From Amnesty International's analysis of last year's death penalty statistics:

One hundred and seventy-nine countries had no executions last year.

That makes the United States one of less than 20 countries that did execute people, which is pretty staggering. I wonder if Burundi and Togo, which both abolished the death penalty in 2009, are pitying us for being backward.

A roundup of some stories from the past week you might like to check out:

• When it comes to foreign policy, Obama puts human rights in a corner.

• Good green news from an often bad and bloody scene.

• Saudi ladies might finally be allowed to become lawyers.

• The NYT reports that maternal-mortality numbers are dropping around the globe, but leaves out that in the United States, they're up.

• Add Senegalese Quranic schools to the list of trusted organizations that cannot be trusted with your children. Ditto the Boy Scouts. Nothing is sacred anymore.

As monk-led protesters made clear in 2007 and unnamed terrorists reiterated yesterday, people in Burma are incredibly pissed at their government. Given the recent events and my obsession—I mean, expertise—regarding it, it’s only appropriate that my inaugural public-service announcement on bad guys you should know concerns that country’s dictator, Than Shwe.

First and foremost: While it’s true that every story about bloody oppression has villains, this guy ranks with the evilest of them all. To wit, here’s a video of Ellen Page drawing a Hitler mustache on him:

Or, if you prefer your information come from a half-naked bisexual stripper, you can ask Tila Tequila.

Anyway: This high-school dropout was a buddy of the now-dead leader of the 1962 coup that put Burma under military dictatorship, now the world’s longest running. Than Shwe served a stint as a postal clerk before he worked his way up to chairman of the government and commander in chief of the army, as which he currently lords violently over the citizenry. Although he personally is not as well known as his fellow World’s Worst Dictators Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il, this would be the guy whose tyranny made headlines for killing some of the aforementioned 2007 protesters, turning away US aid ships after a cyclone killed 140,000 people in 2008, and lengthening the sentence of the world’s only incarcerated Nobel laureate last year. But not in the headlines, and even more horrifying, is the completely unchecked campaign of genocide against members of the Karen ethnicity, in which five-year-olds are raped and villagers are routinely decapitated. And those on the right side of the ethnic divide just die a little more slowly, what with crushing poverty, virtually no health care system, a child malnutrition rate of 30 percent, and surreal levels of Big Brothery restrictions on thought and expression.

Factoid that might impress your friends: The country with the most child soldiers is not in Africa. It’s Than Shwe’s Burma. Remember the “God’s Army” twins?

How (Not) to Beat Him: Obama has been engaging Burma more than did previous administrations, mixing in diplomacy with the usual old sanctions to get Than Shwe to relax his military’s death grip on the place. Than Shwe decidedly will not do that, because he’s convinced that maintaining massive military force is key to Burma’s continued independence (that’s partly our and England’s bad), and because he couldn’t care less what the US thinks, so long as the rest of the world keeps making him and his cronies rich by buying Burma’s gas and rubies and other fabulous resources.

Horoscope: This aquarius might not have much longer to live, having been born in February of the early '20s, but look for him to live out his days at least with impunity, if not continue to prominently run the show, even after the Burmese election later this year since he has, as previously explained here, engineered it to be a total crock of shit.

Several bombs went off in Rangoon today, killing at least nine and injuring dozens more during the country’s New Year festival. As Mother Jones readers know, bombs go off all the time in Burma; it’s just that usually they’re land mines, and government-planted, and in rural areas. But though they rarely make it into Western newspapers, blasts in the capital aren’t uncommon either. No one has claimed responsibility, but the junta generally blames ethnic insurgents. For the record, civil dissent is so widespread among so much of the population that the perpetrators could just as easily be members of the ethnic majority, whose discontent continues to grow as it becomes ever clearer that the upcoming elections are a farce. But in defense of the regime’s blaming armed minority rebel groups, there are plenty of them—Karen, Mon, Shan, Kachin, Wa, Kokang—with whom there are also escalating tensions. By way of explanation, allow me to quote from my own brilliant explanation:

Burma’s dystopia breeds new [insurgents] who are looking for revenge or purpose every day. And not just in the hills; small bombs planted by unknown groups have started going off in Rangoon. Everyone in the world knows what some people will inevitably choose given the choice between battling for liberty and rolling over and dying. In the face of the demand to make their inactive militia part of the murderous Burma army’s border force, the Mon have said no, and that, further, if they are asked to disarm, they “will do something.” The Kachin who’ve been in a cease-fire since 1994, also said no, and are now actively recruiting. The still terrifying and now druglording Wa’s twenty-thousand-strong army is refusing to submit to anyone’s authority. To prove it, just in case someone wants to make them try, they are preparing for war. And the Kokang broke a two-decade truce with a firefight that sent thousands fleeing across the border into China.

