Blog: Alumni

May 13, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The Other De-Platforming We Should Have Been Talking About

Posted by Jenny Domino

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The post was originally posted to Just Security on May 11, 2021). 

On Feb. 24, 2021, three weeks after Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) staged the coup that changed the course of Myanmar’s future, Facebook announced it was banning all “remaining” military and military-controlled state and media entities from Facebook and Instagram, including ads from military-linked commercial entities. To this end, Facebook said it would use the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s (FFM) 2019 report on the military’s economic interests in identifying relevant commercial entities. Though Facebook had removed military accounts and pages in the past for their involvement in human rights violations– most notably the account of State Administration Council chairperson, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaingin 2018– the company’s 2021 decision went much further by indefinitely suspending military and military-related accounts and pages regardless of content or behavior.

In other words, contrary to popular opinion, former President Trump’s account was not the first high-profile account to be indefinitely suspended by Facebook. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s de-platforming was described as “unprecedented” in 2018, but outside of Myanmar watchers, it garnered little global attention, much less debate.

The 2021 de-platforming of the Tatmadaw offers a renewed opportunity to engage with how Facebook – and other powerful platforms – should do their part to deal with authoritarians and human rights-violating institutions like the military in Myanmar. Facebook’s act to de-platform the Tatmadaw was the culmination of incremental steps taken by the company in response to the “emergency situation” unfolding in Myanmar since the coup. For example, on Feb. 11, Facebook decided to “significantly reduce” the distribution of false content emanating from military accounts and pages still operating on the platform, but stopped short of an immediate outright ban. And it had previously declined to ban the entire military’s presence on its platform despite it being implicated in the Rohingya human rights crisis. At each of these moments, Facebook took action too late, and too incrementally, to avert harm – harm that the platform knew was imminent and which its very design facilitated. Facebook’s history in Myanmar highlights the broader problems with content moderation in vulnerable contexts, and it should serve as a cautionary lesson to companies that wish to prevent their platforms from facilitating atrocities.

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May 7, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Northern View

Posted by Taylor Landis

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School). 

Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of an individual in northern Burma who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats she currently faces. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individual in northern Burma and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.


Over encrypted video chat, a long-time civil society leader from one of northern Myanmar’s many remote conflict-affected communities reflects on life in the midst of the country’s latest crisis. “We are lucky to be from here,” she explains, referring to her small town situated in a valley among what would be picturesque mountains. She explains that each of the five closest peaks is occupied by a different armed entity: four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control one apiece and the fifth is the territory of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). The forested hillsides are contaminated with landmines, and the roads cutting through the valley are punctuated by EAO and Tatmadaw checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers closely control all movement. With this layout, travel in and out of town was dangerous and daunting before the military’s Feb. 1 grab for power. Now, with new checkpoints in place, it’s even more difficult. EAOs in this area have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades, some since the country’s 1948 independence. In recent years, escalating armed violence between and among the EAOs has eclipsed their battles with the Tatmadaw. Over this civil society leader’s lifetime, ceasefires, alliances, and new armed entities have come and gone, but active fighting has never been far off. “We really are lucky,” she continues, “we grew up hearing gunfire. Now we are more resilient.”

When the Tatmadaw rolled tanks and troops into cities following the Feb. 1 coup, the woman’s community nervously followed the news, just like others all across Myanmar. The massive urban protests taking place throughout the country remained peaceful for weeks. Then the Tatmadaw began its crackdown. Having seen more than 700 people killed and over 3,000 detained by security forces across Myanmar by the end of April, her colleagues in Yangon have been shocked by the level of Tatmadaw violence they witness everyday. Like most people in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, her colleagues had never seen the Tatmadaw in action before February 2021.

“For them, the first time they saw a Tatmadaw sniper target a woman who was only buying snacks in the street, and they saw her shot in the head even though she was not even participating in the peaceful protest, they were shocked.” She pauses for a moment and goes on, “For us, in the conflict areas, we have seen the Tatmadaw’s human rights abuses. We know they shoot to kill. We are not shocked. We are sad, but we are not shocked.”

