Sunday, December 17, 2006
In any case, the situation with Andy and Alice and their children is an exercise in frustration. I have been stymied by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, who now insist that we provide letters from generals from the army units with which Andy served. But of course there are no generals in most of Iraq. The highest ranking officers in the units Andy served with were l. Despite the fact that many highest ranking officers from the units he was with have written to the USCIS to vouch that there were no higher ranking officers in their units, the USCIS insists still that we provide letters from generals.
The whole situation is Kafkaesque to the extreme. Meantime, I am about to send out an appeal for money in the hope that we will get them out soon; I'll have to find them housing, a car, food, clothing, etc., as well as a job for Andy. I look forward to that challenge and hope to heaven they make it through while the bureacrats do all they can to ensure the worst. The prevalence of stupidity, heartlessness, arrogance, callousness, and cluelessness -- sometimes all bundled into one -- in our fellow human beings, despite my growing exposure to government on the local, national, and international levels, still astonishes me, as does the willful ignorance of so many U.S. Americans.
Last weekend we were in NYC on Sunday, December 10, for International Human Rights Day. A small group of Burmese and I did a demonstration in front of the UN headquarters (Ralph Bunche Park) demanding UN action on Burma. The biggest purpose of our demonstration was to get media from other countries (esp. Norway, Denmark, Thailand, and the BBC that covers Burma) to air the footage, which will then make its way, we hope, via independent/pirate media to Aung San Suu Kyi in her house prison and to the Burmese people, who are living in terror under the country's brutal regime. We hope our actions will hearten and inspire them to continue resisting.
I'll try to be better about updating news in future. I'll try.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Meantime I've been distracted with Burmese news and other pressures. Today I sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as the 11th day of the Burmese hunger strike begins in Washington, DC. The group moves tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 16, to UN Headquarters in NYC and hopes to get an interview with Mr. Annan or his representative.
We'd really love your help in our efforts to get the UN Security Council to act on Burma! Please customize the letter below and send it to Mr. Annan at the fax number listed--and let me know if you have done so. Please also feel free to publicize our efforts or send donations; we're running on a shoestring and all funds are coming out of the pockets of the (mostly underemployed, certainly underpaid) Burmese hunger strikers.
Thank you! Write me for more info: mstephens [at] ithaca.edu
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General
United Nations, S-378
Via fax to 1-212-963-4879 and 1-212-963-7055
Honorable Secretary-General Kofi Annan:
I have learned of the current hunger strike by Burmese freedom activists in front of the UN this week.
I urge you to meet with these brave people, who are so valiantly trying to get your attention and to raise the concerns of people worldwide to the plight of their countrypeople still in
Yet the United Nations Security Council has not found a way to address this issue, instead issuing numerous useless resolutions to urge the regime to change. The regime will not change until serious economic actions are taken by your august body. Please meet with the hunger strikers to discuss their concerns, and make a real effort, while you are still Secretary-General, to effect meaningful change in
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Note: it was written for a UK-based publisher, hence the English spellings and usage. Also remember that it was written in March; there have been developments since. I will soon post an update about Andy and Alice.
Where Can They Turn?
Iraqis are targets in their own homes. But no countries—including those that brought this upon them—seem willing to offer them asylum.
“The debate over civil war has shifted from when and if to how bad and how long,” wrote a friend working in
When I received Marie’s e-mail I was visiting
I have heard similar remarks from numerous US Americans of different means, ages, political leanings, and geographical locations, as well as from people from
People in the
In their defence, most US Americans don’t ever hear the real stories of Iraqi people. Instead they are spoon-fed via the corporate-controlled media just what the Bush administration wants them to hear, and that certainly doesn’t include acknowledgment that millions of ordinary Iraqis have had their lives turned into nightmares because of the ineptitude, ignorance, and arrogance of the Bush administration, which, phenomenally, become more pronounced daily.
Glimpses into their lives are all we can share these days, as it is too dangerous for most
I have a friend I’ll call Andy, who lives in a city some distance from
In a conversation last July he reported, as all my friends had been reporting without fail for more than two years, that there was still hardly any electricity, and the water was still polluted. “And now,” Andy said, “we have to worry about the militias. There is one which belongs to the Shi’a leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakeem [head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose military arm is known as the Badr Brigade]. I am a Sunni, and for sure they hate us. But you know, my Mom is a Shi’a, and I don’t think there is a difference because all of us are Muslim people. But there are crazy people from both sides. They just want to kill each other. I am afraid. I mean, I am a Sunni guy, and if they knew I worked with the U.S. Army maybe one of those crazy people will shoot me. That is what I am scared of.”
Andy begged me to help him and his family get out of the country. “There must be ways to help people get rid of this bad life,” he said. “Surely you Americans can help.”