And shit continues to get iller. At the very least, expect more protests, violent or otherwise; at worst, the country could be ripped apart by spreading civil war. Don’t be surprised to see more headlines, and headlines like this, from Burma this year. 

Update: The target of the bombs was a festival pavilion sponsored by Than Shwe's favorite grandson. Who's Than Shwe? This guy.


I'm back from a month of reading, presenting, and radio-interviewing about Burma, during which several people asked a question that begs to be more widely answered. So, herewith, a re-creation of how that conversation went down in Portland. In the name of scene-setting: When we get to the Q&A point in the lecture, many people are generally wincing, because the situation seems hopeless, because they can't believe something so horrible is happening outside their awareness, and, well, because by that time I'm standing in front of this picture, which is just one slide in a pretty unsettling show.

Wincing gal: [with hand raised] So what can we do? Are we just supposed to write a strong letter to our congressman?

Me: I know it sounds kind of lame to say "Write a letter to your congressman," but seriously, if you want to get involved you should really write a letter to your congress(wo)man. Many of your representatives are aware, as the Obama administration and the United Nations are aware, that ethnic cleansing abounds in eastern Burma, but it's not likely to make it to the top of anyone's agenda until politicians know it's on their constituents' agendas.

Gal: [not satisfied] Is that it?

Me: [neither this succinctly nor eloquently, but to paraphrase here] If you want to donate money, you can support refugee services in Thailand; check out the organizations providing them under the Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand. Or look at the Global Health Access Program, which funds indigenous medics, or the Free Burma Rangers' bad-ass assistance to internally displaced people in Burma's jungles; ditto the Burma Humanitarian Mission

In Seattle, one of the Free Burma Rangers was present, and he pointed out when this question inevitably came up that it takes many groups in the United States to help the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees that have been moved here. That's true. And though I talked to many an aid and advocacy organization, no one seems to be aware of any complete listing of them, so I'll report here (with links!) that a good shot of finding one is via your local chapter of the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, World Relief, or Catholic Charities. Googling a nearby International Institute or Jewish Family Service or even "Burmese refugees" alongside the name of your city is another way to turn up the people who are assisting these survivors on our soil. (You'll notice, no doubt, that a lot of them have God/church affiliations. That's the way the Burmese aid cookie largely crumbles. Had it not been for religious groups tending to the desperate needs of the Burmese, frankly, a lot more people would have starved or otherwise suffered to death in the last several decades.)

Hopefully, there will someday be a comprehensive list or umbrella organization that can direct people to all these efforts, but for now, there's a head start for those interested in helping. Other brilliant suggestions? Did I miss any groups doing something way different? Let me know, and I'll add them to the list.

Today has published an article from the March/April special human rights issue that explores a Western penchant for renting Indian women's wombs. Sounds creepy, but the exposé perhaps raises as many questions as it answers. After all, there are many who point out that, for example, working in a sweatshop beats being starving, or forced into sex work; so how exploitative is it to cheaply employ Third World reproductive organs if the pay is still way more money than their owners could make by conventional means? Check out an additional angle of the debate, as well as an interesting piece of the medical-tourism puzzle, here.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just announced the date of the UK's first national elections since 2005. And one nonprofit has launched a campaign to round up some unusual—and controversial—members of the electorate.

The organizers of Give Your Vote are on their way to collecting thousands of UK votes to hand out to citizens of Afghanistan, Ghana, and Bangladesh. Here's how it works: People in the UK sign up to give their vote to someone in a country impacted by British policy. Bangladesh is a recipient because of the havoc wreaked on it by climate change; Ghana for how f'ed it's gotten by trade policies; and Afghanistan for reasons I hardly need to point out. Give Your Vote will disseminate candidate information in local languages (the press materials quote a Bangladeshi who lost a home to rising sea levels as saying, "I will be looking for the party that has the best plans for dealing with climate change refugees"); those locals will text in their vote, which signed-up Brits will receive and cast accordingly on their behalf at the polls. The idea was cooked up by someone who was in Syria with a bunch of Iraqi refugees glued to the 2008 American presidential-election coverage to see what their own futures might hold. And it's all legal. Spokesperson May Abdalla reminded me that "you get told who to vote for all the time"—via advertising, or political groups, or advocacy organizations; this is just "shifting where you're getting your information from." (And for the fact-checkers: The process' legality was confirmed, by mutiple sources, with the UK's Electoral Commission.)

Backers of Give Your Vote include Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and celebrities like Keith Allen, who is apparently famous to British people. People who are really mad about it include the extremist British National Party, which has railed against the initiative on its blog, the readers of which, if the comments section is any indication, all hate Muslims. 

