Nonviolent activism around the Olympic Games: History and lessons learned

This article was originally published at openDemocracy.net on 24 November 2015 and is available here.

Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion.

A Tiananmen Square-themed Olympic logo. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.Bringing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act on human rights has been the product of decades of international and local resistance, from boycotting South Africa in 1968 to obstructing China’s torch relay in 2008. The key message of this resistance has consistently been that the Olympics is more than just a sporting event. Many campaigns have used the Games to draw attention to myriad rights violations ranging from minority discrimination and the loss of indigenous land to the treatment of political prisoners. There is an opportunity for civil society to build on its achievements, in particular by taking on a proactive role in holding future host countries more accountable.

The empowering spirit of the Olympics motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is increasingly out of step with the global decline in freedom and assault on human rights defenders over the past several decades. These problems are sometimes pronounced in Olympics host countries.

When the IOC votes to award cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting ongoing persecution. Until recently, the IOC could brush aside calls from the international community to acknowledge its place within the politics of repression. Today, that is no longer the case.

Indeed, following decades of pressure from civil society groups and activists, the IOC in October 2014 updated host city contracts with a reference to human rights. The 2024 bid — to be announced in September 2017 — will be the IOC’s first official opportunity to demonstrate its newfound stated commitment. And yet the entity is already coming under criticism for not going far enough with the new group of potential cities between now and 2024 — a sign that public opinion on just how “apolitical” the Olympics can really be has shifted.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

When the IOC votes to award the Olympics to cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders.

The history of the Olympics reveals its contentious nature and illustrates how civil resistance has shaped or been shaped by the Games. The narrative naturally begins in 1936 in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ glory is widely remembered, what is not so well known is just how close the United States came to boycotting Hitler’s Olympics.

Concern that rising anti-Jewish discrimination should preclude Germany from hosting the 1936 Olympics began in earnest in 1933. In 1934, American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was invited to Germany to judge for himself whether or not Jewish citizens of the Third Reich faced discrimination. With no expertise in the matter, Brundage was a poor choice for such an important fact-finding mission and proved pliable in Hitler’s hands. In a trip that was deplored by the US ambassador to Germany, in Berlin Brundage was wined and dined. Following his trip, he argued that sporting events should not “interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group.” A few months later, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping German Jews of citizenship and other basic rights.

Ignoring substantive grounds for concern, and the growing domestic movement for a boycott, Brundage succeeded in convincing the AAU to support US participation in Berlin. Advocates of a boycott were narrowly defeated.

Under pressure, Apartheid South Africa drops out of 1968 Games

Smith and Carlos raised fists in Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics in symbolic act of civil resistance. Thirty years later, Avery Brundage would again come under fire leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Formed in 1967, the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a central actor utilizing the Olympics spotlight to expose widespread, systematic racism and exploitation of black athletes in the United States. The organization had five central demands, among them the removal of Avery Brundage from his then role as the president of the US Olympic Committee, and the denial of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the 1968 Olympics.

Brundage had disregarded previous demands that South Africa be banned from participating in the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpeville Massacre in March of that year. During the massacre, South African security forces opened fire on a nonviolent demonstration of some 5,000 people. For OPHR, allowing South Africa to participate in 1968 would be tantamount to failing to revoke the 1936 Games from Berlin. They announced a boycott.

 Enthusiasts for the boycott included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, months before his assassination, offered his absolute support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle.”

OPHR succeeded in one of its demands. Under the threat of boycott and related international mobilization, the IOC eventually advised South Africa not to participate. During the 1968 Games, in a well-known instance, OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving Gold and Bronze medals — in solidarity with the broader civil resistance campaign (see image).

In this way, OPHR also succeeded in establishing a repertoire for activists to utilize the spotlight of the Olympics to draw attention to oppressive conditions within host countries and also to more universal grievances.

A new millennium for the Olympics?

Activism around the 2008 Beijing Olympics was built on a similar repertoire of international mobilization to draw attention to widespread human rights violations within the host country.

When I first traveled to China in 2006, especially in Beijing, one could not escape banners proclaiming China’s motto for the Games, “同一个世界,同一个梦想,” (One World, One Dream), as China hoped to leverage the Games for increased soft power and a projection of a “harmonious society.” Two years later, this narrative was challenged at many stops along the international Olympics Torch Relay.

