Tuan Cer Sung, better known as Cheery Zahau, was born in Magway Region to ethnic Chin parents. Her teacher father instilled in her a ‘can do’ spirit and after high school she started working for a Chin women’s group operating in Mizoram, along the India-Myanmar border.
The work required her to travel between her home in Magway to Mizoram, a journey that included three days of walking from a town in Chin State, the country’s poorest, while the whole journey to the border with India could take anywhere between a few days to a week. This experience prepared her well for her current election campaign in the isolated and inaccessible state.
The 34-year-old is aiming for a Lower House seat in Falam Township, where her parents were born. She is one of five women candidates from the Chin Progressive Party (CPP) to run in the Nov. 8 polls in Myanmar. In an interview with Myanmar Now chief correspondent Thin Lei Win she spoke of her motivations and the challenges of entering politics.
Question: You were known as a human rights activist. Why did you decide to cross over to politics?
Answer: Before, when we were outside (the parliament), we can only educate people about their rights and how to ask for their rights. But at the end of the day, it is the government who is responsible for realising these rights. Currently, the government doesn’t see that what they are doing is for people’s rights. I thought if I was inside (the parliament), we might be able to change these perspectives a bit. The 2008 Constitution has a lot of provisions guaranteeing citizens’ rights. But they can’t just be on paper. There needs to be a mechanism to protect these rights. I want to slowly make those changes.
Q: Have you always wanted to be a politician?
A: I’ve always been interested in politics. My grandfather was the village chief so my house was always full of meetings where the village’s affairs were discussed. I’d hear about burglaries, development projects, quarrels between neighbours, all sorts of things, so I knew from a young age that I would need to do something to help fulfil people’s needs. My grandfather also told me often how an ethnic group loses its rights when they are not allowed to govern themselves.
Q: What would you like to do when you get elected?
A: I’d like to create a women’s caucus. At the moment, women parliamentarians do not have a body representing them. There’s no secretariat. They have very little support. A women’s caucus would help them in parliament and during their travels.
We also don’t have a Women’s Ministry. There are 26 million women in this country and yet there is no ministry for women. We’ve been trying to find out the average income for women in Myanmar and the number of women in workforce, but we can’t find them. We just don’t know.
In Chin State, women work every day at the farm. When they come home, there’s household chores, the children and social matters. Many women work from 6 in the morning till 8 or 9 at night. But we haven’t been able to calculate their income. That affects the whole country’s economy.
Q: You mean people then think they are not productive or don’t contribute to the economy?
A: Yes. Also, if we want to help a housewife generate income, how are we going to do that? There are 36 ministries currently, but none on women so there isn’t a forum to discuss women’s issues. We will have to work really hard to convince men that this is necessary because we would need the support of male MPs and military MPs. There is so much to do, but Myanmar’s economy would improve significantly if we can increase women’s incomes.
Q: How different is this election from the 2010 general election?
A: There are a lot of differences. In 2010, they only allowed party registration in March and campaigning only started in October. Also, except for the USDP, many smaller parties faced restrictions in terms of what they can do and where they can go. Difficulties still exist now, but there is also more freedom. There are laws that apply to everyone too, whether you are NLD or USDP or Chin. For example, you cannot use hate speech or use religion for political ends, and both your parents must be Myanmar citizens. There is more scrutiny.
There are also more political parties now. In 2010, my party had difficulty recruiting people because they thought it would be a recurrence of the 1990 elections - that they would be detained afterwards. Now lots of people want to get involved.
There are more media outlets too, even at local levels like in Falam. So the public is better informed and there is more competition. It’s good for the public because they have more candidates to choose from, but it also means the candidates have to work harder.
Q: Do you think it’s going to be free and fair?
A: I think it will be free but I don’t know whether it’ll be fair. U Tin Aye (the head of Union Election Commission) says he’s trying.
Q: You’re going up against big parties like USDP and NLD. How do you rate your chances?
A: There is quite a lot of grassroots support for me. The weight of the work I’ve done before on human rights is quite big. Even if they haven’t met me they’ve often heard me on radio. Some people have attended my trainings. They know my work with the women’s groups. The other three candidates are former civil servants. But I still can’t rest on my laurels, I still have to work hard.
