Tag Archives: Burma

2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

12 Jan

In my last post, I looked back on how my predictions fared in 2014. While there are a couple different ways to measure success, all in all I was a little under 50%.

Here are my predictions for 2015. Like last time, I’ll not do a simple yes/no, but rather a percentage of how likely a mass atrocity is to happen. By mass atrocity, I mean 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group. I’m including more countries than I did last year, and hopefully this will offer more accurate forecasts.

  • Nigeria (95%)
  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Pakistan (75%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • Sudan (65%)
  • Mexico (55%)
  • CAR (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Somalia (30%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Libya (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Cameroon (20%)
  • Ukraine (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Lebanon (10%)
  • Burundi (5%)
  • Yemen (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Guinea (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Zimbabwe (5%)
  • Mali (5%)

Explaining my forecast for each of the 28 countries here would be tedious and probably unnecessary, so I’ll skip it. However, I’ll select a few countries where my risk prediction doesn’t generally line up with the consensus in the atrocity prevention community.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has probably already committed a mass killing in 2015, and across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is also active, though the chances of a mass atrocity are lower if not insignificant.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not countries on the traditional atrocity prevention agenda, but that has more to do with uneasy relationship between anti-atrocity advocates and the U.S. military than the countries’ risk. Their respective Taliban’s both committed atrocities last year, and it seems likely that trend will continue.

In Mexico, it’s never a question of absolute casualty figures but how those casualties are categorized. Because there aren’t clear numbers on how many cartel members die as opposed to civilians, it’s hard to know whether more than 1,000 are killed by a specific drug cartel, even if thousands will almost certainly die in 2015.

In the DRC, like Mexico, more than 1,000 are highly likely to die. However, the splintered nature of armed groups in the country’s east means I think it’s more likely than not no single group will kill 1,000 civilians. The situation’s not dissimilar in Libya, where there is rampant violence, but it is committed by a myriad of militias.

Israel probably committed a mass killing in Gaza last year, and while confrontations between Hamas and Israel seem to operate on two or three year cycles, there’s still a decent chance Israel ‘mows the grass’ again this year.

While Rwanda is often praised as one of Africa’s most efficient governments, this sheen of good governance masks a political powder-keg. Whenever the elite coalition Kagame has built fractures, the struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum will likely result in mass violence. The same principle applies in Zimbabwe and Eritrea.

Finally, Burundi and Burma are two countries that have been high on the atrocity prevention agenda that I rated at only 5%. In Burundi, it seems the government has repressed the opposition enough that ruling elites are unlikely to be threatened during the 2015 election. There are some parallels here with Burma. While the treatment of the Rohingya minority is horrendous, it seems Burma’s elites have settled on forcing emigration rather than initiating a mass killing, which would be more politically risky.

Looking Back on My 2014 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

2 Jan

A year ago, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2014 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by discrete group). My predictions were fairly accurate, if not perfectly so. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where it’s simply too hard to know, I’ve put a “?”. I don’t want to get too in-depth into how I determined whether atrocities occurred, but I have some explanations in the footnotes for countries that are hard to judge one way or the other.

  • Syria (95%) – YES
  • South Sudan (85%) – YES
  • Iraq (85%) – YES
  • CAR (75%) – YES [1]
  • Sudan (60%) – YES
  • Afghanistan (50%) – YES [2]
  • North Korea (50%) – ? [3]
  • Mexico (35%) – ? [4]
  • Nigeria (30%) – YES
  • Burma (20%) – NO
  • DRC (20%) – NO [5]
  • Egypt (10%) – NO
  • Mali (5%) – NO
  • Venezuela (5%) – NO

To judge how accurate I was, one measure is to see each case as containing 100 points. If an atrocity did happen, then I get the number of percentage points that I predicted (for example, I get 95 out of 100 for Syria) and if one did not happen, I get the result of subtracting the number of percentage points I predicted from 100 (for example, I get 80 out of 100 for Burma). Because my predictions were not just yes/no, this method helps account for the probabilistic aspect. Measuring this way, I did very well, receiving 920 out of a possible 1200, excluding Mexico and North Korea because of the inconclusive judgments. However, that score should really be 920 out of 1400, because civilian deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas conflict constitute a mass atrocity. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban committed a mass atrocity. A mass atrocity may have occurred in Somalia, but the numbers don’t seem high enough to definitively say for sure.

