Ever since it was given over three thousand years ago on Shavuot, the Torah has offered Jews a vision of how the world should work. I was thinking about this vision this past December when I was asked to represent HIAS (the 120-year-old Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) at a United Nations conference in Geneva dealing with the status of refugees. The UN invited faith-based organizations to reflect on, among other things, how lessons learned from their religious traditions could offer guidance to the treatment of refugees today. In preparing my opening statement for the conference, I reflected on a subject I had never previously thought about in any systematic manner but that is clearly a pressing issue in the world, as the UNHCR estimates that there are currently 15.1 million refugees worldwide.
What does the Torah tell us about refugees and how they should be treated?
A great deal, I soon learned. Let me cite four examples. Read More
Burma is still not free.
Shocked? We didn’t think so. You probably knew this well before the release of Freedom House’s 2013 report that lined up Burma shoulder-to-shoulder with other “Not Free” countries such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The resurgence of fighting in Kachin state between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), highlights how ethnic tensions, often enveloped in issues of control over Burma’s rich natural resources, continue to create serious conflict in the fledgling democracy.
Let’s start with the basics. Read More
The night before President Obama’s historic visit to Burma last month, Nge Nge—a Burmese woman from Rangoon—was so excited that she couldn’t sleep. In the morning, she was the first person to arrive at the University of Rangoon where Obama was scheduled to deliver his speech. Nge Nge had graduated from the University of Rangoon in 1988. Upon returning to her old stomping ground, she recalled, “This university used to be vibrant and warm with students who had close relationships with professors and had an enjoyable learning atmosphere. Students could ask professors if they did not understand something. Now, those times have gone.” Read More
Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League of Democracy in Burma
There’s a lot of hyperbole in the Capitol, especially in an election year. But there’s something about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that makes even the most effusive praise seem inadequate.
On Wednesday, September 19th at the Capitol, where Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy leader, received the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, I was struck by the impressive line-up of our country’s leaders who waxed poetic. Yet the emotion on their faces showed that even their most flowery praises couldn’t capture the awe and electricity felt in the presence of the honoree.
Throughout the speeches, which ran the gamut of political persuasions including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, Republican Senator John McCain and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, Suu Kyi was described as: “a luminous soul” … “a seeker” … “a soul pilgrim” … “this most unlikely of revolutionaries” … “an icon”… “a strange collection of bright victories” (This last one is actually a literal translation of her name.)
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell told a story of how she declined to wear a bulletproof vest during a landmark speech before millions protesting in Rangoon’s streets in 1988. ‘Why?’ she answered. ‘If I were afraid of being killed, I would never speak out against the government.’ Read More
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, contains 74 interesting and illuminating commandments—including one that, at first glance, gets my hackles up: “A man’s apparel should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear a woman’s clothing, for whoever does these things is an abomination before Adonai your God.” For many of us—and especially for those of us who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming—this apparent prohibition against cross-dressing feels problematic. Why should wearing clothes that are not “gender-appropriate” earn the harsh title of abomination? Read More
A few weeks ago, I attended the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference with several other AJWS colleagues. My first time at IHRFG, I decided 2 furiously abbr., #hashtag & @mention for 2 days str8 (AKA Live Tweet) the sessions I attended in an effort to document the fascinating conversations going on at #IHRFG2012NY. Shameless plug: follow @AJWSinASIA!
Tweets from the 2012 International Human Rights Funders Group conference.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with IHRFG or AJWS’s involvement, here’s a quick rundown:
What is IHRFG? IHRFG defines itself as a “global network of donors and grant-makers committed to advancing human rights around the world through effective philanthropy.” What does that mean, minus our wonk-speak? We’re a group of donors passionate about funding social justice movements and human rights work globally. We work all over the world. We come together to share experiences and learn from each other. We want to be the most strategic grant-makers we can be. Read More
April, May and June have unleashed a firestorm of media coverage for our grantees in Asia. Check out this roundup of the most significant stories:
For the first time ever, our Burma grantees garnered tremendous media coverage in major outlets around the world. But what’s so significant about this coverage? Our grantees are speaking and the world is listening. More than ever before, our grantees are being tapped by policy makers and journalists for their on-the-ground experience and their decades-long work on documenting human rights abuses. Though our grantees are excited about the changes happening in the country, they are quick to remind the international community that human rights abuses abound and there is still tremendous work to be done. Here are a few of the stories:
- The Bangkok Post wrote a piece about the underbelly of an “open” Burma, highlighting that though cosmetic political changes have been made, activists are drawing attention to the stream of constant, brutal abuse committed by Burmese authorities against ethnic minorities and political prisoners. The first part of the article is told from the perspective of Moon Lay Ni, coordinator of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). Formed in 1999, KWAT works with vulnerable refugees and migrant workers from Kachin state in Thailand and Burma to provide leadership training and educational programs to increase awareness of women’s rights, health and environmental protection.
