Democracy Lab

An Idealist on Death Row

Why the desperate fate of a little-known Sudanese human rights activists poses some fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

You've probably never heard of Jalila Khamis Koko. As for me, I've only read about her. But it's quite clear from what I've read that she's an extraordinary person.

Her life story has the same improbable trajectory as that of so many other human rights activists around the world. A 43-year-old elementary school teacher, wife, and mother isn't necessarily the sort of person you'd expect to confront one of Africa's most vicious governments. But that's what she's done. For more than a year now, the government of Sudan has been waging a war in the border state of South Kordofan, Jalila's homeland. The fighting has included the same sorts of abuses already sadly familiar from the conflict in Darfur, including wholesale rape, the use of famine as a weapon of war, and the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians. It has created half a million refugees in South Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state.

Jalila responded by turning her home in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, into a refuge for those fleeing the fighting. By this spring around two dozen people were living there. But what really drew the attention of the Sudanese authorities seems to have been her outspoken criticism, in a now-notorious video published in June 2011, of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's brutal treatment of her fellow Nubans, the majority inhabitants of South Kordofan. (Like so many other of Sudan's ethnic minorities, the Nubans, who are not Arabs, have persistently resisted Bashir's efforts to make them conform with his own ethnic and religious definition of what "proper Sudanese" are supposed to be.) She also had the temerity to call for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict.

Note: That's all she did: criticize. Her protest was entirely non-violent. She harmed no one.

On March 15, in the early hours of the morning, the Sudanese secret police -- the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) -- showed up at Jalila's home and took her away. She's been imprisoned ever since. Just last month, according to Amnesty International, a Sudanese court sentenced her to death on treason charges. She could be executed at any time.

Clearly President Bashir wants to make an example of her. From his viewpoint, it's understandable why. This is a tricky time for the government in Khartoum. The Islamist regime's countless wars have only brought misery to Sudan's people. The economy is tanking, and discontent is rife. Earlier this year, Sudanese in the heartland of the country -- not just the long-restive minorities on its periphery -- took to the streets to rehearse their own version of the Arab Spring. Flash mobs, coordinated by mobile phones, popped up all over the place to chant anti-government slogans.

The Sudanese security forces cracked down, sending at least 2,000 protestors to jail. (Incidentally, the woman who took the video of Jalila and posted it on the Internet, another activist by the name of Nagla Sayed Ahmed, has apparently also been sentenced to death in absentia by a Khartoum court, though she has managed to flee the country.)

Bashir might be hoping that his recent deal on sharing oil revenues with South Sudan, which achieved its independence last year, will give him some economic breathing room. But even that won't help him to put his country's political problems to rest. He's betting that the only solution there is force.

Jalila knew what she was getting into. You don't take on a regime like Bashir's without knowing that you're going to be facing some harsh reprisals. Indeed, Bashir has shown in the past that he won't even stop short of persecuting one of his state's own founding fathers when he sees fit. (When Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist who provided the crucial ideological underpinnings for the Sudanese regime, ran afoul of Bashir a few years ago, he ended up doing a long stint in jail as well.)

And this brings me to a question that I've found myself pondering a lot lately. What is it that moves some remarkable individuals to stand up and be counted even when they know that this will bring all sorts of misfortune down on them and their families? Though such people are few and far between, they represent a phenomenon that has proven remarkably persistent over the ages.

It's not immediately clear why this should be so. If humans are indeed motivated above all by a longing for security or economic well-being, then it would be impossible to explain activists like Jalila, who have everything to lose and very little to gain, in material terms, by directly and actively opposing a government that is thousands of times more powerful than she is.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of people rarely resort to open protest or outward political activism -- especially when authoritarian governments demonstrate the will to use violence against them for doing so. Yet under the right set of circumstances even these cautious masses can be tipped into action by the dedicated efforts of an idealistic few.

In my career as a journalist I've encountered these people all over the world. In Russia there was the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who just couldn't help but stand up to a malevolent cabal of gangsters, soldiers, and corrupt bureaucrats -- and paid for it with her life, as many bystanders might have predicted. In Hong Kong there was the activist Han Dongfang, who was punished for his efforts to apprise Chinese workers of their rights with exile from his homeland.

It feels good to see Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi accepting awards on behalf of a people now cautiously emerging into the bright light of freedom after decades under crushingly oppressive military rule. But I wonder if the honors heaped upon her now can really compensate for her decades of sacrifice, including the loss of a normal family life.

And for every Nobel Laureate who manages to make a dent in the reign of injustice, there are still many other dissidents who labor in obscurity, their names unknown, in many cases, even to their compatriots. Their fates should serve as a reminder that most activists don't get into the job to become famous. They do it because some mysterious inner force, some profound moral impetus, is urging them forward to do the right thing.

I've never seen anyone explore this impulse in a convincing way. But the story of Jalila Khamis Koko reminds us that it's still around, and as strong as ever.

P.S. -- To those readers who want to intercede on her behalf, you can find more information on her case, and how to take action, on Amnesty International's site here.


Democracy Lab

Why We Give the Lady a Hard Time

An open letter to the critics of our criticism.