There are a few problems with this metric for success, though. First, my numbers success rate is considerably boosted by the very high probability (the “No Shit List”) and the very low probability cases. If I remove the cases where I predicted probabilities above 80% and below 20%, and add in Pakistan and Gaza, my score comes out to a much less impressive 375 out of 800, even though by the standards of forecasting international events, it’s not bad.

The results of my projections have both optimistic and pessimistic ramifications for the ability to forecast atrocities. On the one hand, being a little less than 50% accurate in medium-risk cases is much better than the standard 65%-80% false positive ratio that’s common even in the best performing models (though it’s easier to outperform statistical models in one year than five). Additionally, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Gaza, no episodes of atrocities occurred in countries with probabilities less than 30%. On the other hand, in every case that I listed a probability that an atrocity would happen and it did, the country had been experiencing large-scale violent conflict at the beginning of 2014. One of the two cases I missed was also the one not experiencing large-scale violent conflict then.

Therein lies the problems. It’s fairly easy to predict where atrocities will occur for countries already experiencing mass violence. While it is certainly useful to predict anywhere where atrocities will occur, the real prize of forecasting is to identify the cases where atrocities will occur that aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Because mass atrocities are such rare events, that’s frustratingly difficult.

In my next post, I’ll put up my mass atrocity forecasts for 2015.

Update (1/16/15): Earlier today I realized that in analyzing my predictions I had missed the chance to analyze whether I had been overly optimistic or pessimistic about mass atrocities in 2014. I’m particularly interested to see if I avoided the bias that generally has forecasts over-predict the likelihood of rare events, which atrocities are.

I’ll do this by adding up the percentage points I predicted in total (and divide my 100) and then compare that to the actual occurrence of atrocities. If we exclude the atrocities that happened that I didn’t predict, I predicted there would be 5.4 mass atrocities in 2014. Within my prediction sample, there were actually 6 mass atrocities. So I was pretty close. My accuracy here was helped because each country that had a mass atrocity in 2014 in my predicted list also had one in 2013.

However, if I include Gaza and Pakistan (as I probably should), I was less accurate, again predicting 5.4 atrocities when 8 actually occurred. For whatever reason, I bucked the trend and under-predicted the number of atrocities that would occur in 2014.

Clarification (1/4/15): For this post, I defined a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths in a single year. While this is partially consistent with other definitions for a mass atrocity used by The Early Warning Project and my thesis, it doesn’t clarify the conditions for when a mass atrocity continues over multiple years. The convention is that 1,000 is required in the onset year, and then if the number of deaths drops below a much lower threshold for a few years, then the mass killing episode ends. For example, by the Early Warning Project’s definition, a state-led mass killing episode continued in Myanmar last year, even though as far as I can tell, the casualty numbers were well under 1,000. For my predictions, because I’m only looking at one year at a time, I’m thinking about whether death counts will reach 1,000 each year. Neither definition is better than the other, but for the purposes of my predictions, the 1,000 threshold every year makes more sense.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

[1] Though the numbers aren’t entirely clear, it seems very likely that more 1,000 noncombatants were killed by anti-balaka forces (and possibly ex-Seleka forces too) in 2014.

[2] By July, more than 1,500 civilians had already been killed, with 74% of those caused by anti-government forces (mostly the Taliban). The total number had risen to over 3,000 by November, with the Taliban responsible for 75%.

[3] Obviously, the North Korean regime isn’t releasing data on its prison camps, but investigations by Amnesty and the OHCHR makes it seem very likely more than 1,000 civilians died in 2014. However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure.

[4] Like North Korea, there’s just not enough data to say. It’s not that we don’t know that huge numbers of people were killed by organized crime, but it’s unclear how many of those count as civilians (cartel members are combatants in this case). It seems likely, but one can’t be sure.

[5] While the civilian death toll almost certainly exceeded 1,000 in 2014, to my knowledge, no one single group can claim to have killed more than 1,000 noncombatants.