The torch was lit in Greece, on 24 March 2008, about a week after a security crackdown on what had begun as a nonviolent demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The demonstration resulted in an unknown number of Tibetan deaths and detentions. Images of crimson-clad monks surrounded and beaten by Chinese police shocked international audiences. For many around the world, it was the first they learned of widespread human rights concerns in China.

There were a few scattered incidents along the route but the first major demonstration took place on 6 April in London. Free Tibet flags and placards voicing myriad human rights concerns contrasted with Chinese flags and “One China” supporters. In similar rhetoric as Brundage’s toward the Berlin Olympics, Beijing torch relay spokesperson Qu Yingpu told the BBC, responding to events in England, that, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Other organized nonviolent actions in Paris, San Francisco, Southern China and elsewhere succeeded in interrupting the Torch Relay, drawing major international attention to a number of human rights issues. Sadly however, the international demonstrations ultimately had little concrete impact on the 2008 Games. What’s more, China has since then come to represent an even bigger missed opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate commitment to upholding human rights.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, human rights organizations have documented over 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention. A new criminal law along with legislation on national security and NGO management have increasingly constrained Chinese citizens from exercising their rights. Torture and enforced disappearances remain a state practice. Notwithstanding this regime’s deplorable track record, the IOC went ahead this July with awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to Beijing.

Tibetan rights protesters come face to face with pro-China counter-demonstrators along the torch route in San Francisco.

No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the dominant narrative for many focused on the Olympic Games as an institution, as a corrupt or repressive symbol.

In 2010, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported it was an historic convergence as indigenous rights defenders and poverty and civil liberties activists joined together under coalition titles such as the “2010 Welcoming Committee” and the “Olympics Resistance Network” to protest the Games and the some $1 billion dollars spent on police and security. Advocates of broad-ranging issues from women’s rights and rights of the homeless to anti-war and globalization also took part in the demonstrations. The Seattle Times traced parallels in coalition formation and other tactics in Vancouver back to the 1999 anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, my own introduction to civil resistance.

Despite the fact that the 2010 Games made history as the first time indigenous people were recognized as official partners, for many the rallying cry in Vancouver was still, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Vancouver activists raise concerns about land destruction and neglect for native peoples in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, undoubtedly LGBTI issues took center stage. Many of the tactics employed by activists over the preceding decade were repeated, from international coordination in multiple cities to boycott movements. There was also a sense of rising disgust with the IOC and the Olympics in general. How could the IOC allow such a blatant violation of IOC Principle 6 on discrimination, asked the eponymous movement.

The IOC responds to direct challenges

Human Rights Watch and others outlined the need for the IOC to change in a 2014 submission to the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This included media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and association, and nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. ” Too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” 

In a February 2015 open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA) wrote, “As you know, too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” SRA identified the need for concrete and measurable indicators in the future host city bidding process.

In late 2014, the IOC added a human rights clause, meaning countries must meet minimum standards to be awarded host. The problem is, the IOC isn’t set up to be a human rights monitoring body. It will need help, from IOC member countries and civil society.

This is a good step forward and should be lauded, with caution. Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion. But without concrete action, the IOC may inadvertently continue legitimizing repressive regimes.

Eyes on 2024 and beyond

Ongoing innovation in civil resistance and organizations such as Principle 6 and the SRA have contributed to forcing the IOC to recognize its place within the politics of repression. Decades of civil resistance succeeded in shifting the narrative.

Nevertheless, the IOC lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, other than the threat of refusal to award host city status. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should take this on as a new objective in their work around the Olympics.

These actors would benefit from tactical innovation that engages with the IOC’s updated Charter in a new, more proactive and direct way. In addition to many of the previous tactics such as boycotts or collective action, this will also at times require less disruptive actions. For example, civil resisters should deepen coalitions with human rights law practitioners, especially those most skilled in practical fact-finding and reporting. Different tactics can be combined, but they must be done so as part of a broadly inclusive grand strategy that aims to hold the IOC accountable to its recently stated embrace of human rights. If the IOC is sincere, it should welcome such civil society participation and monitoring at all phases. If it is unwilling to do so, then it makes itself vulnerable to such visible, popular nonviolent actions as those chronicled in this article.

