A Rose into a Thorn in Burma

In the three years since Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, took power in Burma, I have waited patiently with the rest of the world to see what she might do, what change she might try to bring and how that change might be received. I have watched as a believer in global human rights, but for me, it has also been more personal.

My center, Human Rights Action Center (HRAC), along with hundreds of other NGOs inside and outside of Myanmar, and volunteers across the globe, spent over two decades fighting for her release. The effort was substantial. The campaign, financed and fought from all corners of the globe, was substantial. HRAC produced 36 videos; a film of 60 minutes of all her supporters in business, government, and music; iconic art work by Shep Fairey that became her image worldwide; a visit to see Aung San Suu Kyi in February of 1999; a concert in Bangkok on 9-9-99; and hundreds of visits to Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. We lobbied the White House, Congress and the State Department, to make her release a cornerstone of any US relationship with Burma. The list of professional, financial, grassroots, and personal contributions to this long campaign goes on and on.

And though it has only recently become the focus of international attention, the state-sponsored brutal war against Rohingya Muslims on the Burmese-Indian and Bangladesh border has also been ongoing for decades. Thousands have died. Women have been raped; families have  disappeared. Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground.

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 stood as a beacon of hope for millions, not just within the Burmese borders, but to the outside world, and to oppressed peoples across the globe.  Though she herself was not permitted to take over as President, her party was in control. Change could not be far behind. Change, from the seat of government to political oppression of journalists to the end of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas, was sure to come.

Within a short time after this victory, she made the statement that she was no longer a human rights advocate, but a politician. She alerted the world to a change in her behavior, openly and directly.

For those of us that knew her history, this was a warning sign. The youngest daughter of the famed Burmese general, she was forced to flee Burma when he was assassinated in 1947. With her mother, she journeyed to England, where she was educated. She married, and had two children. She returned to her home country over twenty years later, first to care for her ailing mother, but quickly became a leading member fighting the iron fist of Burma's military dictatorship. She founded the NLD, and she began to fight. She was nothing if not sure of herself, nothing if not absolute. Nothing if not strong.

I visited her in February of 1999, with my partner, Feryal Gharahi. She was under house arrest at the time; her movements were tightly controlled, and she visited her party's headquarters as often as she could, to work with the resistance. Each time she did she risked her own life. Feryal, also not one to be deterred, waited for days on end at the NLD headquarters until the day when Aung San Suu Kyi finally visited. Hearing of that determination, she granted us a meeting.

In the half-hour that we spoke, she was powerful, quiet and determined. Her message, spoken quietly and insistently, was clear; “Stay united. Stay the course. We will win.” She was right. In 2010, she was finally released from house arrest and took her place in the government as a member of parliament in 2012.

But the fights along both of Burma's borders--particularly attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority--began to escalate in late 2015. The Rohingya, facing attacks by soldiers supported by the politically powerful Buddhist monks, began to flee to India and Bangladesh. The skirmishes that had continued on and off for nearly half a century escalated into wholesale genocide, a targeted campaign against the Rohingya Muslims supported by the government and powerful Buddhist monks. 

By this point, Aung San Suu Kyi had been appointed foreign minister. The human rights advocate that had protested civil and economic rights abuse, that had demanded better from her government and support from the world, faced a test. Her supporters outside of Burma waited impatiently for her to rally to this massive human rights abuse of the Moslem people. More Rohingya were killed each day.

She remained silent. Recently, Reuters journalists, namely Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were kidnapped and convicted in Burmese courts for their expression of a free press and the importance of coverage of the Rohingya abuses. They had visited the Rohingya villages at great risk and when the military discovered them, they were unlawfully arrested. Again, Suu Kyi failed to denounce the government.  Again, she failed to call for the release of these journalists, now political prisoners. 

Activists began removing her quotes and images from their walls. Angry human rights activists called for the revocation of her Nobel Prize. Students stopped hanging her poster on their walls.