I’m Not That Great a Forecaster: Looking back on my past predictions and learning how to improve

2 Jan

In early January of 2013, I wrote two posts that outlined six conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in the coming year.  Without any concrete methodology, I picked out Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Kenya, Syria (specifically violence in a post-Assad Syria), and Central Asia.  Arguably, I was wrong in five of the six cases if the criteria is that the violence had to get significantly worse from 2012 to 2013 in the manner that I predicted  (it gets even worse when you think about all 2013 conflicts I omitted; Nigeria, Egypt, CAR, and Iraq all experienced episodes of mass killing that have intensified since 2012).  I’ll briefly outline how I did country by country, address what I did wrong, and because it’s that time of year again, propose predictions for 2014.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, feel free to skip to the bulleted predictions.

Sudan had a turbulent year, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary for the troubled country.  #SudanRevolts returned in September and October and prompted a fairly superficial cabinet reshuffle, but not much else.  Violence continued to rage in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.  Although violence increased in Darfur and perhaps South Kordofan, it was not a radical departure for 2012.  In my last sentence of my Sudan section, I briefly mentioned South Sudan.  While the violence in Jonglei between the Lou Nuer and Murle ebbed slightly in 2013, any progress made in the country was obliterated by the crisis that began on December 15th and has enveloped the country.  It’s unclear how many people have died, but it probably constitutes a mass killing. Mali has certainly experienced some violence in 2013, but there is no way that it was worse than 2012.  The French-African intervention was fairly successful at expelling the jihadist-Tuareg alliance from Northern Mali.  Fairly successful elections went ahead and the leader of the initial coup, Amadou Haya Sanogo, has been arrested and will be put on trial.

Afghanistan is probably the only case I got right.  Civilian casualties increased in the first half (and possibly the second) of 2013, marking a reversal in 2012’s trend.  For every success there’s a failure, and Kenya is that failure.  The March elections went off smoothly, and so I was really wrong.  I was right to predict that 2013 would be worse than 2012 for Syrians, but it didn’t happen in the way I thought.  At the time, it seemed very likely Assad would fall, initiating a mass killing of Alawites in and around Latakia.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, massive violence continued against civilian populations throughout Syria mostly with the exception of Latakia.  Finally, like Kenya, I really got Central Asia wrong.  There was not significant violence in any Central Asian country (excluding Afghanistan) this calendar year.  Regime change could have potentially caused conflict, but those pesky autocratic regimes just won’t go away.

So how can I improve?  First, it would have helped if I had had a concrete measurement for what constituted conflict.  Second, it would have made sense to have had a constant metric for assessing why I thought conflict would occur in certain places.  Figuring out what my predicted conflict zones had in common and why they were different from other potential conflict zones would have improved my methodology, even if creating a model from a hunch isn’t the best social science (if someone wants to pay me to blog I promise my methodology will be more robust).  My analysis also would have improved if I had laid out specifically what changes I was looking for and how they fit into a larger historical narrative.  For example, while there was both a history of and a potential for political instability in Central Asia, my only data points were the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan and the 2010 violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

So moving into my predictions for 2014, rather than creating a complete methodology of my own, I’m going to borrow two of Jay Ulfelder’s crowd-sourced forecasting projects as points of reference.  The first is the Center for Genocide Prevention’s online opinion pool (password needed).  The opinion pool aggregates the opinions of currently fifty individuals interested in atrocity prevention to create averaged probabilities about the likelihood of a particular event.  The questions are generally phrased like this, “Before X date, will an episode of state-led mass killing occur in Y country.”  The second is a wiki survey also originating from the Center for Genocide Prevention.  The results demonstrate how much more likely any particular country is to experience an episode of state-led mass killing than other countries during 2014.

In order and with percentages, these are the countries that I think are most likely to experience a mass killing (defined as more than 1,000 civilian deaths) in 2014:

  • Syria (95%)
  • South Sudan (85%)
  • Iraq (85%)
  • CAR (75%)
  • Sudan (60%)
  • Afghanistan (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • Nigeria (30%)
  • Burma (20%)
  • DRC (20%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Venezuela (5%)

My predictions are largely based on the crowd-sourced forecasts from Jay’s two projects, aren’t identical.  I’ll explain why, country by country, below.