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The Truth About Myanmar’s New Discriminatory Laws

This article was originally published 26 August 2015 at The Diplomat. Available here.

Last Thursday, Myanmar’s parliament approved the remaining two of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago prefers to call them the “Race and Religion Discrimination bills.” Their passage—which would allow local governments to impose a host of repressive measures—comes at a time of ongoing racial and religious discrimination and violence, part of a concerning trend in systematic Rohingya persecution. It is only more alarming as it coincides with the widespread disenfranchisement of previously registered Rohingya voters, including former parliamentarian U Shwe Maung.

These bills are inconsistent with international norms and standards and represent a clear violation of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Myanmar is a party to both conventions. The bills are likely to not only legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment but also provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of Rohingya.

The package of laws has been a long time coming. They were first proposed following the establishment of the nationalist Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, which presented them as a draft to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. In December 2014, the laws were tabled for parliamentary debate beginning in January. Civil society and the international human rights community campaigned against their adoption and encouraged the Government of Myanmar to observe its human rights obligations rather than succumbing to nationalist hysteria.

Despite such concerns, in May the Population Control Healthcare Bill was the first to be approved. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee cautioned that the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills “risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar.”

The bill grants regional officials the ability to establish 36-month birth spacing for target groups. The bill lacks human rights safeguards and raises serious concerns for abuse against Rohingya Muslims, who have already been subjected to decades of similarly abusive local orders.

Muslim couples that wish to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take years to secure and require bribes. The Two Child Policy requires them to sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children, under threat of fine or imprisonment. The policy has led to amateur abortions that threaten women’s lives, influenced the number of women refugees, and led to the birth of blacklisted children who may never be registered, explains Engy Abdelkader, an expert on freedom of religion with the OSCE. The CRC requires birth registration and establishes the right to a nationality and identity, noting that the state is obligated to ensure these rights “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”

The desire to control Muslim populations in Myanmar comes from the widespread belief in the Buddhist-majority country that Muslim communities have exceedingly high birthrates and are planning a population takeover. However, as Abdelkader points out, based on official government data, researchers at Harvard University have revealed that Rohingya actually have one of the country’s lowest population growth rates. Unconvinced by such data, Ma Ba Tha founder and ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu continues to infuse his Buddhist millenarian sermons with narratives of Muslim population growth, and the forced conversion or widespread rape of Buddhist women.

In July, parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, which requires Buddhist women and men from other religions who wish to marry to register their intention publicly. They may only get married if there are no objections. It will apply retroactively to existing unions who must register as interfaith marriages. This violates the universally recognized rights to marriage and privacy, as well as equal protection of the law by applying only to Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. It is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.

The justification for protecting Buddhist women in marriage appears to arise from a gender discriminatory narrative that equates women with purity and assigns a patriarchal society with the task of protecting a Buddhist women’s purity at the expense of her agency.

In August, parliament approved the final two bills, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill. The conversion bill requires anyone who chooses to change their religion to apply with a district level “Registration Board,” submit to an interview and a 90-day waiting period. Such restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freely have or adopt religion. It is an assault on privacy, also found in the monogamy bill, which targets religious minorities who are often seen as sexual deviants.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least the most recent bills are still awaiting final signature by President Thein Sein. As the November election approaches he will likely come under increasing pressure, along with the rest of his USDP Party, from Ma Ba Tha to enact them into law.

Throughout the drafting period and especially once the package of bills was introduced to parliament, Ma Ba Tha was active in campaigning for their enactment. In October, U Wirathu organized thousands in Mandalay to demand the passage of the bills. May Sabai Phyu, a human rights defender and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, revealed that Ma Ba Tha challenged parliamentarians who did not approve the bills. Senior monks told their congregations not to vote for those who did not support the bills. Some critics were labeled “traitors” and at least four civil society leaders reported receiving death threats.

Article 364 of Myanmar’s Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes, and several sections of the Penal Code criminalize deliberate assaults on religious feelings and the incitement of hatred or violence against racial or religious groups. However, there has been no investigation into these activities.

