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Burma: Human Rights Now Is Not a Slogan


By Jack Healey
May 30, 2016

In Burma, the urgency for just leadership is intensifying. Leadership defines a nation. Some leaders take their country higher and some take their country lower. Those on the lower side are forgotten and those on the high side are remembered; legacy counts. I strongly believe that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is coming to a fork in the road for her career. In the last election, she won every district. Her nation believes in her. Despite her house arrest, her people stayed with her for 16 years and never wavered. Her numerous international honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, prove the world believes in her. But moments come that define leadership. No one asks for these moments but they do come. Nelson Mandela chose a positive path and Robert Mugabe took the lower path. I hope ASSK takes the higher path. Let me explain.

In my time as a Peace Corps director in Lesotho, 1977-1981, two prominent leaders existed in southern Africa, Mandela of South Africa and Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Although both men would eventually lead their nations, during my time in Lesotho, they faced disenfranchisement by their respective governments. Mandela was in jail and the Mugabe was in exile, fighting from Mozambique to topple Ian Smith of Rhodesia. Despite their perilous positions, both men had devout people behind them, including their militaries. While Mandela and Mugabe would rise to power, the decisions these men made polarized their legacies. Mandela moved his new government to the West and Mugabe pushed his government to the East. Depending on where you were living in southern Africa, the UK and the USA became friend or foe.

Mandela died with the world weeping in respect. When Mugabe goes, Zimbabwe will be weeping as well but in infamy, not respect. Mandela stayed for one election and he was determined to use his time to improve South Africa as best he could. To the contrary, Mugabe ran for himself in multiple elections, which have drawn opposition from critics who claim the elections were undemocratic. He has been in office since 1987. History will remember Mandela kindly but will shun the long serving Zimbabwean President.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has almost become a failed state, while South Africa limps along under poor leaders like Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Despite these recent failures, South Africa will always have the legacy of Mandela to be proud of and a standard worth remembering, set by the likes of Rovina prisoners from theAfrican National Congress (ANC). Thus, the southern African example displays the two kinds of leadership. Mandela a success and Mugabe a failure. Although Burma is a world away, ASSK will be judged in exactly the same manner as the likes of Mandela and Mugabe.

In February of 1999, my partner and I were admitted into the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, a little wooden home really, and met ASSK. Like Mandela and Mugabe, ASSK had been disenfranchised from her government. She had been placed under house arrest, where she remained for over a decade. Due to her situation, everyone told us we would be unable to meet with her. My taxi driver whispered to me “she gives out rice once a week” and drove us past the NLD headquarters. My partner sat inside in a sarong. She waited and waited. Finally, a white Toyota drove up close to the entrance. Quickly, a woman in white jumped out and dashed inside. There were many soldiers around the general area. My partner waited as ASSK met her followers and discussed matters. Finally her opportunity came, and she asked ASSK if she would meet me. Fortunately, she agreed.

My partner came out and got me. I spent about 15 to 20 minutes speaking with ASSK. I got her autograph and a few photos. Her words were simple and clear, “tell everyone to keep unity and strength. If we stay as one movement, we will do fine.” Leaving Rangoon that night felt awfully good. Not many beyond the diplomats had even seen her for years, and thus I felt our trip had been wonderfully successful.

The next month I sent a delegation with Ebet Roberts and Nancy Anderson to do the same visit, except this time to record. They did and brought back rare footage. I tried to give that footage to CNN as news but the producer told me “you are making news,” we do not make news we cover it. I asked him how would she call for a press conference to accommodate him since she was under house arrest? No answer and no coverage on CNN.

Now 17 years later, the Nobel winner and leader of Burma (I call it Burma until the 25 percent of military in parliament are no longer automatically part of the legal and legislative process) who won every district is struggling to get a hold of the vast government and deal with the people’s problems like education, health, housing and so on.

In part, her problems stem from Burma’s ethnic diversity. Historically, the tribes along the Thai border have resisted the Burman majority government. These tribes would like at least a “Montreal” type arrangement with their government. They have faced military abuse for years. Soldiers have become infamous for raping and killing tribe members. Despite their marginalization by the Bamar majority, the tribes threw in their support for ASSK. The political hopes of these tribes run high, and it will not be easy to meet those expectations by Rangoon’s new government.

Recently, when Secretary Kerry was in Rangoon, ASSK asked for time when it came to the issue of the Rohingya. In fact, she asked that that name Rohingya might be avoided so as to give her time to set this situation with the Rohingyas. All this sounds good until you dig into the facts of how the Rohingyas are treated on a daily basis.

The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority that has existed in Burma for centuries. This is a historical fact, though much of the Burman majority resist this fact. Buddhist monks are part and parcel of the opposition that are attacking, killing and relocating these people. The Buddhists feel that the Rohingyas are outsiders that threaten the sovereignty of the Burman people. Due to the opposition they face, the Rohingyas live in squalor. They do not possess papers and are not citizens because the government refuses to issue them passports. Simply put, they are poor and unprotected. Thousands have attempted to escape Burma by sea to avoid rape, regular beatings, burning of villages, and starvation. Unlike 17 years ago, when I attempted to give CNN the recordings of ASSK under house arrest, the Western press is on the case. Secretary Kerry raised this basic issue of human rights with ASSK.

Her response was lackluster. Instead of taking action, she wanted more time to address the issue. Furthermore, she asked the nations of the world to stop referring to the Rohingya, which can be seen as a concession to national extremists. I have been one of those urging space and time; however, we have simply run out of time. Human rights of the Rohingya must be protected. Not tomorrow but today. She must demand an end to the violence led by the Buddhist monks; the military and vigilantes need to step back. She must arrange with the United Nations to get foodstuff into this northeast area of Burma.

With their nutritional concerns cared for, ASSK must begin a process, legal and fair, to find out who is and who is not a citizen. National and international scholars must settle on criteria. The world’s decency cannot wait any longer. Steps to improve Burma can be taken immediately. These steps are normal and ASSK could get help from around the world if she chose. Although she is highly respected, if the human rights concerns of the Rohingya are not addressed, she is about to lose the halo given to her for her courage and determination to deliver freedom and democracy to her people. Before her lie two paths, one leads to a Mandela-like legacy and the other to infamy of Mugabe.

To travel towards the path taken by Mandela, ASSK needs to give herself the advice she gave to me and my partner... unity and strength. Stay united...Human Rights Now is not a slogan. It is a necessity for a democratic leader and a Nobel winner. The world is asking Aung San Suu Kyi to address this issue with compassion and decency. Despite the decades of abuse, these qualities will guarantee an eventual solution for Rohingyas.

Jack Healey is founder of Human Rights Action Center

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