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The Mynamar Apartheid/Genocide: Nicholas Kristof On The U.S.’s Failure In Burma In The Obama-Hillary-Kerry Years

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Intrepid New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently filed a troubling column from Myanmar, long considered the sole “success” of the Hillary Clinton years at State and President Obama’s tragically fumbled, at-best-feckless foreign policy on every other front but the country formerly known as Burma.

Kristof, to his great credit as this column will win him no friends in Hillaryland or the White House, looks hard at the terrible underside of our emerging relationship with the Burmese.  Read the column, then listen to or read the interview I conducted with Kristof Friday.  Then read this story on the advance copy of Hillary’s memoir, obtained by the New York Times, which has zip to report of interest from getting the book, but nothing critical to say of Clinton’s record on Russia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, the PRC –or even Burma.  When I spoke with Kristof a few months back —transcript and audio here— he cited Burma as the sole success he could point to on Hillary’s “win column.”  But that was before he was given a journalist’s visa to the country and witnessed first hand what the president and his two secretaries of state have allowed to develop without much of a comment.  The tragedy that is unfolding in Burma is just another chapter in a real account of Hillary’s tenure at State, which should be bluntly put before her as her book tour begins, just as her whereabouts and specific actions (and inactions) on the night of 9/11/12 should be.




HH: As I said in the first hour, only appropriate guests, and one of those today, the intrepid Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. He’s a columnist, op-ed columnist there. Nicholas, welcome back, and a happy 70th anniversary of D-Day to you.

NK: Thank you. I’m glad to be on.

HH: I’ve got to say, I hate admitting this, I knew nothing of what I figured out from your column yesterday, or two days ago, on Myanmar. I just didn’t know anything about it. And I confess I think I’m not alone in that.

NK: Yeah.

HH: What was the reaction to this?

NK: You know, I think a lot of people are unaware, you know. Burma, or Myanmar, has been kind of out of the news, and here we have, and when there has been attention, it’s been focused on Burma kind of moving out of China’s orbit and into a more Western orbit, and into a more democratic orbit. And all that’s true and it’s wonderful. But in the northwest of the country, we have an ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and I mean, just real atrocities that are unfolding, and it’s not getting the attention it deserves.

HH: Now I want to start by pointing out, I’ve had a lot of people talking about Secretary of State Clinton’s achievements and her memoirs, and they always say that she lists among her achievements the normalization of relationship with Burma or Myanmar, I always mispronounce the new name. I’ll call it Burma just to make sure I don’t…

NK: Burma is good.

HH: Burma’s good. Burma’s easy. And so that’s always at the top of her list for what she got done. What was going on when she was rationalizing the relationship, or normalizing the relationship with this Muslim minority?

NK: Well, I mean it’s true that, I mean I think there is something to that achievement, and that Burma had been, you know, this brutal dictatorship that was kind of in China’s orbit. And then I’m usually very skeptical of economic sanctions. And in fact, when we imposed sanctions on Burma back in the early 2000’s, I said oh, it’s not going to work. And in fact, I think partly because of those sanctions, partly because Burma for all kinds of reasons wanted to be closer to the West, it began to become a little bit more democratic, wanted to connect more with the West, and so the Obama administration, you know, negotiated with them. President Obama visited Burma. And…you know, but, and all that is real, but there’s also something else going on, which is this horrific, just horrific abuse in the northwest of the country. And this year, it’s gotten worse.

HH: All right, let’s describe it to people. In your column, and I’ll link it over at, they’ve created their own apartheid that you say would make the South Africans of the old generation blush.

NK: That’s right. It’s a million people, based on their ethnic group. They’re called the Rohingya, and they’re locked up in closed quasi-concentration camps, or locked up in their villages. They’re not allowed to leave to get jobs, in some cases to go to fields to farm. They’re not allowed schools. They’re, and worst of all was that early this year, they were denied medical care. So they’re left in these camps essentially to rot. Women go into labor and can’t get a doctor to deliver the baby. Babies get sick. There’s no medical attention. And you know, this is in the 21st Century, allowing people on the basis of their ethnicity to die of the simplest things.

HH: Well, it sounds like the Warsaw ghetto.

NK: Yeah.

HH: It really is astonishing that I’ve never heard of this before. And I’m curious of the people who cover Burma, and of the people that you talk to about foreign affairs generally, how many of them are like me, utterly ignorant of this problem?