One problem that remains seemingly unanswered, as pointed out by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, is whether and how the bills would apply to non-citizens. This is a particular concern for the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship and subjected to unofficial discriminatory local orders for decades.

When asked whether non-citizens living in the country would be burdened with the requirements under the religious conversion or the marriage bill, U Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, merely stated “that it is a very complicated thing, which the state must consider carefully.” The inability of the national human rights commission to conclusively dissuade concerns that the law would disproportionately target non-citizens raises serious concerns about implementation.

For Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights defender and founder of Women Peace Network Arakan, there is little uncertainty. For her, the central government’s intent with the adoption of the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills is precisely to legalize discrimination.

Against Letpadaung: copper mining in Myanmar and the struggle for human rights

 This article was originally published at OpenDemocracy on 3 August 2015. Available here.

Credit: http://www.e-paolive.net/galleries/images/misc/2012/12/Bur-protest-1-Dec.jpg (All rights reserved).

The Letpadaung copper mine in the Sagaing Region of central Myanmar has become a major fault line in the struggle for human rights in that country. It is also emblematic of a global problem: the damage caused by exploitative resource extraction coupled with impunity for state violence.

Although the complex which houses the mine is some 20 years old, it has attracted increasing resistance since Myanmar began its ostensible transition away from strict military rule in 2011. Fed up with massive forced relocation and environmental degradation, residents have taken advantage of gradual political liberalization to begin staging demonstrations at the mine. But state brutality promptly tramples these actions, including at least one police assault on civil resisters — civilians — using military weapons. Abusive state officials have escaped prosecution while activists have been sentenced for exercising their fundamental rights.

Contention around the project — and especially police treatment of those engaging in nonviolent civil resistance to put an end to it — has grown into a real challenge for President Thein Sein’s rhetoric of civilian government and the development of rule of law. How the situation is eventually resolved will be a serious barometer for democratic transition in Myanmar.

But already its unraveling has revealed the potential for several innovations in rights defense in Myanmar. These innovations include increasing regional networking to facilitate deeper exchange between human rights defenders in neighbouring countries engaged in similar struggles, and developing more sophisticated advocacy and lobbying skills for drawing on the support of the international community. Domestic civil resistance can benefit both from the development of a culture of litigation and from a stronger network of professional human rights lawyers.

How civil resistance and litigation converged

Thein Sein, President of Myanmar. Demotix/Alexander Widding. All rights reserved.

Following a police crackdown on several hundred monks, students and farmers nonviolently protesting the Letpadaung mine in November 2012, an independent investigation by a group of Burmese lawyers and the US-based human rights organization Justice Trust revealed that the police had used white phosphorous grenades against the nonviolent resisters — a chemical weapon of complicated legality under international law. The monks, many shielding the other protesters, suffered the worst injuries: deep burns and lasting pain. “There was something specific about the particular fire,” one of the monk organizers, U Teikkha Nyana, told a group organized by several human rights organizations at Harvard Law School this past April.

This assault strengthened the ties between two groups — civil resisters and human rights lawyers — that have become increasingly inseparable fronts in the struggle for democratic transition in Myanmar. With modest political liberalization, and a generally decreased risk of lengthy prison terms, more Burmese lawyers are willing to take on potentially sensitive rights cases.

Following long periods of hospitalization, victims of the violent repression were finally in a place to embark upon the challenge of holding perpetrators accountable. On 11 March 2015, a group of monks led by U Teikkha Nyana filed criminal and civil suits against Home Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko, who ordered the crackdown, and others. The case is a “fight for justice and to highlight human rights violations and the lack of rule of law in Myanmar,” Aung Thein, a lawyer involved with the case, explained to me at the same meeting in April.

Monks have become increasingly common litigants in Myanmar, although sometimes causing major polemics such as the ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu. Civil resistance can help weaker groups increase their leverage over oppressors, while rights lawyers can serve to both maintain activists’ legitimacy and offer some protection against arbitrary abuse. Legal procedures force the state to articulate its persecution in legal terms. When the state clumsily insists on the legality of arbitrary persecution of civil resisters, for example, it often produces a backfire effect and further delegitimizes the state’s position.