My heart sank, as it had so many times over the past few years, listening to Iraqi friends’ terrible fears, yet knowing how nearly impossible it is to help them. “So many people are in dangerous situations like you,” I told him. “There are so many it is impossible to find places for all of them.”
“I know,” he replied. “But I am ready to work as a teacher or a cleaner or whatever. Just please, I want to go outside of
That was ten months ago. In the interim, I have had no luck finding them a way out, despite numerous attempts with different countries’ immigration offices and consulates. I even learned from the European Council on Exiles and Refugees’ Guidelines on the Treatment of Iraqi Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Europe that last year
So Andy is still stuck in
Six weeks ago he got in touch after nearly three months of silence, during which I had been quite worried. First he told me the good news: He and his wife are expecting a new baby, due in May. But then he confirmed some of my worst fears: “Our house was bombed,” he said, “and my father and brother were killed. My wife and I were not at home. Now we are chased by the militia, those terrorists. I am planning to flee the country to
Again, despite the urgency of Andy’s family’s situation, I was stymied in my attempts to help them find a way out. Neighbouring
My initial inquiries at the U.S. State Department, even going through my Congressional representatives’ offices, were met by the same cold response: “Contacting UNHCR is the first step to obtaining refugee status. Many Iraqis have traveled to
A couple of weeks later, on April 5, I received word that the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1815, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, and it was signed by George W. Bush. It contained a provision, in Section 1059, authorizing special immigrant status for a maximum of 50 Iraqi translators per year. These translators must have “worked directly with United States Armed Forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months”; and “obtained a favorable written recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien”; and “before filing the petition . . . cleared a background check and screening, as determined by a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien.”
There are thousand of Iraqis who worked as translators for the
I shared this good news with Andy, and explained that he would need to provide a considerable amount of paperwork. He was frightened that he would have to return to his bombed-out home secretly to sift through the rubble for some of the important papers he needed to file the petition, and warned me that it might take up to a month.
Two weeks later he surprised me by sending all the necessary papers electronically. He had risked his life several times, but he had managed to retrieve his and his wife’s and son’s birth certificates; his marriage certificate; his university degree; several letters of commendation and appreciation from U.S. Army officers; his official coalition translator ID cards; several photographs of Andy with his U.S. soldier friends; photos of his family, and of their bombed-out house and car; and, horrifyingly, a short video clip of a fellow translator’s assassination.
Now the challenge is, how does one submit a petition for asylum for an Iraqi translator with all the correct paperwork to be admitted to the
This is essentially a death sentence for this family. Just traveling to
As I scramble to find anyone who can help me find an alternative way for them to get asylum in the
Andy is just one of many kind, decent, good, hardworking, loving, generous Iraqi people who are stuck in a never-ending nightmare in their country, which has descended into chaos thanks to the blundering of not only the
“Sometimes when I look back at the hope and optimism that I once had,” my friend Marie says, “I feel betrayed for daring to believe. A part of me feels angry — like I was tricked into buying into a plan others knew was doomed for failure. . . . If [it had been] left to the Iraqis, they would have indeed risen above it. The countless international interventions — from neighbouring countries to the coalition forces — destabilized
I know she is right, although it is unimaginable that things can get even worse. We — that is, not only the
I say that if we cannot help the Iraqi people find peace and security within their devastated country, we absolutely owe them a way out.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Resolution was introduced by Common Council member Robin Holtham Korherr and seconded by Michelle Berry; it was voted upon at the city of Ithaca
Resolution Declaring August 8 Each Year as Burmese Democracy Day in Ithaca
WHEREAS, for more than four decades
WHEREAS, abuses by Burmese government security forces are well documented and include rape, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, infringements on citizens’ privacy, forced relocations, and conscriptions of child soldiers; and
WHEREAS, the ruling junta continues to detain hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace prize laureate of 1991, who has continued to champion the causes of democracy and justice for the people of Burma, despite having been in and out of arrest and detention ever since she became the people’s leader in the 1988 democracy uprisings; and
WHERAS, they were violently oppressed when the military opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators, killing hundreds and forcing many more into exile (including many of our Ithaca Burmese community members); and
WHEREAS, the 1988 protests paved the way for the 1990 elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party won a landslide parliamentary victory; and
WHEREAS, the current junta in Burma has been condemned for ignoring the results of the 1990 elections that resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party; for severely restricting fundamental human rights as put forth in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights; for ethnic violence against its people, including torture, displacement, and murder; for further abuse of its people including failure to put an end to the trafficking of women and children; and
WHEREAS, the people of
WHEREAS, we note with admiration that several members of our
RESOLVED, That the City of
RESOLVED, That copies of this Resolution be sent to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, and the U.S. President’s office at the White House.