Obviously, the chances that a mass killing will happen in Syria are very, very high (the wiki survey is definitely wrong in placing Syria 6th).  However, the opinion pool’s average probability that there will be a mass killing of Alawite civilians in Latakia province stands at 43%.  I think this is too high, and the real probability stands nearer 15%.  For a mass killing of Alawites to happen, the Assad regime would have to collapse or severely weaken.  Demonstrated by my false prediction of his doom in early 2013, Assad has proven surprisingly durable.  Civil wars tend to last a long time, so especially with the increasing fragmentation of the opposition, it’s doubtful Assad will be defeated anytime soon.

South Sudan, Iraq, and CAR all have ongoing conflict that will almost certainly include a case of mass killing, committed either by government or rebel forces, in 2014.  Iraq and CAR definitely experienced a mass killing episode in 2013, and South Sudan probably did, but the concrete numbers to confirm it don’t exist.  I pegged the chances of a future mass killing as slightly lower in CAR only because of the combination of the peacekeeping force and the higher potential for resolution than in South Sudan.

Jay Ulfelder, in his review of mass killing in 2013, wrote of Sudan, “…where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups.”  He’s right, and unfortunately civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile will likely continue to suffer in 2014.  In the opinion pool, a question asks the probability that Sudan will carry out a mass killing of anti-government activists will occur in 2015, and places the average at 31%.  I think this is far, far too high.  Despite significant anti-government protests, the body count has always remained low.  The Sudanese regime is intelligent in this respect, instead opting for mass arrests of protest leaders.  The scarcity of bloody street confrontations decreases the potential of igniting the paradox of repression.  It is also telling that the bloodiest anti-government protest this year happened in Nyala, South Darfur.  Khartoum is happy to take the fight to enemies in the periphery, but remains wary of the threat from the center.  If the government were to significantly weaken, there’s an increased chance it would unleash lethal violence against anti-government activists.  However, despite increasing organization from the political opposition and calls that the regime was about to fall, the NCP remains in power.

Afghanistan probably experienced a mass killing with the Tailban as the perpetrators in 2013, and there aren’t a lot of positive signs for the future.  In North Korea, it’s basically impossible to tell how many people are dying each year in giant concentration camps.  50% is simply a wild guess.

Drug violence in Mexico is out of control, but I’m hesitant to peg a high probability of a mass killing because it’s unclear what share of civilians vs. cartel members are killed in drug violence (in a tweet, Jay confirmed that cartel members count as combatants).  Bottom line: a lot of people will die in Mexico in 2014, but it may or may not constitute a mass killing.

Nigeria experienced a classic case of a counterinsurgent mass atrocity last year, and despite some international attention on the issue, there is still a decent chance it happens again.  Nigeria is 14th on the wiki survey for the chances of state-led killing (too low in my opinion) for 2014 but doesn’t appear as a question in the opinion pool.

Burma is a country that is very much in the news for people interested in atrocity prevention, but I’m more optimistic than other analysts about the prospects for 2014.  Burma’s counterinsurgencies against ethnic-minority armies are long-running, but have recently had quite low body counts.  I see no reason for that trend to stop.  The opinion pool predicts there is a 35% chance of a mass killing of Rohingya in 2014.  No single rioting incident has yet escalated to widespread killing (the Meiktila incident killed dozens, not hundreds).  Despite the massive persecution the Rohingya face, the levels of lethal violence have remained relatively low.  Without an obvious trigger, I think more slow-motion ethnic cleaning is far more likely than a full-blown mass killing in 2014.

DRC placed fourth in the wiki survey.  Perhaps this is a bit excessive, but not completely unwarranted.  The combination of a country in transition from autocracy to democracy, the prevalence of armed groups in the Kivus, and intrusive neighbors means the risk of a mass killing in the DRC remains relatively high.

Egypt also suffers from an unfortunate history.  Last year, the government undertook a mass killing in response to pro-Morsi demonstrations.  A similar scenario could repeat itself, violence in the Sinai could rapidly increase, or even less likely, a civil war that involves mass killing could erupt.  All of this is plausible, if not incredibly likely (Egypt is 15th in the wiki survey).