On 24 March, the monks’ charges against the Home Minister and police were rejected on the grounds that no lawsuit can be filed against officials who are operating in good faith — a blow to hopes of institutionalizing accountability. Nevertheless, I have been told further legal challenges are likely to follow.

Meanwhile, protests spread as repression intensifies

Police violently evict farmers working near Letpadaung copper mine in 2013. Flickr/Han Win Aung. Some rights reserved.

Despite the police crackdown, demonstrations continued at Letpadaung and began to swell around the country as others joined in solidarity, directing their resistance toward the Chinese companies involved in exploitative environmental projects in Myanmar.

Small outbursts at the Chinese embassy in Yangon have continued since November 2013, the one-year anniversary of the violent crackdown on monks. At that time, Tin Htut Paing, a leader of the youth movement Generation Wave, burned a Chinese flag in front of the embassy. He was charged with violating Myanmar’s Penal Code and the Law on Peaceful Assembly and detained.

The next year, demonstrating with the “Black Campaign” students, Tin Htut Paing was arrested again for protesting outside of the embassy along with five others. His lawyer Robert San Aung explained that the six protesters were being charged disproportionately for exercising their freedom of expression.

The group of activists was convicted and sentenced to four years and four months in a May 2015 trial condemned by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva based organization that promotes human rights through the rule of law, and others. Amnesty International called for their immediate and unconditional release while others asserted that the convictions seriously tainted the legal system in Myanmar.

Naw Ohn Hla, one of the women convicted, said she would continue to fight for others’ rights as soon as she is freed but assumed that the government deliberately gave them lengthy sentences to keep them imprisoned during the countrywide general elections in November 2015. The next day, the court added hard labour to the sentence.

Strategic opening for international diffusion

Myanmar protestors in Yangon. Demotix/Manaw Htun. All rights reserved.

The mine at Letpadaung is a joint venture between Wanbao, a subsidiary of Norinco, a Chinese industrial manufacturing company that also specializes in high-tech weapons, and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company. This is a reminder of the important role foreign firms and governments play in developing or hindering the rule of law in Myanmar. This is not just about China.

A 2015 Amnesty International report criticized the Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines, now Turquoise Hill Resources, and others for profiting from a corrupt or unregulated legal climate for resource extraction in Myanmar.

Ivanhoe Mines was involved in the Monywa Complex since the joint venture began in 1996. Between April 2003 and January 2005, it may have violated Canadian, US, and European sanctions for large amounts of copper sales to blacklisted military firms.  Amnesty has called for Canadian authorities and the securities commission to investigate.

In 2007, Ivanhoe Mines claimed that it was divesting from the Burmese mine and transferred its shares to an “independent third party,” the independence of which has been contested by Amnesty.

A 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks shows Ivanhoe was simultaneously negotiating with Burmese and Chinese buyers but was eventually forced to sell to the Burmese state-owned ME-1 for $100 million, on the grounds that ME-1 had already agreed to sell the mine to the Chinese interest for $250 million plus $50 million in consulting fees and $100 million in upgrades. The sale was finalized in 2011.

Turquoise Hill is currently invested in two mining projects in Mongolia. In May 2015, a deal to sell its shares in the underperforming SouthGobi Mine to a Chinese firm fell through. Meanwhile the company has faced domestic opposition at another of its mine sites. Noted in a recent report by the Minority Rights Group, the Oyu Tolgoi Mine has sparked resistance by local herders, environmental and minority rights groups over the destructive impact of the mine on the surrounding landscape. The parallels to Letpadaung don’t need elaboration.

In their 2015 World Report, Human Rights Watch commented on the “enormous collective impact on the human rights of vulnerable communities worldwide” of Canada’s mining industry. HRW expressed concern that the Canadian government neither regulates nor monitors the respect for human rights of Canadian firms overseas. In 2009, Canada did establish a corporate social responsibility advisory, but has yet to empower it with oversight or investigatory powers over Canadian firms operating domestically or in foreign countries, such as Myanmar.