NK: You know, in the foreign affairs world, it has gotten some, I mean, people are to some degree aware of this, but I think they tend to diminish it. They say look, you know, it’s terrible what is going on with the Rohingya, but overall, Burma is a success story. They’re moving toward democracy. Many parts of the country are improving. The economy is improving. And so we shouldn’t be, you know, we shouldn’t become too obsessed with the atrocities happening to the Rohingya.

HH: Can we have a success story when there’s a genocide, or at least an apartheid involved?

NK: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that’s exactly the point that it’s true that there is a lot of progress in the rest of the country, but when you have a million people who are subjected to ethnic cleansing, to crimes against humanity, to what some scholars call a slow burning genocide, then you can’t make excuses.

HH: I’m talking to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. His June 4th column has this paragraph in it. “What’s at stake is ultimately Myanmar itself. The army is powerful, but has allowed murderous ethnic clashes and attacks on aid groups, undermining the economy and fueling ethnic nationalism on all sides. In the absence of schools, Wahhabi madrassas are popping up ominously in the closed camps. In other words, radicalization of the Islamist sort is also taking root in Burma.

NK: Yeah, it is. And I think that this isn’t just about the terrible injustice that is happening to the Rohingya, though those are real. But it’s also that the whole country could be dragged down by this.

HH: Now it’s hard for people to get their arms around this, because of course, Aung San Suu Kyi is the Nobel laureate as well as the subject of a major motion picture, right? She’s a hero.

NK: Yeah, she was a hero of mine, and she has been quiet on this issue, because she wants to be a politician. She wants to be president of Burma. And you know, Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Rohingya are a minority Muslim population, a minority ethnic group. And repressing them has been quite popular. And so nobody is willing to speak up for them. And you know, it makes, I mean, in a sense, the move toward democracy has complicated this issue, because it’s been popular to beat up on this minority and make them a scapegoat.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask, in three days, former Secretary of State Clinton’s memoir comes out. I haven’t seen it, yet. Have you had a chance to read it or see it, yet?

NK: No, I have not. I’ve been, I’m waiting for it.

HH: Do you think in the index we will find Rohingya?

NK: My hunch is probably no. We’ll probably see mention of Burma as a success, and you know, indeed I think there is something to that. I think that becomes, especially this year, somewhat harder. What made things worse this year is that they’ve been treated badly for years and for decades. But then in February and March, the doctors, humanitarian doctors who have been providing medical care were kicked out, were barred from the camps. And other aid groups, Western aid groups, had their offices attacked in coordinated camps which led aid workers to flee the country. So we had an awful situation that in the last couple of months has gotten just dramatically worse. And I would bet we will not see Rohingya in the index.

HH: And will that be a moral failing on her part?

NK: You know, I think, you know, when, at the time that she was in office, when she was dealing with it, I mean, I guess I would have liked to see it mentioned. I just think it’s much more urgent now than it was then.

HH: And I don’t want to excuse the Bushies, either. I’m not, I never, I followed Bush foreign policy as closely as anybody, and I didn’t, was it a problem then as well? Or were we just trying to pry the door open then on the country?

NK: It was less of a problem then. It’s periodically been a problem over the last 30 years or so, but it, the last period where it really got worse was 2012. You had mobs attacking the Rohingya. And they were, that’s when they were locked into these camps. And so it deteriorated in 2012, and then just in the last few months, it’s deteriorated very badly with all access to health care being cut off.

HH: Has Secretary Kerry stood up and said anything?

NK: Not nearly enough. I mean, the U.S. has done a little bit better than European countries, which have been awful, but most of the U.S. comments have been from the State Department spokesmen, or from the embassy. And they’ve been, in my view, far too restrained and far too polite. I think that it’s time, when this kind of thing is happening, I think President Obama needs to speak out, Secretary Kerry, especially because, as you say, they do claim it as a foreign policy success. And if you’re going to claim the success side of the ledger, then you’ve got to own that and push for an end to these kinds of just unbelievable atrocities.

HH: Last question, 30 seconds, how did you get into these camps?

NK: Well, the astonishing thing is that as a result of the democratization, they gave me a journalist visa. And I mean, one of the lessons of history is that if you’re going to be brutally repressing people, then you don’t give, you shouldn’t be giving journalist visas. And they made that mistake. They probably won’t let me back and make that mistake twice, but they don’t let aid workers in. They let me in to document it, and we’ll be running a video about it in the coming days as well.

HH: It’s a terrific column. Nicholas Kristof, thanks for joining me today. It’s linked over at, America. Go and read about the Rohingya.

End of interview.


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