Q: Chin is the poorest state in the country. How do you hope to change this if you were elected?
A: The poverty rate in Chin is 73 percent, according to UNDP’s 2011 data. That means 73 people out of 100 makes less than 2,000 kyats ($1.50) a day. The countrywide average is 26 percent. It’s quite bad. There’s nothing in Chin - no infrastructure, no telecommunications, no healthcare, no education. Everything had to start from zero five years ago. What we now need is a long-term strategy for agriculture.
Chin weather is perfect for cash crops like apple, avocado, grapes, oranges and coffee. We don’t have to import them from China. Chin State can supply them to the rest of the country. However you need to make a 3-, 4- or 5-year investment.
Also, we don’t have proper rice storage in Chin State at the moment. We should plan for rice storage within the next 5 to 10 years. Otherwise, when there is heavy rain, roads are blocked and there’s a landslide (as occurred during the recent floods), people are in deep trouble. The weather is going to keep changing. We need to be prepared.
People also normally plant rice and maize with a short-term plan… so they have something to eat next year. It’s a mean of survival. They don’t think long-term. If the harvest is destroyed, it has a devastating effect on people.
Q: You’re outspoken about women’s rights and empowerment. How has it been to be a young ethnic woman running for parliament?
A: I have 100 percent political support from my party. I don’t have any problems working with older and more experienced men in the party and they recognise the work that I’ve done.
However, our society - the whole of Myanmar - has double standards. There isn’t a system to support women who want to do this (kind of work). You have to struggle on your own. The parents, the school, the church, the society - no one has a system to teach and encourage women to (become politically active).
I wouldn’t be like this if it wasn’t for my father. He never treated me differently because I was a girl. When he goes to play football I’d follow him and sit with the footballers. When we go to church I’d sit at the front. He was always saying, “You can do it.” But not all women have that upbringing. Many families would tell their daughters to behave a certain way and stay at home. When you are treated like that from the age of two, it’s difficult to expect them to be assertive later.
One thing about being a young, single and a woman is that I have to endure a lot of smears and attacks on my integrity. I was accused of getting pregnant and then having an abortion. I was also accused of having affairs with this person or that. It’s still happening. I don’t have time to deal with them so I just focus on my work. I know the truth. God knows the truth. And (the people who spread the rumours) know the truth.
Sometimes dressing is also an issue. Some people think you should wear sarongs all the time. But that’s not possible in Chin state because you have to walk through mud and dirt.
Q: Chin is sparsely populated but there are a lot of political parties. Are you worried votes will be split between the different Chin parties?
A: I’m not really worried. We have alliance parties. For example, we won’t contest in some of the areas where our alliance parties are contesting. In 2010, CPP contested in 43 constituencies. We will contest in less this time. In the end we will have to work together. Otherwise we would have to spend a lot of money and ruin the unity of the people too.
Q: Who are your alliance parties?
A: In principle, they are Chin League for Democracy (CLD) and Zomi Congress for Democracy (ZCD). In some areas we work together with the NLD and in others the USDP. Our approach has always been that we would work with whoever that wants to help Chin State and Chin people, whether they be the army, USDP, NLD or other Chin parties. It’s not only about our party winning. Perhaps later, when we have a mature democracy, this might change but at the moment everyone wants to participate in the changes. So one party should not dominate everything.
Q: CPP is small compared to NLD or USDP. What kind of constraints do you face, for example in your budget, as a small party?
A: We don’t have donations. The candidates use their own money to fund their campaigns so it’s difficult. When we are having a meeting in Chin State so we have to calculate how much it would cost for the party agents to attend, who is going to go to how many villages, what would the taxi fare be, etc. We have to calculate everything.
Q: Where do you see the peace process as going?
A: I’m not an actor in the peace process, but I think there is hope in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement because it could lead to political dialogue. If we can start a political dialogue before parliament starts next year that would be a foundation for the peace process. If they can sign the agreement before the elections it would be better, but what’s important is for the ceasefire to be real. Both sides need to keep their words and respect their signatures once it’s signed. Otherwise it could have a detrimental effect on the elections.