Saturday, July 29, 2006

the column on Iraq that got me fired

This was my submission in April 2006 for my regular column at; a month later the column still had not been posted. Finally the editors there told me they no longer wanted to run my column. See if you can figure out why.

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 Jordan [I’ll call her Marie], recently. “I think it is safe to say we are pissed off. Those who were in Iraq in 2003 can attest to the fact that the sectarianism simply was not at the level it is in 2006. Something went wrong. And what went wrong was mainly from the international community. But unfortunately, it is the Iraqis who will have to lie in it. As Iraq spiraled into chaos, the divisions and schisms among the communities that were created were predictable. But, as one of my colleagues pointed out, perhaps the most painful fact is that at one point they were preventable. And therefore are criminal.”

When I received Marie’s e-mail I was visiting Nashville, Tennessee, USA, where a young mother of three told me, in all earnestness, “Iraqis don’t want democracy and freedom. All they want to do is kill one another. We need to get out of there and let them have at it.”

I have heard similar remarks from numerous US Americans of different means, ages, political leanings, and geographical locations, as well as from people from England, Australia, Colombia, and Italy, which are all coalition countries, and even Ireland, which is not. Shockingly, even so-called progressives who have been against the invasion from the start can be heard saying such things these days.

People in the United States seem to be sick of the occupation, or as they are more likely to hear it called, the “war” in Iraq. Yet many US people do not seem to see Iraqis as people who are like them, just caught in an excruciatingly bad situation. They apparently can’t see beyond their government’s and their corporate media’s lies and omissions. It is painful to note how even people who responded rather generously to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters cannot open their hearts to the people of Iraq, whose suffering has been going on for so many years—through two wars, UN sanctions, and now the sectarian strife and civil war—and has been largely brought about by the failed policies of US administrations and their “coalition partners”.

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 US journalists to go into the country to dig further.

I have a friend I’ll call Andy, who lives in a city some distance from Baghdad. In the early days of the occupation he fell in love, and soon after married. His wife is very young. They had a baby boy in October 2004, and Andy was absolutely thrilled to be a father, talking about his son every time we spoke. Before the invasion Andy worked in a hotel and, with a degree in English literature, as a translator for humanitarians and journalists. In April 2003 he began working as a translator for the U.S. Army, with whom he continued to work until very recently.

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 Iraq. There is nothing for us here. I will do anything. I am sorry to disturb you.”

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 Poland and the UK both returned Iraqi asylum seekers to Iraq.

So Andy is still stuck in Iraq, and things have gotten much more ominous.

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 Syria, to contact the UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] office to register as refugees there, hoping to find any country that will provide us with resettlement. Our life has become impossible in Iraq. The extremists are targeting anyone who works with the coalition forces. . . . You cannot imagine how our situation is, terrible. . . . We live in fear and panic because of these extremists.”

Again, despite the urgency of Andy’s family’s situation, I was stymied in my attempts to help them find a way out. Neighbouring Jordan and Syria, already inundated with refugees, have recently been turning back thousands of Iraqis trying to escape over their borders. Many of these beleaguered people had packed up their families and fled in the middle of the night in panic after witnessing a neighbour or loved one killed before their eyes. No other country—England, Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Italy, other neighbouring countries—seems willing to help these terrorized Iraqis, even those like Andy who are being targeted solely because of their employment with coalition forces.

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 Jordan to seek safe haven. At this time there are no special provisions for resettlement in the USA of Iraqi nationals who have volunteered to work with coalition forces [my italics]. UNHCR will be able to provide the most information about what assistance they can provide.”

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 U.S. armed forces since the March 2003 invasion and occupation began, not to mention all the other Iraqis who worked in other capacities with the coalition. Now, in its generosity, the U.S. government has decided to grant 50 of them asylum.

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 United States? There is nobody to answer this question. I’ve been shunted around from place to place, and the best anyone seems to be able to tell me is that Andy will have to take his wife and baby all the way to Baghdad, to the US Embassy there (in the “Green Zone”), where they will have to submit the petition. Then they will all have to return a second time for an interview.

This is essentially a death sentence for this family. Just traveling to Baghdad, and then openly traveling not once but twice to the US Embassy, is like issuing an invitation to those who would murder them.

As I scramble to find anyone who can help me find an alternative way for them to get asylum in the US or elsewhere, Andy’s time is running out. His baby is due in just a few weeks, and his wife, he tells me, has “collapsed” in terror. He has had to tend to her, as well as his sick and terrified mother and his 15-month-old son. It will be a wonder if he does not collapse himself.

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 US administration but the international community at large. There are tens of thousands in similar straits, and yet we hear next to nothing about them. When I am unable even to find stories in the international press about efforts to help them, it is hard even to offer them a ray of hope.

“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 Iraq at a time when they needed support from the world, or at the very least to be left alone. These interventions led to the many signs that Iraq was growing further and further apart. Most Iraqis feel their country is unrecognizable. None of us can speak about going back to Iraq now. The sad reality is that most of us still don’t believe we have seen the worse yet.”

I know she is right, although it is unimaginable that things can get even worse. We — that is, not only the United States but all the coalition countries and the entire international community — have failed miserably in bringing peace or stability to Iraq; to the contrary, we have inarguably fomented civil war, terror, and devastation.

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

Text of Ithaca's Burmese Democracy Day Resolution

Below is the text of the city of Ithaca, New York, resolution. We hope it will inspire other municipalities, even states, even countries, to make a similar statement against the Burmese junta and for the Burmese people.

Resolution was introduced by Common Council member Robin Holtham Korherr and seconded by Michelle Berry; it was voted upon at the city of Ithaca
Common Council Meeting on July 5, 2006

Resolution Declaring August 8 Each Year as Burmese Democracy Day in Ithaca

WHEREAS, for more than four decades Burma’s military junta has ruled without constitutional provisions providing any fundamental rights; and

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

WHEREAS, on August 8, 1988, the people of Burma rose up in peaceful protest against political and economic oppression; 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 Ithaca and its region have a history of concern, compassion, and involvement with human rights struggles around the world; and

WHEREAS, we note with admiration that several members of our Ithaca community were forced to flee Burma because of their unrelenting defense of democracy; now therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the City of Ithaca’s Mayor and Common Council declare August 8 annually BURMESE DEMOCRACY DAY in the City of Ithaca, and be it further

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.

Carried Unanimously

8888 New Blood Comrades and Subsequent News

Sorry it has taken me a while to get back to this topic. I've been pretty insane, trying to help Iraqis escape the country. So far, very little luck. Things there are, unimaginably, getting even worse. More on the situation there soon.

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

follow-up to Burmese Democracy Day posting

After I sent around that press release (see previous post, below) I received some negative feedback from a group of Burmese activists who seemed to be upset about Ithaca taking the historic step of declaring August 8 "Burmese Democracy Day."

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:

Dear friends, 

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,

Maura Stephens
Ithaca NY USA

Ithaca Makes Burmese Democracy Day permanent, Hours Before a Death Threat

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
military regime.

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!