My view on all this is not much different than others these days. My faith in the change she can bring has been chipped away, as villages have burned and stories have been smothered. There is one thing, though, that does bring me hope. I believe in the power of a civilian government, even though deeply flawed. Any move away from military rule, supported by the powerful lobbying of the Buddhist monks, is a move away from brutality in Burma. Any move toward further civilian control is a small beacon of hope.

I also feel more than disappointment, or regret. I feel fear for her life. For the life of a woman who has not been the savior we hoped for, a woman who is more than a lost symbol of liberty, but a complex, constrained, terrified yet powerful individual. My concern is this; if Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out about this issue forcibly, she will join the dead.

I ask myself what her options are; what she could do. She must address the serious and deep racism in the Burman majority. The military, supported by powerful monks, has been brutalizing the Rohingya for over half a century. Her first foray must be a campaign to grant Rohingyas citizenship. Without an offering of true citizenship for those Rohingyas who belong in Burma, there is little hope of changing the reality now. Unfortunately, an earnest campaign to do this could put her life in danger.

Our rose has become a thorn. Aung San Suu Kyi leads Myanmar now, not Burma. In Burma she was a human rights person. Now she is a politician; bound by the system she has chosen to join, by the failures and subjugation and brutality of that government. Constrained, disappointing, weak, in danger. Flawed. Human. But still, she is inching toward something that could be better.

Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam

Three years ago, the royal family of Saudi Arabia asked the United States to support the Saudi’s planned military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Before requesting U.S. help in this venture, the Saudis attempted to raise a Pan-Arab army that would sweep into Yemen to expel the Houthis, a Shi’a minority group in a region that is largely Sunni, and impose a government that would be more favorable to the Saudis. Their attempt failed. Other Arab countries did not rally to the Saudis. In hindsight, of course it failed. Who would want to fight and die for the royal family of Saudi Arabia and further Saudi political ends?

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Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia

Life is full of surprises in all things – we see it many times in politics, personal health, historical data, etc.. We’ve all had moments where we’ve said something like: “I just did not know that!” A couple of surprises like this, for me, were the discovery that Che Guevara, the Cuban hero, had an Irish father and that Columbus was discovered by the American Indians and not vice versa.

My guess is that most Americans do not know that Obama unilaterally declared war on Yemen three years ago in order to support the Saudi government’s political objectives in the region, and that this military operation has been continued by Trump, despite his promises to end our involvement there.

We could consider Yemen as the Vietnam of the Saudi government. While there are no Saudi soldiers on the ground in Yemen, they are up in the skies piloting fighter planes sold to the Saudis by the Americans. Those same planes are refueled regularly by American tankers so that they can continue bombing Yemeni hospitals, schools and market places. A reported 10,000 Yemeni civilians have died due to air strikes conducted by Saudi planes and drones. Saudi naval blockades keep food and water out of Yemen’s ports, resulting in thousands of Yemenis suffering famine and disease. A shattered infrastructure and the corresponding lack of clean water in Yemen spreads cholera quickly, viciously killing the young and the old first.

The big surprise may be that this war started out as a civil war. The minority Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government. Shortly after that, ISIS invaded the north of the country and the two factions were locked in conflict to determine the fate of the country. Neither the Americans nor Saudis should be in this civil war, placing their thumbs on the scales. Furthermore, for the Americans, there is no practical gain from being involved in this war apart from supporting the Saudis’ political agenda. A good deal for the Saudis in Yemen is a bad deal for the Yemeni.

Why is the United States participating in the destruction and suffering of 10 million people in Yemen? Yemen has done nothing to the U.S.. There is no oil there and precious little in the way of other resources. The U.S. media provides almost no coverage of the Yemeni war. Over the last three years, it has rarely been addressed on any of the numerous talks shows that cover other mundane topics over and over and over.