In ethnic-minority communities like hers, first-hand experience with Tatmadaw cruelty was common [and well documented] before the crisis brought on by the 2021 coup. Having borne the brunt of Tatmadaw violence, many in ethnic-minority communities had long looked for protection from and been supportive of EAOs, considering them a protective barrier standing between their communities and Tatmadaw violence. Not everyone, however, shared this view. Having tired of the ever-evolving, ever-present armed violence in their areas, some had little patience for any entity taking part. In her community, the civil society leader says people’s views of EAOs varied widely, but no one supported the Tatmadaw.

As protests elsewhere turned violent, the situation has stayed calm in her area. It’s safer in the small towns now, she says. In the cities, online ‘social punishment’ campaigns identify and shame those who perpetrate and benefit from the crackdown, and encourage a range of actions be taken against them—from launching boycotts of Tatmadaw soldiers’ family businesses to calling upon foreign universities to refuse tuition payments made on behalf of generals’ children. But these social punishment campaigns provide only a limited check, at best, on the Tatmadaw’s use of excessive force.

“Here, it would be much easier, since everybody knows everybody,” she explains, suggesting security forces in her area are hesitant to use the kind of extreme violence against community members that has now become routine elsewhere in the country. “If the Tatmadaw shoots a civilian, we would know which commander gave the order. We would know who pulled the trigger. We would know where their families stay. People could seek revenge easily.” So far, in these parts of the rural north, police and Tatmadaw soldiers have thus seemed more restrained in their treatment of civilians, perhaps wary that excessive violence on their part could trigger immediate consequences directed at their own families living in and among the communities where they are stationed. But in these areas, it’s not just the threat of angry civilians that keeps the Tatmadaw in check. It’s the EAOs.

In her town, everyone has heard that the nearby Tatmadaw commanders received a cautionary letter from at least one EAO, though no one is saying which one. The letter is understood to contain a blunt warning: if the Tatmadaw attacks the people, the EAO will burn down the Tatmadaw’s bases and the town’s police station, all of which are built on the edge of forest areas where the EAOs are known to operate. “The EAOs are protecting the people in the rural areas now,” she says. “If the Tatmadaw shoots the people, they know the EAOs could easily go through the forest and burn down their bases.”

This is far from an idle threat. In both Kachin and Shan States, for instance, EAOs began attacking Tatmadaw and police positions in March in response to the junta’s forces increasingly violent treatment of civilians. EAOs have continued these attacks in April and early May. The Tatmadaw has responded with multiple airstrikes, and at least one Tatmadaw helicopter gunship has reportedly been shot down by EAO fire. The escalating violence, however, has displaced nearly 17,000 people, per UN estimates, taking a heavy toll on the conflict-weary region, which was home to roughly 105,000 internally displaced people prior to the current crisis.

At home in the relative “safety” of her native conflict area, the civil society leader says she could go outside, but she doesn’t anymore. Lately, exhausted by the sorrow and trauma of her work, she leaves the shopping to other family members, but worries that it may get more difficult. Joining the ongoing nationwide boycotts of all Tatmadaw-linked products did not affect her much: she doesn’t drink beer, never used State-run mobile networks, and doesn’t play the lottery. Unable to travel, there’s no risk of her supporting Tatmadaw-backed airlines and hotels.

But the newer boycott of Chinese goods and services could be a game-changer in her area. Like many in her community, she says she agrees in principle with the efforts underway to protest China’s long-time support of the Tatmadaw, alleged support of the coup, and ongoing protection of Myanmar within the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, options in her valley are limited. “Everything here comes from China; what will we eat if we stop eating food from China?”

Until February, she went often to the closest market to support local vendors reeling from the economic impact of coronavirus shutdowns. Buying far more than her family could eat, she would distribute extra vegetables to people in need. “I never spent much money, just 500 Kyat (.35 USD) here, 500 there, so the sellers could have cash and the local people out of work could cook something with their rice.”

