Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root….Billie Holiday (Lyrics, Abe Meeropol 1939)
On the campaign trail Obama sang a tune that was a siren call to liberals: I will sit down with our enemies and, well, talk. But while Obama has been talking, the regimes have been acting. The new Obama Doctrine of what can only be called “mindless engagement” appears to have unleashed a wave of repression of human rights activists and dissidents of these same regimes.
Case 1: Vietnam
Today is the 83d birthday of the leading figure of Vietnam’s Buddhist movement, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Vietnamese regime is celebrating his birthday by forcibly removing his followers from a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. The eviction has been met with opposition from a wide array of dissident intellectuals and former Communist Party members inside and outside of Vietnam. They are quite likely putting their lives at risk in doing so.
But that did not stop the Obama regime from, well, talking to the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister recently.
The liberal left seems to have forgotten the critical role that the Buddhist movement played in trying to bring an early end to the Vietnam War. The US government engineered a violent crackdown on the Buddhists which, ironically, paved the way for a North Vietnamese victory. The “communists” knew that they could never have survived politically in south and central Vietnam if the US and their puppet regime in the South did not do the dirty work of crushing the Buddhist led uprising against both the US and the “communists.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was a leader of that movement and was recognized by no less a figure than Martin Luther King who credited the monk with helping him realize that he needed to come out in opposition to American intervention in Vietnam. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. They had been introduced by the pacifist and labor organizer A.J. Muste.
The Vietnamese regime clearly still fears the influence of an independent political movement. In light of the strikes and other unrest experienced there of late that makes perfect sense from their point of view. As Asia specialist Michael J. Green has put it: “The Vietnamese [now] clearly think the heat is off on religious freedom in their country.”
But which side of this conflict is the United States government on?
Case 2: Burma
Apparently the Obama campaign began sending out indications of a willingness to talk with the Burmese generals well before the November victory. The response of the generals was to insure that Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese democracy movement, would remain under house arrest until after the upcoming national elections.
This, of course, followed the massive uprising in 2007 against the generals led, it should be noted, by Buddhist monks. Many of those monks are now in prison, their temples ransacked, the democracy movement crushed.
Human Rights Watch confirms that the pace of repression has picked up considerably in Burma over the last two years. They issued a report last month that noted that:
Burma’s military government has more than doubled the number of political prisoners in the past two years, including more than a hundred imprisoned in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. Sentenced to long prison terms for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations in 2007, and for assisting civilians in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the political prisoner population has reached more than 2,200.
But that has not stopped the Obama regime from, well, talking. The regime’s harassment accelerated in late 2008:
“Beginning in late 2008, closed courts and courts inside prisons sentenced more than 300 activists including political figures, human rights defenders, labor activists, artists, journalists, internet bloggers, and Buddhist monks and nuns to lengthy prison terms. Some prison terms handed down were in excess of one hundred years.”
Lest we not forget here are the names of three of those prisoners as described by HRW in their report:
U Gambira – a young Buddhist monk who played a key role in the 2007 demonstrations, emblematic of widespread discontent among young people over declining living standards and repressive military rule.
Su Su Nway – a woman from Burma’s rural heartland, challenged Burmese authorities in 2005 when she protested being forced to build a road in her town and was thrown in prison for it. She has since become one of the most bold and outspoken labor activists in the country.
Min Ko Naing – one of the leaders of the 1988 student-led demonstrations, spent the years between 1989 to 2004 in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he and many other long-term activists formed the “88 Generation Students,” a group that has chosen to stay inside Burma and engage in peaceful protest against military rule to initiate dialogue for political, economic, and social reform.
Despite the repression the US State Department seems to think “engagement” can be constructive.
Case 3: China and Tibet
Tibetan Buddhists led an uprising in 2008 there much like that of their brothers and sisters in Burma against the 50 year occupation of their country by the Chinese “communists.”
The repression has been fierce, violent and unrelenting. Just last spring hundreds of monks were detained for re-education to mark the anniversary of the original uprising that was sparked by the Chinese invasion of their sovereign country.
The response here in the US is now well known: Obama sent one of his closest advisors, Valerie Jarrett, to Dharamshala in mid-September to tell the Dalai Lama to not come to Washington this month. Obama wanted to sip tea in the Great Hall of the People with the Chinese “communists” first. Thus, the new Nobel Peace prize winner snubbed the Dalai Lama on the 20th anniversary of the monk’s own Peace Prize. To his credit, the Dalai Lama showed up in DC anyway, as he had long been scheduled to.
And in China proper even the State Department itself has been forced to acknowledge that repression there has picked up steam. “The government of China’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas,” the report said in reviewing the last year, finding Chinese authorities “committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners and used forced labor.”
Case 4: Iran
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians rose up earlier this year in the wake of what were seen as fraudulent elections and threatened the rule of the fundamentalist mullahs. Yet, Obama remained almost mute for weeks until popular opinion forced him to make mild comments about the democracy movement there.
The excuse was that the President did not want to the Iranian regime to use his statements against the demonstrators – as if the lash of the whip they were getting from government thugs was not already doing its damage.
The real problem is that the Obama regime fears that domestic unrest would de-legitimize the regime and that would undermine their attempt to “engage” the regime on issues like nuclear weapons. Of course, if the US itself were serious about acting on nuclear disarmament (other than yet another Obama speech) they would have a much stronger claim to make against the Iranians and they would be able to make a genuine contribution to the democracy movement there.
Instead perhaps to signal to the mullahs their seriousness about talking with the regime instead of acting in support of democracy and human rights, the US State Department cut off its grant to the widely respected Iran Human Rights Documentation Center based in New Haven, CT. Apparently the presence of prominent liberal law professors from the President’s (Harvard Law School) and the Secretary of State’s (Yale Law School) alma maters did not help. That only reinforces the new direction of the Obama regime. While I would have advised the Center to never take government money in the first place, the cut off sends a clear signal.
In fact, the Center had recently undertaken a project to draw attention to the use of the death penalty against Iranian activists. Indeed, just as news of the State Department’s abrupt cutoff of support surfaced, the New York Times reported yesterday the regime intends to impose the death penalty on three activists from the recent uprising.
The Obama regime has taken on board a veritable “who’s who” of human rights law professors and activists, including Samantha Power (Harvard) at the NSC, Rosa Brooks (Georgetown) at Defense, Harold Koh (Yale), Sarah Cleveland (Columbia) and Michael Posner (Human Rights First) at State. Any hope that they might be able to chart a course towards genuine humanitarian intervention must now be discounted.
As these no doubt well intentioned liberals were just putting up photos of their families in their offices, the Secretary of State had already clearly set the conditions of their employment: human rights would come second rather than first to the assertion of US national interests. Their role must now be seen as legitimating a policy whose actual impact is an increase in repression. So much for the argument of some in the human rights community that a “new realism” could emerge that would make human rights genuinely a constituent part of the US national interest. My take on the “new realism” can be found here.