The situation is not absolutely analogous to the DRC’s, but Mali also suffers from a somewhat unstable post-major conflict environment.  The opinion pool average for a state-led mass killing rests at 13%.  I think this is too high (probably suffering from the bias that comes from forecasting rare events) because of the progress Mali has made since 2012, but not terribly so.  In the wiki survey, Mali is 3rd, which strikes me as overly pessimistic.

Finally, Venezuela is a bit of a stretch, but I decided to include it anyways.  Few atrocity prevention advocates are paying attention despite the high political instability and absolutist rhetoric coming out of the Maduro administration.  Though Venezuela appears 82nd on the wiki survey and isn’t in a region of the world that has been prone to mass killing recently, I think a political crisis resulting in a government mass killing is plausible if still very unlikely.

Correction: Jay Ulfelder wrote this in a comment, “One point of clarification about Syria and some of the other cases you discuss: in both the statistical modeling and the wiki survey, we’re looking at the risk that a *new episode* of mass killing will start, not the risk that the one(s) we’re seeing now will continue. So Syria could hypothetically get a very low predicted probability or rank if the models or crowd deemed it unlikely that the state would begin deliberately killing large numbers of civilians from a discrete group it isn’t already targeting now. Hence the question in the Syrian case about Alawites but not one about the groups the regime is killing in large numbers now.”  I didn’t realize that when I wrote the post.

Burma and the US: Where are we now?

30 Oct

*This piece originally appeared on the STAND blog.

Myanmar and the United States have not always had the friendliest bilateral relations, but just in the last two years, that is beginning to change.  Following ongoing, partial democratic reforms that began in 2011, the United States has gradually moved toward restoring a functioning relationship, sometimes called normalizing relations.  However, the United States should be cautious in its approach: there are still serious issues that the democratic reforms have not addressed.

The current cycle of relations between the United States and Myanmar (Myanmar commonly refers to the government, and Burma to the country) began in 1988, when the recently-installed military government brutally cracked down on the nascent pro-democracy movement.  Two years later, Myanmar refused to honor the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in national elections, placing her under house arrest instead.  In protest of the coup and the fraudulent elections, the United States removed its ambassador to the country.  The crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution led to the further deterioration of relations.

In 2011, Prime Minister Thein Sein was elected as President of Myanmar.  Though he had previously served in the military and his political party has connections to the military, he is the first civilian president in forty-nine years. His administration has slightly rolled back military control of government, freed some political prisoners, and opened up Burma’s commercial and media sectors.  In response to these changes, Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary of State, visited Burma in 2011, and in early 2012, announced that a United States ambassador would return to Burma.  The United States has also cancelled some economic sanctions on the country, allowing for US dollars to enter the country.  The prospect of resuming military collaboration has been discussed, but so far there hasn’t been any concrete action.

While there has been some thawing of recent relations, some impediments to normalization remain in place.  American businesses are allowed to invest in the state oil company, but this is contingent on notifying the State Department.  Similar restrictions apply to businesses with large investments in the country.  President Obama has also issued an executive order that has strengthened sanctions against individuals that work to prevent democratic reform.  Finally, the United States still does not provide Myanmar with military aid due to the presence of child soldiers within the Myanmar army.  Unlike Yemen and the DRC, it has not received a waiver to continue aid on the basis of American national security.

The United States should be wary of further normalization because of three main problems that remain in Burma.  First, the democratic reforms that began two years ago are largely superficial.  The military has a mandated 25% of seats in Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for President because of an obscure constitutional clause designed specifically to target her, and the government continues to imprison prisoners of conscience.  Second, the military continues to violate ceasefires with ethnic minority groups and commit human rights abuses in those areas.  These grievances were highlighted in a recent open letter signed by 133 ethnic minority organizations.  Third, the government has failed to stop violence against Muslim (primarily Rohingya) residents of Burma, and in many cases the government is complicit in the attacks.

Has Burma Reached the Extermination Stage of Genocide?