The human suffering of the Yemeni is immense. Organizations that work in the Middle East are trying to rally the world in order to combat the famine, starvation and cholera that is destroying that nation and creating another failed state. Failed states are not new to Americans. Efforts by the United States helped to create South Sudan – which seems to have become a failed state just five years after its founding - and Haiti has been foundering for decades despite U.S. efforts to stabilize that country.

What would be a decent thing for the United States to do now? My answer is this: get out of Yemen and stop supporting the Saudi efforts to destroy that country. Americans do not belong in that war. It is illegal and immoral to conduct a proxy war, one that was not authorized by Congress, and let the starving and cholera spread there like a fire through a dry forest. Let the Saudis have their Vietnam. They, too, will learn like we Americans did in Vietnam. The future could be bright for Yemen if the foreigner war mongers leave. Go to Vietnam today and see for yourself how that country has rebounded and become a thriving economy after decades of foreign orchestrated conflict. My prayer is that Yemen will do the same, if the war lords leave.

Clean Hands With Stone Hearts as Children Die

Bringing Human Rights to Saudi Arabia

Let me ask you a question. If on 9/11, 13 of the 16 hijackers were Iranian, what would have happened? My guess is that a bombing campaign would have been initiated by at least two nations, the U.S.A. and Israel. But since the 13 of 16 hijackers were Saudis, there was no reaction to where the terrorists came from. In fact, President Bush ensured that the Saudis living and studying in our country got home safely and immediately. My question is this, why did the U.S. government not send a squad of FBI agents and accountants to Saudi Arabia to see who in that society paid for that attack?

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Beauty and Injustice in Lakota Land

The Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) reservation lies hard against the South Dakota badlands to the north and just east of the Black Hills to the west. It is a land of harsh and stunning extremes. Brutal winter blizzards with hauntingly howling winds and bitter cold temperatures followed by oppressive, sweltering hot summers. Oglala Lakota county (formerly Shannon County) is among the two or three poorest counties in America, including Appalachia, and it has the low life expectancy and extreme high unemployment rate that is to be expected in such a place. There is currently a teen suicide epidemic that is both tragic and of course deeply hurtful to the Oglala people.

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Kennedy Center honoree Sting deserves highest regard for his work in human rights

Along with other worthy artists, Sting received recently the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors and the accolades of his peers, the nation, and President and Mrs. Obama. It was a very worthy choice. 

However, the moving tributes omitted what I regard as Sting’s highest contribution - his passionate work on behalf of human rights throughout his life and career. So along with the accolades of the White House and Bruce Springsteen, I want to add my personal reflections of who Sting is and what he has done for human rights. He and Peter Gabriel were my anchors in music while I was Director of Amnesty International USA. I and the organization were in good and steady hands and great hearts.

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I WILL: Call for Leonard Peltier Clemency

Human Rights Action Center (HRAC) is joining a flood of supporters seeking clemency for Native American Leonard Peltier.

Native peoples across the United States have joined with HRAC, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and other luminaries and organizations including, but not limited to Harry Belafonte, Kris Kristofferson, the late Pete Seeger, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, The National Congress of American Indians, Wes Studi, Chris Eyre, Carlos Santana, Jackson Browne, Irene Bedard, Peter Gabriel, Michael Moore, Chaske Spencer, Chef Art Smith, Tom Morello and others to bring Peltier’s case back to the public's attention.

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Vengeance in Taiwan

Three years ago, Professor Jay Tu of North Carolina State University wrote me concerning the plight of the former president of Taiwan, Mr Chen Shui-Bian. Mr. Chen was jailed immediately after his two terms as President of Taiwan for corruption, real or imagined.  Jay felt no one was paying attention to this prisoner’s treatment in jail as well as the false charges against him. At first I did not see much of an issue, as I got the same impression as everyone else – that Mr. Chen was a corrupted politician. 

