community. We are doing great so far.
Q: Which are the main issues facing your constituency, Chin State and Burma in general?
A: Chin State is facing many obstacles to catch up with the rest of the country in terms of basic infrastructure such as roads, electrical supply, clean water, telecommunications and transportation. Higher education is nearly non-existent except where religious affiliated groups are involved. We have a very limited numbers of youths who become medical doctors, engineers or economists, etc.
The most pressuring issue in Falam Township is the lack of support to improve livelihoods. People work hard just to meet daily survival needs through agriculture or daily labour. The economy has been like this for decades. People simply cannot wait any longer to improve their economic situation.
The State bureaucracy controls the decision-making process at different government departments, it is not in the hands of the elected leaders or political leaders. This is not in line with democratic principles and directly impacts on the people as it is the bureaucrats who implement policies. This is one area of challenge.
Women endure greater negative consequences for the lack of economic empowerment programmes and political participation, as well as suffer from the inherent patriarchy in our society. This is the area I will pay most serious attention if I am elected. Our society cannot move forward and become more prosperous without half of the population – i.e., women.