Meantime, back to Burma and the earlier notes. I guess I didn't make it clear in my last posting that I had no personal lament. The very small group (only a few people altogether) of Burmese who complained about the Ithaca city resolution apparently simply misunderstood the Common Council's intention -- an easy thing to misunderstand, given the vast differences between the English and Burmese languages and the vast cultural differences -- and thought the city leaders were proclaiming that Burma was already democratic. In hindsight, maybe choosing the name "Burmese Democracy Day" wasn't such a great idea; but that is what the Burmese community chose, and so it stands.
What was misunderstood by our 8888 friends was that we were proclaiming solidarity with the Burmese people in their continuing struggle for Democracy that will surely be theirs SOMEday; we all hope it is sooner than later.
It is time for the United States and the United Nations to demand action on Burma. Stop paying lip service!!! Stop trying to pacify us!!! ASEAN, the EU, and the UN must all join with the USA to demand regime change in Burma. Not via machine guns and tanks and bombs, but by political and economic pressure. The military regime must step down and hand over the reins of the government to the democratically elected majority party, the National League for Democracy, and its leader, the rightful president, Aung San Suu Kyi. And it must happen now.
They must start by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and allowing the rightful parliament to convene. Then the hardest work begins: forging a democracy from the disparate groups -- the many tribes and political parties -- that make up Burma, and building a lasting peace, with forgiveness and reconciliation and forward planning.
I remind my Burmese friends that democracy is messy, very messy. It means compromise, and occasionally conceding a point that means a lot to you. It means listening to opposing points of view, respecting them, and trying to negotiate something that both sides can live with. It means acceding to what may be an antithetical majority view. It means swallowing pride and anger, and working with those you might disagree with. It is, as I say, very messy, and painful, and sometimes even tedious.
Reconciliation and peace-building are equally difficult and require prodigious amounts of patience, forgiveness, and optimism.
There is a lot of work ahead, even once Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are freed. Are the Burmese ready for the tasks?
I sincerely hope so. The world could use some happy news. And the Burmese need to try democracy on for size. They are very ready.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
That date was chosen in honor of the fallen from 8-8-88, when the people of Burma rose up in a nationwide call for democracy and freedom from tyranny, but were brutally put down. Many were killed, and many others forced into hiding and eventual exile.
About 50 Burmese refugees resettled in Ithaca. Our city's resolution is intended to bring attention to the struggles still underway in Burma, where the military regime still practices widespread human rights abuses, and to show the people within Burma and Burmese exiles around the world that we support their efforts. We wanted to show solidarity with them and with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, their illegally incarcerated democracy leader.
Excerpts from the letter from the group, which calls itself 8888 New Blood Comrades:
. . . We take this opportunity to oppose the Ithaca Community Council
resolution to acknowledge August 8, 1988, nationwide uprising as Burma's democracy day. . . .
. . . As long as the present ruling military dictatorship is still in place in Burma, no individual or organization in Burma or overseas has the reason or right to claim or name that auspicious day (8-8-88) as anything, much less 'democracy day' as the struggle is stil[l] ongoing and we have not yet achieved our primary objective - freedom and our right to exercise our inalienable rights.My response:
I feel compelled to reply to this memo, simply as myself and not as a representative of any group. I am an American who is deeply concerned with the terrible human rights situation in Burma, and I have worked closely with the Burmese community of my city, Ithaca, New York, in getting this resolution passed (which I do not think you have read). . . .
The intention of our city's legislators in passing this resolution is to honor the freedom and democracy struggles of the Burmese people both inside Burma and now in exile around the world, including in our own community, where at least 50 Burmese exiles now reside. Contrary to what your memo says, we deeply honor the courage and sacrifice of those who rose up on 8-8-88 and those who carry on the struggle 18 years later. Making a 'Burmese Democracy Day' in Ithaca means simply that we will stand in solidarity until the dreams of 8-8-88 are realized and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners are freed; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party take their rightful positions in political leadership of the country; and a peace and reconciliation process, and transition to democracy, are well underway.
My heart broke to read your memo, because it suggests to me that you do not understand that others may be part of the same struggle for human rights and justice. Just because we are halfway around the world does not mean that we do not care about the people of Burma and their terrible hardships. We are all human beings, all the same family, and unless we all realize that there can never be peace, freedom, justice, or equity.
Please take a moment to reflect on what it is you really want: Is it freedom and peace and equality for all, or only those who belong to your particular organization? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, when she is freed and back in her rightful place as the leader of Burma, would be deeply saddened to know that the factional elements of her supporters cannot work together for the same end.
It is a basic characteristic of human nature that everybody wants his or her own agenda to be at the forefront. And that points to the truth that real democracy is messy. It requires careful negotiation, and equally important it requires respect of others' opinions and desires, even if they are different from our own.
Please do not fall into the trap of division and rancor; that will only hurt your cause. And please accept gracefully the honest desire of a small city in New York State to stand by the cause of democracy and freedom for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma. We made this resolution out of love and respect.
