As the military government in Myanmar continued its crackdown on pro-democracy activists, a Burmese Jew now living in the United States expressed his sorrow over the killing of civilians — a number that could be as low as the 10 acknowledged by the government or as high as the hundreds claimed by human-rights advocates.
Sammy Samuels, a New York-based employee of American Jewish Congress, also said he witnessed one of the largest demonstrations preceding the crackdown while visiting his family in Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, for the High Holy Days.
His family lives only “one minute from where it was happening,” the site of a large Buddhist shrine, said Samuels, 27, whose father, Moshe, is the caretaker of the country’s only synagogue. He and some of his friends saw the demonstration from a nearby street, he said.
A 2006 graduate of Yeshiva University, where he studied information technology, Samuels said he traveled to Myanmar, formerly called Burma, to spend Yom Kippur and Sukkot with his father, mother and sister. Only 20 Burmese Jews remain in the whole country, including eight in Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, he said.
The government crackdown began on Yom Kippur and, by the time he left the country late Saturday night, his family’s section of downtown Yangon was filled with armed soldiers, Samuels said — the strongest military presence he had seen on the streets in 19 years, when the government crushed an earlier pro-democracy movement. “If you want to go any place in the area, you have to get permission [from the soldiers stationed there] — even to cross the street.”
Those soldiers are part of a crackdown described by some reports as especially brutal. “Horror stories are filling Myanmar blogs and dissident sites,” the Associated Press reported Monday, and at least two people interviewed by The Jewish Week early this week passed along stories they heard from contacts in the country. Among those accounts, according to the AP: 100 students and parents shot dead at a high school in Yangon; activists burned alive at government crematoriums; monks rounded up, beaten and killed.
But the tight security imposed by the regime makes it impossible to verify those stories or how many other people have been arrested or killed. The military junta has shut down Internet cafés and phone service; eyewitnesses are said to be afraid; and many of the stories are coming from organizations opposed to the government.
For those reasons, Samuels and one of his family’s close friends, Ruth Fredman Cernea, spoke with caution about the current situation. Cernea, the author of a recently published book on the country’s Jews, “Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma,” said she thought it would be “unwise” to highlight Myanmar’s Jewish community “in a political context.”
But Samuels did say that Myanmar’s tiny Jewish population, although “frightened” like their Buddhist, Muslim and Christian neighbors, has remained safe and unharmed. Cernea, a resident of Bethesda, Md., also noted that the country’s Jews have never faced anti-Semitism or harassment from either their neighbors or the nation’s military rulers.
While both Samuels and Cernea were being cautious, reflecting the fears, perhaps, of those caught in a delicate situation, at least two American Jewish organizations had no such inhibitions.
The American Jewish World Service, an international development organization, has called on Burma’s government to refrain from the use of force, to release all political prisoners and to begin a “genuine dialogue” with supporters of democracy and ethnic opposition groups.
Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center issued a statement from its director, Rabbi David Saperstein, saying that he and his associates “stand with the brave people of Myanmar in their protest.” The center also saluted Washington and the United Nations for pushing the Burmese junta to grant its people greater freedom and called for the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader under house arrest for more than a decade.
Both statements referred to the country interchangeably as Myanmar, the name adopted by the military government in 1989, and Burma, the country’s previous name and the one preferred by the pro-democracy movement. News organizations differ in their practice, with some referring only to Myanmar, the name recognized by the United Nations; others sticking to Burma; and still others using “Myanmar” as the noun and “Burmese” as the adjective.
Leaders of both AJWS and the Religious Action Center said they view events in Myanmar as an issue that deserves the attention of the Jewish community.
“Our teaching is pretty explicit that what we need to do is pursue justice,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS. Rabbi Saperstein said Jews have been concerned with human rights “ever since Jonah went to Nineveh,” the capital of Assyria, and, according to the Bible, warned its residents to change their evil ways — a message they heeded. He added that if Jews want the rest of the world to stand up for them, whenever they are threatened, they have an obligation to speak out in cases like Burma, “a particularly vivid example” of the violation of human rights.
Turning to the role of her own organization, Messinger acknowledged that most of AJWS’ work is aimed at alleviating poverty, hunger and disease around the world. But in areas with particularly corrupt or brutal governments, such as Darfur, social change is impossible without political change, she continued. “Advocacy is certainly part of our work, and all of our work is about human rights in the broadest sense.”
AJWS is already helping pro-democracy activists through grants to several human-rights organizations and through the placement of volunteers with those groups, which are based in areas of Thailand near the Burmese border. Those areas are now home to thousands of Burmese refugees and migrant workers, many of them housed in nearly a dozen refugee camps.
Mike Paller, for instance, is a recent graduate of Brandeis University now working for the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, a group that monitors human rights violations in Myanmar and educates Burmese refugees and migrant workers about their rights.
Paller, a native of Los Angeles, is coordinating research for a study of children involved in armed conflict. As he explained it, every government that has signed the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child has to report to that body every five years on how it has honored the agreement. His study, he said, will serve as a “shadow report,” providing the UN with information that might differ from Myanmar’s official report.
“We’ll analyze the situation to a certain extent,” said Paller, 25, but the analysis will be based on news reports, eyewitness accounts and other documents. “We’re looking at six types of violations,” including the killing and maiming of children; rape and other sexual violence; and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Two other AJWS volunteers — Emily Gold of Bellmore, L.I., and Shana Weinberg of Washington, D.C., — recently taught Burmese refugees in Chaing Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand, described by both as an epicenter of pro-democracy activity.
Gold, 23, worked for the Burmese Women’s Union, teaching women of various ethnic groups and religions, while Weinberg, 24, was placed with the Kachin Women’s Association, which assists members of the same ethnic group, all from the Burmese state of Kachin. Both volunteers taught the women roughly the same subjects, including history, and both included units on the Holocaust and Anne Frank, a figure they both thought the refugees would admire. In addition, both organized a joint Passover seder for their students, linking the holiday’s themes to what the refugees have experienced in their own lives.
“I think they could appreciate the feelings Anne Frank was having,” said Weinberg.
Both Gold and Weinberg are still in touch with former students and associates, writing to them as late as last week, and both report that those with whom they worked view the current situation with a mix of fear and hope. The hope, they said, comes from the sense that the present moment could be an opportunity for change, especially with the world focused on Burma.
The two volunteers agree with that feeling, as does Paller, but all three believe that no progress is possible without the involvement of China and perhaps, to a lesser degree, India, Thailand and Russia, all economic partners of the Burmese regime.
Messinger, sounding much the same note, noted that China has failed to protect human rights in a number of places, including Darfur. “I’m quite sure,” she said, “that the world will put pressure on China” for Burma.