- On June 5, The Nation ran an opinion piece by Jackie Pollock, director of Map Foundation, an organization that strives for Burmese migrant workers to be free from discrimination and live safely and securely in Thailand. Pollock’s article calls for Thailand to include domestic and migrant workers in national labor laws in addition to “act quickly improve the pay and conditions of domestic workers” in the country, particularly with the number of arrests that will follow any kind of nationality verification processes.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights has also been a critical topic this spring. From sex workers to LGBTI communities, AJWS grantees are making waves in the news:
- In April, when a pregnant Indian sex worker was assaulted by the police and miscarried, SANGRAM organized a vast cross-section of organizations (including AJWS partner Awaaz-E-Niswaan) to protest the human rights violations that sex workers suffer at the hands of the police. Read the article about the protest in The Hindu here. Sign the Change.org petition here.
Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived at Mae La refugee camp, home to 50,000 refugees from Burma.
On June 2nd, I went to the Mae La refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in Thailand that houses 50,000 refugees, to greet Aung San Suu Kyi (“Mother Suu” or “The Lady”), the democracy icon of Burma. People of multiple Burmese nationalities, wearing hijab, beautiful long Karen traditional dress, Kachin costumes, and other ethnic dresses, waited in a long line—many of them since 6am—to pay Aung San Suu Kyi a visit. Others went about their daily routines, heading to their plantations, carrying bamboo baskets, arranging firewood under their houses, lying in their hammocks. Read More
Activists in Burma celebrate the country's first International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
The ballroom at the Excel tower in Rangoon, Burma was filled with people. Youth wearing colorful outfits mingled with older men and women in traditional Burmese dress. Everyone was looking around, eager and excited.
They had all come to take part in Burma’s very first celebration of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), which happened last week on May 17th. The celebration marked tremendous progress in a country that is often conservative and repressive.
Some of you may have seen Burma featured prominently in the news as the U.S. government decided to restore full diplomatic ties with the country. And, yes, it is big news. We’d like to put these developments in context and share our thoughts on what we will be looking for in the coming months.
First, a bit of background. As we detailed in a recent blog post, the message following Secretary of State Clinton’s November visit was that Burma’s new quasi-civilian government needed to take concrete steps to show that its promises of political reform and national reconciliation are genuine. It’s not a coincidence that the government has started to deliver on some of these demands.
1) The Burmese government released 651 political prisoners, many of whom are incredibly important activists who have been held in terrible conditions for decades. For some incredibly moving photos click here.
Why is this significant? In the past, prisoner releases were small and rarely included the most important and well-known activists. (Often it wasn’t even clear if the prisoners released were actually political prisoners.) Friday’s release included prominent activists such as 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing (first imprisoned from 1989-2004 and then from 2007-2012) and Nilar Thein (who was imprisoned in 2008 following large scale protests), ethnic Shan leader U Khun Tun Oo, monk leader U Gambira and blogger Nay Phone Latt.
What’s next? Over 600 political prisoners are still in jail. Repressive laws are still on the books. We’ll look for these laws to be repealed and to see if released activists are able to organize and criticize their government without being thrown back into jail. According to the Irrawaddy magazine, prisoners were not given amnesty but rather had their sentences suspended so they could be re-arrested. For more thoughts on what needs to happen next, check out AJWS’s grantee Burma Partnership. Read More
Posted in Human Rights