Respectfully, and in solidarity,
Ithaca NY USA
This is the press release sent around after last week's historic vote by the Ithaca Common Council.
Ithaca is the world’s first city to declare annual Burmese Democracy Day, less than a day before the life of
Burma's incarcerated democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is been threatened by the country's brutal regime.
At its meeting on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 the city of Ithaca's Common Council
made Ithaca the first city in the world to name an annual day in honor of the
Burmese people and their struggle for freedom and democracy against a tyrannical
Just a day later word reached Ithaca's celebrating Burmese community that
the brutal military regime in power has threatened the life of Aung San Suu Kyi,
the democratically elected leader who has been held under house arrest for most of the
last 16 years.
The Common Council voted unanimously to make August 8 — the anniversary
of the peaceful 1988 demonstrations for democracy by millions of Burmese
people in which thousands were killed and many more forced into exile
(8-8-88) — Burmese Democracy Day in Ithaca, permanently.
“To all our knowledge, this makes Ithaca the first city on the planet to
give such strong and unwavering support to the oppressed people of
Burma,” said Maura Stephens, a Tioga County resident who has been
working with the Burmese community.
The Burmese of Ithaca hope that their city’s resolution will encourage
other municipalities, states, and national governments to take similar
actions to bring attention to the desperate plight of the Burmese.
Aung San Suu Kyi has never allowed to take her rightful place as president
since her National League for Democracy Party won a popular election by a landslide —
winning 83 percent of the vote — in 1990. The military regime, which lost that
election, simply refused to hand over power.
“It often feels to us that the world has essentially abandoned Burma to
the brutal regime in control,” Stephens said. “Although the United
Nations, the Association of South East Asian Nations, the European
Union, world leaders such as Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu — even the
current U.S. administration — have called for the release of Aung San
Suu Kyi and transition to democracy and reconciliation, the military
junta simply does what it wants, with impunity. There have never been
Ithaca, with about 30,000 full-time residents and another 30,000
students at Cornell University and Ithaca College, last year became the
second U.S. city (after San Francisco) to name a special day in honor of
the 60th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi on June 19.
About a third of the 50 Ithaca-area Burmese exiles attended the Common
Council meeting to witness the historic vote, along with visitors from
as far as Texas. Council member Robin Holtham Korherr introduced the
resolution, which was approved unanimously after favorable commentary
from members Maria Coles, Michelle Courtney Berry, and Daniel Cogan and
from Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson.
Earlier, Stephens pointed out, “Although it may seem like a ‘no-brainer’
to pass a resolution for things as elemental as freedom, justice,
decency, and human rights, this vote has deeper meaning for the Burmese
still in Burma. News will reach them via independent, grass-roots,
unofficial, banned media that people from as far away as Ithaca, New
York, are working on their behalf; that they are not alone.”
That pledge took on all the more urgency when news reached Ithaca via the
news agency BosNewsLife, which on Thursday afternoon that Burma's regime made
an apparent death threat against Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday, warning that
her days "are numbered," and she is "heading for a tragic end" for being guilty
of "betraying the national cause while relying on aliens," including the United States
and the European Union.
"Attempts to translate into reality the 1990 election results are in vain," the military junta
was quoted in its official English-language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar,
monitored by BosNewsLife from Thailand.
The Burmese community of Ithaca was planning a special day of commemoration,
education, food, and cultural entertainment to be held on Saturday, August 5.
Now they will be even more vigilant in their concern for their beloved leader, the
world's most famous political prisoner.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Thank you for asking about my situation as a columnist at openDemocracy. It has been gratifying to hear from so many readers, from places such as Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Northern Ireland, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and more.
I am sad to report that the people at openDemocracy, for inexplicable reasons, have terminated our relationship and hence my column. It was a rather precipitate decision, following closely on the heels of the columns on Ireland in which I had a little public disagreement with an economist from the Economist.
I was particularly saddened because I thought I had a good relationship with openDemocracy and believed in its stated mission, which supposedly is all about "open and fair dialogue." I may post the correspondence I had with one of the editors there; I have not received the courtesy of a reply to my last letter to the top editor (which was sent in late May).
I decided to start this blog at the behest of several of you; I will populate it primarily with postings on issues I'm most actively involved with:
- my Iraqi friends and their increasingly horrific lives (I thought a year ago it couldn't get much worse, but alas, it has, and they are barely keeping alive at this point);
- the Burmese freedom activists who are trying to get the world community to act against the tyrannical military regime, which is now apparently threatening the life of Aung San Suu Kyi;
- sustainability efforts;
- water privatization, locally and globally;
- TheocracyWatch issues -- fighting dominionism in US government;
- keeping corporations in check by reclaiming sovereignty of, by, and for the people, in the DemocracySchool model;
- theatrical productions;
- and who knows . . .
Thanks for visiting. I hope to hear from you. Please post comments!