4 Jul

The Rohingya in Rakhine state, a Muslim ethnic group in a predominantly Buddhist country, are one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world.  Their situation has worsened in recent months with the rise of the ultra-nationalist 969 movement, led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu.  The movement’s goal is fight against what they perceive as the increased influence of Islam in Burmese society.  The current wave of violence began in May of 2012, when rumors of a rape/murder of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men set off a series of incidences of inter-communal violence.  Though Rohingya have been involved in violence against Buddhist civilians, Buddhist mobs attacking Rohingya are responsible for the majority of the violence.  While there is an international consensus that the Rohingya face heavy discrimination and persecution, there is debate over the chances of the future genocide and the existence of a current one.

To help frame this debate, Gregory Stanton’s theory that genocide has ten stages (updated from eight) is useful.  The original eight are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial.  Discrimination and persecution were added later on.  These stages often happen out of order and/or concurrently.   This article from UN dispatch provides an excellent summary of how each of the first six stages are happening, while a Rohinyga two child policy and the presence of Rohingya ghettos demonstrate discrimination and persecution, respectively.

While I fully agree with Greenwood’s post on the first six stages, her statement that the extermination stage is underway (though she includes the qualifier “arguably”) merits further examination.  Based on current events, it’s hard to argue that extermination has begun.  The killings have happened in bursts, and incidences of violence have happened mostly in response to specific incidents.  These factors indicate that extermination mechanisms have not yet been fully activated.  The rhetoric, the organization, and the ideology are all in place, and while the organization of Buddhist mobs can be utilized in the future to carry out mass killing in conjunction with government forces, killings, when they happen, remain on a small scale.

Extermination, however, does not have to happen through violent killings.  Extermination can be carried out through reducing a population’s birthrate and creating physical conditions that are likely to lead to widespread deaths.  The two child policy is clearly an attempt at the former.  As for the latter, many Rohingya are forced to live in squalid IDP camps.  Similarly, many Rohinyga have fled Burma in rickety boats, leading to many deaths, or at the very least permanent displacement due to a lack of Burmese citizenship.  While these two issues may be products of discrimination, polarization, and persecution, they may also be part of larger strategy to eliminate the Rohingya.  Without fully knowing the long-term intent and plans of Buddhist and government leaders, making informed judgments on whether the extermination stage has been reached is difficult.

Link

Is This Really Happening? Seeing Aung San Suu Kyi

28 Sep

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog 

My journey to see Aung San Suu Kyi on her first visit to the United States since she was released from house arrest, which she had been under for the better part of twenty-four years, began with a train from Swarthmore to Phildelphia, and then the Megabus to DC. That was followed by an hour and a half walking around Washington trying to find Daniel Solomon’s house. I finally, and after a period of unconsciousness that was too short, on a couch with the same problem, I started my early morning walk to Bender Arena at American University where ASSK was due to address D.C.’s Burmese community. I had been told that the whole event was going to be in Burmese, but I decided it was still worth it to see this incredible woman who had resisted every attempted by the Burmese government to break her spirit over the course of more than two decades.

I knew no one at the event, so I found a seat and waited an hour until The Lady appeared. A huge cry went up from the crowd when she entered via a side door, and even though the president of AU spoke first, all eyes were on her. After receiving an honorary degree from AU, she gave a brief address in English, in which she talked about a need for an inclusive Burmese society for all Burmese. She then moved into the question and answer portion, in which she answered questions in English and Burmese. In a response, she praised the United States for accepting so many Burmese Americans, and expressed her hope that one day all those Burmese who had felt it necessary to give up their citizenship could come back to their homeland. She answered most of the questions in Burmese, but judging from both the applause of the audience and the laughter of the Burmese family behind me, she was both funny and articulate.

I had to leave the event prematurely to catch a cab to the Newseum, where ASSK was due to speak next at an event hosted by Amnesty International. Though it was a shame I had to leave the event early, it was a bonus talking about the political situation in Ethiopia following Meles Zenawi’s death with my Ethiopian cab driver. At the Newseum I met up with Shomya Tripathy (#DJSTANDMOM), STAND’s Community Manager, and several other senior members of STAND and United to End Genocide. As Shomya and I sat there in the heavily over-air conditioned auditorium, we kept looking at the chair thirty feet in front of us with disbelief; Aung San Suu Kyi, who had remained a mythic idol of principle and bravery in our minds would physically inhabit that seat in a few minutes. After introductions by Amnesty International staff and Alex Wagner (the NBC host who moderated the discussion, and who is half-Burmese herself), The Lady herself came on stage to thunderous applause. ASSK was presented with flowers by the husband and four-year-old daughter of one of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Even if she had not uttered a word, her presence in that auditorium would’ve had a transformative effect on every member of the audience.