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Burma's Slave or Burma's Save: Democratic Reforms, Human Rights, and the Reluctant Generals of Myanmar

The world is waiting, trying to decipher how to angle itself to an American government that appears to be changing, but may be just end up being same-old, same-old. In spite of the "shellacking" given to Democrats in the elections two weeks ago and the prospect of the greatest degree of Republican control over both houses in the bicameral Congress, and sharp divides on a handful of important issues, in most respects there is absolutely no indication for any revolutionary change in regard to internal and external goals for both major parties. While President Obama has lost considerable power in numbers to get legislation passed through Congress when it doesn't have true widespread support, there is quite a lot achievable without needing assent from legislators by simply using executive order. 

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Chairman Ma: To Support Hong Kong Democracy, Support Taiwan's and Free Chen

Even the best possible world of media will make mistakes and omissions from time to time. We live in a complex world and the sheer quantity of trying to keep track of things will sometimes flood the most devoted news junkie. In the past few days, there have been tales tugging at your eyes for attention about serious subjects. The Ebola virus continues to concern domestically, while extremists of various stripes incite fear internationally, and emails are flooded with forecasts to garnish your votes for next week's elections. With all of this happening, there's probably not much happening now that that Hong Kong thing or whatever it was has stopped happening, right? Wrong.

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Ebola Panic and Human Rights: Racism and Public Health in the United States

With only a handful of cases in the United States or afflicting Americans abroad, the country is adrift on an apparently boundless sea of anxiety. Although worthy of more energy to contain and resolve this outbreak, it would be far wiser to extend compassionate treatment than to overreact with panic. Human rights would be empowered by a proportional and rational response, but knee-jerk fear has a history of racism in this country when it comes to public health. 

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Without Reservations: Supporting Human Rights for Native Americans

Indigenous peoples in the Americas, American Indians, have been decimated several times over. While a lot of loss came from diseases for which there was no native immunity, it is impossible to overstate the intentional displacement, disrespect, and active destruction of indigenous peoples. It is deeply distressing to see that legacy of active disregard continue to this very day. From sending smallpox-infected blankets as deadly "gifts" to the catastrophic Indian Removal Act, there are still only nominal notions of equality. In the current climate of indifference, neglect, and overt deprivation that continues to mar the lives of the descendants of the nation's original inhabitants and cultures, we should be aiming big by granting freedom to Leonard Peltier and changing the name of DC's NFL team as first steps. We should be acting in concrete ways now by supporting the human rights of this country's native peoples, and not kicking the can down the road.

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Humor, Hope, and Human Rights: On the Loss of Robin Williams

Luckily for me, though perhaps not for them, I have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and come to know a few comedians. I was the advance man for Dick Gregory's cross-country Run Against Hunger in 1976 and had a campaign for human rights in Burma take off with the involvement of Jim Carrey in 2007.

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Human Rights Are for All Folks: Security and Liberty

This spring, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, traditionally sympathetic to the intelligence community, accused the CIA of searching and spying on the computers of Senators and their staffers. CIA head John Brennan loudly asserted that "nothing could be further from the truth."

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Manifest Delusion: Debunking American Exceptionalism to Protect Human Rights

It's hard to not think about America with our Independence Day recently renewing fresh memories of fireworks, barbecues, and flags. A country of superlatives in matters economic, military, and cultural exports, talking about America's future finds fountains of opinions often strong but which mostly sing the same chorus.

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Revolvers: Blurred Lines Between Human Rights Organizations and the State Department

Americans have long held governments, as well as politicians, as not quite worthy of trust. With a public that already believed that governments trick the citizenry to enrich politicians and insiders, people have been further shaken in recent years. 

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On Universal Human Rights: Navi Pillay, Prince Zeid, and Keeping a Strong Voice at the United Nations

My first meeting with Navanetham ("Navi") Pillay was when she was studying law while at Harvard University along with Jessica Neuwirth. Neuwirth eventually became the legal advisor at Amnesty International USA and one of the producers of the Human Rights Now music tour.

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