As I write this, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting the United States for the first time in more than 40 years. Before this trip, the last time she visited the United States was back in the 1960s, when she spent three years working at the United Nations in New York. Much later, in 1988, she returned to her homeland, where she found herself -- by dint of an illustrious father who had helped to guide Burma to its independence after World War II -- thrust into the leadership of a national movement to resist military dictatorship. What happened next has been recounted many times: state-sponsored harassment; repeated near assassination at the hands of the regime's goons; the death or imprisonment of countless friends and colleagues; long years of house arrest and jail; separation from her family; and her gradual rise to a position as one of the world's most respected dissidents.

Now, thanks to a reform course launched by Burmese President Thein Sein two years ago, the Lady and many other activists have finally found their way back to freedom. For so many years she refused to leave Burma out of the fear that the ruling junta wouldn't let her back in; now those days are over, and she's touring the globe to receive three decades' worth of deferred honors. Back at home she's been elected to a seat in parliament and her image, long banned, now routinely graces the front pages of the papers.

At Foreign Policy, we've been following this extraordinary trajectory with sympathy and respect. (See, for example, this video message she sent us when we chose her as one of our Global Thinkers a few years back.) But lately we've also called her out on a couple of things. And this -- judging by some of the things that people have said to us, or even written (see comments) -- has sometimes prompted the ire of our readers.

Look, let's get one thing straight at the outset: Aung San Suu Kyi is an extraordinary moral exemplar and a remarkable political leader. As she made the rounds here in Washington and New York over the past few days, she reminded us why. Somehow, over these long years of struggle, she has managed to keep her unbending devotion to justice even while demonstrating rare qualities of eloquence, charisma, and self-deprecating charm.

But it's not her unsurpassed ability to woo cynical Washington politicians and pundits that earns our respect. Her long and tortuous non-violent struggle for human rights in Burma undeniably places her in the exalted ranks of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel. She belongs there. She's earned it.

Yet it's also important to remember that none of these people were gods. They all made their mistakes, political as well as personal. None of them should have been off limits to criticism. They've all been subjected to harsh scrutiny by their contemporaries as well as by historians. And this is in the nature of things. It is, in fact, their personal failings and peccadilloes that accentuate their achievements.

Burma's efforts to find its way toward the ranks of the world's open societies is a hugely important but also insanely complex undertaking, replete with tactical dilemmas and difficult compromises. This is precisely why FP's journalists have tried to illuminate it in all of its aspects, noting the dark tones as well as the bright ones.

Aung San Suu Kyi can hardly be exempt from this process. She's a human being, too. And her new role as a democratically elected member of her country's parliament means, more than ever, that she should be subject to the same public scrutiny as any other politician. Indeed, we'd like to feel that we honor her most by holding her to the high public standard of conduct she's established over the past forty years. This is all the more reason to question her actions when they deserve it.

Along the way, it's our Burmese blogger Min Zin -- an alumnus of the 1988 student uprising against the military who has spent the years since then tracking the ins and outs of Burmese politics -- who has asked some of the sharpest questions of all. He has criticized the Lady's high-minded insistence on refusing to take an oath to the current constitution upon entering parliament; as he predicted, she was subsequently compelled to make a humiliating climb-down when this position proved untenable. And he has taken her to task for her failure to set up a proper staff -- a seemingly mundane yet vitally important undertaking for someone who is not only the de facto leader of the parliamentary opposition at a crucial moment in her country's history but also its face to the outside world.

Min Zin was also among the first to note her ambiguous stance on the sectarian conflict in Arakan State, when she declined to defend the racially motivated attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denounced by many chauvinistic Burmese as dark-skinned "immigrants" (even though most of them have lived in the country for generations). He knew that this wouldn't make him any friends among his compatriots, and responses to his post proved him correct. "How dare you criticize Myanmar people's wishes and accuse [Aung San Suu Kyi] and 88 Student leaders as racists for standing up for our country?" was among the mildest of the responses that his commentary evoked.

In a subsequent article, Min Zin showed how the government's embrace of exclusionary rhetoric -- President Thein Sein even called for the wholesale deportation of the Rohingyas -- enabled it to outflank Burma's pro-democracy activists by positioning itself as the defender of "national sovereignty." Given the strength of nationalist feeling among the ethnic Burman majority, there's no question that this has put Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the pro-democracy movement in a delicate political position. Min Zin's point that "sectarian conflict is bad for democracy" strikes me as one that is essential to the future of a liberal political order in Burma.

The sorts of issues we're talking about here need to be addressed. Yet anyone who writes about such topics can count on bearing the brunt of the intense emotions that swirl around them. (Just take a look at the long list of often vicious comments generated by William McGovan's article "Aung San Suu Kyi's Buddhism Problem," not to mention other provocative pieces by Francis Wade, Spike Johnson, and Hanna Hindstrom.) As we see it, such criticism comes with the territory.

Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi sees it that way too. During one of her Washington appearances she noted that the Burmese people "are having to be taught to ask questions" of their leaders -- apparently not entirely aware of the contradiction the remark implies. (My own limited experience in Burma suggests that ordinary folk are already very good at asking questions of those in power, thank you.) It would, of course, be all too understandable if her long years of persecution have imbued her with the sense that criticism is something that only comes from enemies. Is she now equipped to bear well-intended criticism from her friends? And not only to bear it, but to take it into account?

We'll see. As the government continues its push to loosen restrictions on the press, Burma's leaders -- now including the Lady -- will have to get used to seeing their actions subjected to public scrutiny.

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