Cheery Zahau, or ‘Tuan Cer Sung’, was born in a remote Chin village in Sagaing Region, Myanmar with two siblings. She is an ethnic Chin: a predominantly Christian group who have who have been historically marginalized by the Bamar government and is now one of the poorest ethnic groups in the country.
As a curious student, Cheery asked, “Why do we learn about the violent kings of the Burman majority people, while ignoring the histories of other ethnic groups?” and “Why do we only learn about Buddhism, and not other religious teachings?" Growing up during a period when politics was a taboo and questioning authority was seldom accepted, her teachers often remarked that she was at the doorstep of a life in prison because of her political inquisitiveness.
She fled to the India-Burma border in 1999 at the age of 17 after completing high school in Myanmar. Full of eagerness to learn about her own country, she joined the democracy movement and volunteered at the Chin Women’s Organization (CWO). She also taught Chin refugee children about their homeland, worked as a news editor for a quarterly bulletin focusing on women’s issues, and collected and chronicled articles written by ordinary Chin women who did not have opportunities to contribute to male-dominated publication outlets.
At the age of 22, she decided to devote her time to human rights activism after a mob movement (with thousands of volunteers) occurred against the Chin refugees, undocumented migrant workers on the India-Burma border by the Indian-Mizo people in 2003. In response, Cheery founded the Women’s League of Chinland (WLC) by bringing all of the Chin tribal groups to work together for the advancement of Chin women. With WLC, she and her team trained hundreds of women to become active in social and political processes in their respective communities. As a result, she has become a prominent voice in advocating for gender equality for those communities, both inside Myanmar and in the Chin people’s vast diaspora. Moreover, throughout her human rights work, she has engaged at the grassroots level by helping to build schools and bridges, and improving access to water and more recently, she helped fund-raise for over 25 villages in Falam Township, Chin State which have been affected by natural disasters. In addition, she has trained thousands of women and men about human rights, gender equality and political awareness to her own Chin community and other communities across Myanmar.
More recently, in 2007 Cheery co-authored Unsafe State – a report on sexual violence committed against Chin women by soldiers of the union government’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw. She has co-ordinated and contributed to three other reports to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. She has testified at the UN, U.K. parliament, and US Congressional hearings, and for other governments on human rights in Chin State and Myanmar.
Cheery was reunited with her family members in Yangon in 2013 who endured years of hardship and security risks because of her human rights and political activism. She is now researching and writing on several issues including; women’s access to justice in plural legal systems in Myanmar. She researches how women perceive peace and their role in the peace process under the research theme of Women, Peace and Security. Before the November 2015 election, she helped conduct an organizational assessment among women’s organizations under the theme of “women and elections.” She also conducted research on sexual minorities and legal protection. Her latest research focused on “youth” by interviewing over 68 youth/students organizations in nine major states/regions in Myanmar
As a member of the Chin Progressive Party (CPP), she participated in the framework drafting process for the national political dialogue when she contributed on human rights issues. She participated in the Union Peace Conference by providing technical assistance to the delegates of numerous political parties. She also sits as a board member on several important organizations and shares her knowledge on political, social and economic issues that guide those organizations in achieving their objectives.
The Chin people named her “Chin Person of the Year 2011”, and The Irrawaddy magazine listed her as one of “Burma’s Newsmakers 2011”.