But with banks shut since the coup and cash hard to come by, she can’t afford such generosity anymore. She can now make just one, small weekly cash withdrawal from her account at a closed bank, thanks to kind staff who quietly suspend their own participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) for a few hours each week to open vital services for their neighbors. With so much uncertainty and so little cash, she has stopped going to the market. She is too sad to see vendors sitting with more than they can sell, while hungry villagers can’t afford to shop. “Maybe if I can get an ATM card, so it is easier to get cash, then maybe I can go again,” she hopes – despite her awareness of the new and lowering daily limits on ATM withdrawals and shortages of currency in machines across Myanmar. “Still,” she worries aloud, “Everything from the market is from China anyway.”

While indoors, she tries to remain focused on her work. “We are only doing ‘life-saving’ activities now,” she explains. An advocate for child protection and child rights across Myanmar, she now spends her days watching seemingly endless videos of police and Tatmadaw brutality. Using a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent the regime’s Facebook ban and review footage shared across the social media platform, she and her colleagues work to identify children who are beaten, arrested, tortured, killed, and disappeared. Before the crackdown, they would go to hospitals and prisons and directly intervene to ensure children received necessary medical care, could access legal services, and were reunited with their families without delay. Now, this is impossible. “If we go in-person now, they will arrest us. We can only refer the cases to legal services online.”

In this new reality, she and her team spend their days alone in their homes across Myanmar, watching hours of violence against children on their computers and phones, coordinating around the country to determine what, if anything they can do to help. It’s taking a terrible toll on their mental health. Some of the team members work reduced hours and join protests; others stay inside to try to keep safe. She worries about all of them; security check-ins are now required every few hours, but she knows this is not enough. “In the past, if we faced a crisis in one place, we could send a team from somewhere else to support our colleagues there. We could go provide technical and psycho-social support. Now, the crisis is everywhere and we can’t move. We were stuck because of Covid, and now we are even more stuck because of the coup.”

The lower profile she and her team have been forced to keep has not gone unnoticed by families and communities desperate for support. Some take to Facebook to rail against her, her colleagues, her organization, or all of civil society in general. “Where are child protection workers now?” they demand. This has been especially hard to endure. The civil society workers can’t answer to defend themselves, or take credit for the few life-saving efforts they do have underway. Instead, they generate new anonymous profiles for case management, referrals, and advocacy. They try to keep out of sight in order to keep working. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. “We are so, so frustrated that we can’t do more. But even when we can do something, we have to hide it. We are doing our best, but it is very dangerous.”

She and her team are brainstorming ways to support one another at a distance, but so far it has proven difficult. By early March, no one wanted to participate in team-building psycho-social support activities via Zoom after a full day of staring at their computer screens, analyzing authorities’ brutal treatment of children. Now that new obstacles block internet access for the majority of Myanmar’s population, many of her colleagues can no longer even manage to get online to work. With her team in such dire need of psycho-social support but unable to provide it to each other, she can’t ask that they provide psycho-social support to families in their communities – even if it were safe to do so. “When we are not well, how can we take action for children’s well-being?” she asks. When community members in crisis take to Facebook to vent, accusing her and her team of being absent when the communities need them most, it hurts. But for those with access, staying offline is not an option. “Without Facebook, we can’t even do life-saving activities.”

When her team members do finally close their computers at 1 AM – or whenever the Tatmadaw shuts down the internet and mobile networks – few of them sleep. “For them, it is hard to hear gunfire and police raids every night,” the leader explains. Although people everywhere are on edge during the nightly communications blackouts, it’s easier to endure in the countryside, she says. “Here, we know how to sleep through gunfire.” She is well aware of the irony as she reiterates, “We are lucky to be from the conflict area.”

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May 3, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Inside Karen State

Posted by Taylor Landis

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).  

Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.


Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”

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March 11, 2021

Rayhan Asat LLM’16: Her Brother’s Keeper


HLS Advocates for Human Rights is proud to present the Spotlight Series, a forum for essays and opinion pieces written by Harvard Law School students and alumni calling attention to pressing domestic and international human rights issues. If you are a Harvard Law student or alumnus/a and would like to contribute a piece to Spotlights, please contact Sondra Anton ([email protected]) or Ikram Ais ([email protected]). 