Broadening resistance strategies

Myanmar will continue to open up to more foreign trade and investment in the coming years. And the government is currently in the process of negotiating a contentious Investment Law. In early July, ICJ hosted a workshop with Myanmar’s Attorney General and others to discuss the investment law and protection of human rights in the country. Daniel Aguirre, ICJ Legal Adviser, commented that, “Myanmar needs to update its regulatory system to protect the environment and human rights.”

At the same time, civil society and human rights defenders may consider updating their strategies of resistance and rights defense. A targeted boycott of foreign-made products from host countries responsible for exploitive industries is one possible next step for national coordination of resistance. Increasing civil society pressure on the political and financial elite of select countries has its limits, as long as Myanmar protects elite interests over those of Myanmar citizens. Resistance to exploitative foreign involvement will require improving transnational activism and communication with activists engaged in similar struggles abroad. Ideally, it would also entail coordinating with networks of human rights defenders in countries whose foreign presence is targeted by civil resisters in Myanmar. This requires financial and logistical support.

International funders interested in supporting rule of law development in Myanmar will play an important role in regional exchange. Organizations like Amnesty and Frontline Defenders have long provided platforms for this type of exchange, but the demand is growing. Imagine the learning potential of combining activists and lawyers who have struggled against Letpadaung with their Mongolian counterparts who have resisted Oyu Tolgoi, or with the organizers of the thousands of Tibetans who have resisted the destruction of sacred or farming land by mining operations across western China. There are other transferable case studies for Myanmar from rights defenders around the world, such as Oscar Olivera who organized the successful resistance campaign against exploitive privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia by the US construction firm Bechtel.

The upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar in November, wherein the Human Rights Council will review Myanmar on the totality of its human rights record, presents an opportunity for rights defenders from Myanmar and around the world. It might also provide a platform for putting pressure on other governments to examine their human rights records in Myanmar.

The UPR is a truly unique opportunity for universalizing domestic rights campaigns and forging links with supportive foreign governments. Unfortunately, reports indicate Home Minister Ko Ko will lead Myanmar’s delegation, seriously calling into question the country’s commitment to the process.

Building bridges to broaden tactics of nonviolent resistance

Protesting outside of embassies or burning country flags draws attention but is insufficient for sustainable coalition formation. To guarantee greater accountability for foreign companies operating in Myanmar, and the state officials tasked with protecting the interests of the local and international elite, domestic human rights defenders can target their activism at those firms’ countries of origin and strengthen their networks among human rights defenders in those countries. To complement these efforts, foreign governments with embassies in Myanmar can ensure they are accessible for civil society and guarantee they will not prioritize economic or political alignment with the elite at the expense of substantive commitments to human rights and the rule of law. But international action can only augment domestic mobilization; it cannot replace it.

In the narrative above we see the importance of bridging nonviolent civil resistance with the community of human rights lawyers. While the rule of law is barely poking through the soil in Myanmar, the country has made limited advances in terms of domestic and international law. While such concessions may be more to placate the international community toward abandoning sanctions and stimulating investment, they have created openings for challenging oppression. Addressing resistance to Letpadaung, Ant Maung, a popular poet, commented, “Five years ago this would have been impossible; such a movement would have been cruelly crushed.”

Myanmar has a long way to go but, as Aung Thein noted at our meeting in April, it is time to nurture a domestic culture of litigation. Belief in the rule of law must come from below and strategic litigation should be calculated alongside other tactics of resistance. Through greater training, made increasingly possible by support from international organizations, Myanmar civil society will gain more rights awareness, allowing for more informed rights demands.

At the same time, just as the international community must perform due diligence when supporting top-down initiatives or large-scale investment, it must be cautious in supporting bottom-up programming. Sitting in his apartment in Yangon, Robert San Aung, the idiosyncratic human rights lawyer and six-time political prisoner under the ancien régime, shared his concern with me. Entrepreneurs have emerged to take advantage of legal aid and development funds, just as in other contexts of post-conflict or development, which is upsetting the network of nascent domestic lawyers. For San Aung, funders truly interested in supporting human rights in Myanmar must ensure checks and balances, which can be achieved through deeper engagement on the ground, meaning more language officers and interactions with civil society.

Arguably the way forward for rights defenders in Myanmar is to continue augmenting domestic rights defense with transnational activism and international law, and to continue finding ways to take advantage of the same international opening that has benefited the government.