The event format consisted of a short address by ASSK with a question and answer period that followed that alternated between questions posed by students and those posed by host Alex Wagner. In her address, The Lady focused on the task for the next generation of human rights advocates. She urged students to not only condemn hate and injustice (which lead to the political prisoners), but to try to understand their root cause, fear. She challenged students to think critically about why we are suspicious of those different from ourselves and how we can eradicate that dynamic.

The question and answer segment touched on numerous issues. She asked for American help in helping to build democratic institutions in Burma, as well as the mental liberation that former oppressors would have to experience to truly change Burma. She argued against a cultural relativist interpretation of human rights, saying that these excuses were the very ones used by the Burmese government to justify decades of military rule. ASSK also stated, quite emphatically, against the use of violence in any form. She said that violence and human rights are opposite, and that the defense of human rights with violence is both a futile and counterproductive endeavor. For her, the defense of human rights in a distinctly nonviolent effort, saying that those who wish to promote human rights must be prepared to endure violent repression. She asked businesses that invest in Burma to do so responsibly, and predicted a future change in the Orwellian language used by the Burmese government that is so common of authoritarian governments. While we all saw the symbol of defiance and hope we all knew, we also saw glimpses of the savvy politician that perhaps less of us anticipated. When asked how she could forgive the military for imposing house arrest, she responded saying that she had no reason to forgive the military, and that she was actually quite fond of the Burmese military. She cited positive memories of her father in uniform as well as the good treatment she received from military figures while under house arrest. While it is certainly possible that this woman is so incredible that she does not feel resentment for experiencing so many years of house arrest, it is more likely that doesn’t wish to offend her colleagues in government.

While ASSK was articulate and inspiring throughout most of the program, there were some awkward moments. The elephant in the room from the beginning were the Rohingya, and a student according asked ASSK, “Who are the Rohingya and why are they persecuted by the Burmese government?” The Lady immediately and strongly rejected the use of the word “persecuted,” arguing that the issue needs to be seen in the framework of communal violence and human rights instead. She stressed that the rule of law needs to be restored in Rakhine state. She said that all Burmese who are eligible for Burmese citizenship under the current law should receive it, and even hinted that the law should be re-examined. Finally, ASSK argued that the Bangladesh-Burma border needs to be strengthened to prevent illegal crossings in either direction. This answer, while certainly not satisfying to the audience, has to be placed in context. The majority ethnic group in Burma, the Burmans, of which Aung San Suu Kyi is a member, largely support the government’s persecution of the Rohingya. This then puts ASSK in a tough position, in which she has to carefully walk the line between a symbol of international human rights and a popular domestic political figure. For example, she didn’t explicitly call the Rohingya illegal immigrants (as many Burmans do), but made statements that will please both sides. Her recommendation to strengthen the Burma-Bangladesh border will appease those who wish to see the Rhingya persecuted, while her implication that the Burmese citizenship law should be re-examined (the Rohingya collectively lost their citizenship in 1982) will be read by Western human rights advocates as a step in the right direction. Despite her seeming silence on the Rohingya, she has in fact spoken out against discrimination against ethnic minorities, with is not common in Burmese politics. Hopefully, she is simply biding her time until she feels secure enough to correctly address the Rohingya issue.

I never expected I would get the chance to see Aung San Suu Kyi in person, and the chance to be within just a few feet of one of the world’s most courageous individuals had a powerful effect on everyone at both events. For the Burmese Diaspora, it was a symbol of hope from their troubled homeland, and for American human rights activists, it was genuinely inspiring experience to be able to share a room with a person who literally personifies the defense of peace, equality, and human rights worldwide. Her stance on the Rohingya demonstrated that even our greatest heroes have flaws, but also that we must look at everyone with a fair and balanced eye. Her impact on me and fellow youth activists was immense, and it is a moment that will live in our memories for the rest of our lives.