The views and opinions expressed in Spotlight pieces are those of the authors or interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the International Human Rights Clinic, or the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.


On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted “Surveilled, Detained, Disappeared: Repression in Xinjiang,” a panel discussion on the oppression of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.  At the event, Rayhan Asat (LLM ‘16), the first Harvard Law School graduate of Uyghur origin, shared publicly for the first time that her brother, Ekpar Asat, had been forcibly disappeared after returning to China from a U.S. State Department-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C as part of the International Visiting Leaders Program (IVLP).

Rayhan was in the final weeks of her LLM program at HLS when Ekpar came to the United States to participate in the IVLP.  Ekpar visited her during this trip and promised her that he’d be back in a few months’ time to attend her graduation ceremony with their parents.  Unfortunately, that was the last time that Rayhan saw her brother.  Her parents canceled their trip to the U.S., and she never heard from Ekpar again. Nearly four years later, Rayhan learned that her brother had been sentenced by the Chinese government to fifteen years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination,” despite Ekpar’s track record of “continuous effort in cultivating ethnic harmony, and greater understanding between the Han and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Province of China.”

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January 4, 2021

Trusted to listen: Nicolette Waldman ’13 dedicates her career to documenting human rights violations

Posted by Dana Walters


After her first interview in Afghanistan, Nicolette Waldman ’13 realized she had found the career she was meant to pursue. It was the summer after her first year at Harvard Law School, and Waldman had a fellowship with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to research torture of conflict-related detainees. The man she was meeting had escaped from an Afghan prison. He had never been interviewed before, and she could tell he was nervous. A newly minted law student, she was nervous too.

“As the questions went on, he realized that he could lead and all I wanted to do was listen,” she said. “I had thought that interviewing was going to be more adversarial. But this was a shared process where we were both trying to get at what had happened to him. I felt like my role was to be a partner.”

Since graduating from HLS less than a decade ago, Waldman has, by now, interviewed hundreds of people. Some have survived the horrific abuses. Others have committed such abuses themselves. From death camps in Syria to conflicts in Gaza and Somalia, she has documented some of the worst moments of the last few decades. Still, she vividly recalls that first interview in Afghanistan, and how it set a course for her future trajectory.

“There’s something instinctual about knowing when your rights have been violated. It’s incredibly meaningful to sit across from someone and bear witness to their story and to have that individual trust you to tell that story to the world,” she said. “Human rights interviewing is a very niche type of documentation, but I think if it’s done right it can make survivors feel like they’re not alone,” she added.

Waldman (née Boehland) grew up in rural, northern Minnesota and studied English Literature and International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College. After college, she worked for Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. She realized that law school might give her the right tools to make the impact she sought, although it would be deeply difficult to take a step back from the world in which she had already immersed herself. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped bridge that gap, allowing Waldman to work in the field, in post-conflict zones and under close supervision, as part of her legal education.

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March 12, 2019

Q&A with OPIA Wasserstein Fellow Lillian Langford JD’13


In February 2019, OPIA Wasserstein Fellow Lillian Langford JD’13 spent a few days in residence at HLS, where she gave a talk co-sponsored by the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative on “
Sustainable Justice: Lessons from Twenty Years of Domestic War Crimes Prosecutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (video linked in title) that reflected on her career and current role as Head of Rule of Law for the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During law school, Lillian was an active member of the International Human Rights Clinic; after graduating, she was awarded a Henigson Fellowship in Human Rights. Following her recent visit to HLS, she spent a few moments reflecting to the Human Rights Program (HRP) on that experience, her career to date, and giving advice to future advocates interested in a path like hers. Read her Q&A below, and don’t forget to apply for the Henigson (and the Satter) Fellowships in Human Rights. Applications are due March 15! Continue Reading…

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November 16, 2017

Clinic Partner Releases New Business and Human Rights Tool


MSI Integrity, a non-profit organization that the International Human Rights Clinic helped to incubate, has released a comprehensive tool to evaluate multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), which are voluntary efforts that bring together industry, civil society, and governments to fill governance gaps.

The MSI Evaluation Tool was developed collaboratively by MSI Integrity and the Clinic through a five-year process of extensive research, practical pilot-testing, and global consultation with the public and experts on MSIs. It provides a framework to evaluate multi-stakeholder initiatives and the effectiveness of their institutional design, structure, and operational procedures. The tool began as a clinical project, and was carried forward by Amelia Evans, LLM ’11, who went on to found the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity, or MSI Integrity.

Read more on MSI Integrity’s website.

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May 26, 2017

Thank you, Class of 2017! Plus, pictures from our Commencement Party

 

Dear Class of 2017,

CONGRATULATIONS! You made it!

And you did it not just with intelligence, but with heart, which makes it all the better. So today, we send you off with two things: Gratitude, for all that you brought to our community, and hope, that you work with humility and heart to strengthen all the other communities you make your home.

We also want to send a special shout out to Mana Azarmi, who won the Outstanding Clinical Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA). Our very own Kenna Graziano, Lan Mei, and Loren Voss won the Dean’s Award for Community Leadership. And to the many clinical students who gave more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work during their time at HLS: Sarah Abraham, Mana Azarmi, Roi Bachmutsky, Torrance Castellano, Laura Dismore, Roni Druks, Kenna Graziano, Kelsey Jost-Creegan, Alice Kim, Lan Mei, Michael Perloff, Silvia Ruiz, Leora Smith, Marin Tollefson, Daniel Traficonte, and Danielle Young.

And now, for scenes from our annual commencement party with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and the Food Law and Policy Clinic, with big thanks to Jordana, Gabbie and Katherine for organizing!

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September 30, 2016

Alumni Perspective: “The Significance of the al-Mahdi Case and the War Crime of Destruction of Cultural Heritage”

Posted by Cara Solomon

Great work here by Danae Paterson, JD ’16, who co-authored this piece on a historic prosecution that goes right to the heart of cultural identity. The International Criminal Court has since sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of a jihadist group, to nine years in prison for his role in demolishing historic Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali.

The piece, which Danae co-authored with Dr. Paul Williams, co-founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group, was originally published on The Huffington Post under the headline: “Tear it all down: The significance of the al-Mahdi case and the war crime of destruction of cultural heritage.” Danae is currently working as a Law Fellow with Public International Law & Policy Group’s Syria negotiations team.

 

“The best way to tear someone down is to tear down their culture, tear down everything that is important to them” – Witness MLI-OTP-P-0431 for the Prosecution,Prosecutor v. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi



In 2012, at least ten revered religious monuments were destroyed in Timbuktu, Mali. The violation of these sacrosanct markers of culture and collective identity by al-Qaeda-backed extremists, dealt a painful and shocking injury to Mali’s Muslim community. For nearly everyone in the community, these UNESCO-designated mausoleums physically embodied Timbuktu’s historic identity as a prominent center of Islamic learning in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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July 1, 2016

Moving On: Deborah Popowski to Be Executive Director of NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice


Today we have the mixed blessing of announcing that one of our favorite people is moving on: Deborah Popowski, JD ’08, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, is bringing her considerable talents to New York University (NYU) School of Law as Executive Director of its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

A young woman gestures with her hands as she stands in front of walls with quotes on the,.
Photo credit: Kris Snibbe

It comes as no surprise to us that she was chosen for this leadership role. For the past seven years, Deborah has proven herself to be a visionary inside the International Human Rights Clinic, carving out a critical niche for U.S.-based work. In her time here, she led clinical projects on issues ranging from protest and assembly rights to the right to heal for U.S. service members and Iraqis. She also created a clinical seminar, “Human Rights Advocacy and the United States,” with the Human Rights Program’s former executive director, Clinical Professor Jim Cavallaro.

In particular, Deborah distinguished herself in recent years as a national leader in the grassroots movement to hold U.S. health professionals accountable for torture in the national security sphere. Her approach was both innovative and in-depth: through professional misconduct complaints, legislative advocacy, media outreach and academic conferences, she worked with clients to highlight the actions of psychologists at Guantánamo.

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