While the BNP is claiming a Marxist plot to undermine British sovereignty and "punish the prosperity of Britain," Abdalla swears that the idea is just to get people thinking about how to make democracies more accountable for their wide-reaching actions. An American group is planning to strike up a similar program for the 2012 US elections, and I'm looking forward to the debate between those liberals/socialists and the Tea Partiers. Either way, you can't argue, at least, with one of Give Your Vote's slogans: "Many of the issues that the UK decides on are global. The electorate is not."

I think that's a pretty good point. But since I work with a bunch of commies, you know, I would.

Hey everyone, I'm Lindsay Lohan, and this is Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey (BBC3). India's, like, this crazy place in maybe Asia? The people are sooo cute, and real skinny. Also they're mad drivers like me – maybe they all do tons of cocaine too. But this isn't about drugs or driving (for once!). Or who I'm dating or not dating. It's about child trafficking, which is this massive issue out here.

That is not the opening voice-over of Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey, but the more puerile of two scathing Guardian articles (plus a blog item) about it within the last seven days. Alright, it's weird that LiLo is the host of a BBC documentary about child trafficking. And the inarticulateness in the clip below isn't even the least compelling commentary she offers during the course of the film:

Still. I'm going to have to side against the haters on this one.  I'm not really qualified to judge whether Lohan is genuinely interested in learning about child trafficking or is using the issue to scrub her ditsy image, but even the latter still does the service of raising awareness. In the doc, we go to the slums; we look at how globalization and economic "progress" have exacerbated demand for underage slaves. We meet children whose parents give them up to traffickers for the extra income, sometimes repeatedly, talk with very young rape victims, hear more kids talking about being beaten than we can count. "In fact, it would be [hard] to argue that the BBC had produced a bad documentary here," admits the Independent. "Who knows what their motive for choosing Lohan as their star was? To raise awareness among a demographic—supermarket-tabloid readers—who wouldn't otherwise have taken an interest? To generate publicity? To boost ratings?"

Well, yes. Consider how many more people watched Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey than would have Learn About Child Trafficking With John Davies. Who? Right. As I've mentioned before, Thailand, for example, has a problem with abusing refugees, but it took Angelina Jolie's involvement for the issue to really explode into the news. And I'm gonna guess, that these two stories snarking about Lohan is way more headlines than the Guardian gives child trafficking in a typical week.


NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, has done a little sleuthing about the number of the network's female commentators and sources, and the results aren't pretty. Well, this is a good-looking chart, but you get what I mean:


"NPR listeners heard 2,502 male sources and 877 female sources on the shows we sampled," Shepard writes. "In other words, only 26 percent of the 3,379 voices were female, while 74 percent were male."

The problem is hardly limited to NPR; Mother Jones has posted the scary statistics about the gender disparity in magazines, in the blogosphere, and everywhere else, from golf clubs to Hollywood. I recently did my own scientific study, in which I saw the December Harper's sitting on a friend's bathroom floor and counted on my fingers that every one of the six contributors mentioned on the cover was a man. I've also conducted a follow-up that involved looking at The Daily Show's 2009 guest list on Wikipedia and tallying that it featured only 36 women; only one guest was a woman in each of February and March; in September, none was.

"Many times we hear there are no women, or there are more men to tap into as experts," said Women's Media Center president Jehmu Greene in Shepard's blog post. "I think that's a mindset that is common in the media. Clearly, it is worth it to do the extra work for the story to get the female perspective which many times can be different, unique and necessary." That's why the WMC is devoted to populating the media landscape with more ladies—a cause I'm honored to participate in as a member of its 2010 Progressive Women's Voices class.

While Shepard laments her organization's shortfalls on the gender front, she points out that it is still "an industry leader with female correspondents and hosts." To wit, it has launched an initiative to diversify its on-air voices, and hopefully, this chart will soon be less skewed. Points out Jill Geisler of the Poynter Institute, for the analysis win, "I doubt there is a conscious, systemic aversion to selecting women as sources at NPR. But benign neglect is still neglect and its impact just as harmful to society."



This week, Burma's National League for Democracy, the party of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, announced that it wouldn't participate in the country's first elections in two decades, which are to be held sometime later this year. Than Shwe, the general who heads the Burmese junta, insists that the contest will be "free and fair," and despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, some outside observers appear to be buying the hype: ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that the elections are "a new beginning," and the New York Times ran a bizarrely rosy story about the country's future. But the NLD boycott reflects what everybody in Burma already knows—that the elections are a farce.

Let's take a look at the aforementioned mountains of evidence:

1. The government is already cheating. The military's proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, has spent millions currying favor with the populace by paving roads, opening free health clinics, and giving away high school tuition. This started before the junta announced the rules for participating in the election (or even a date; October is the rumor), effectively crippling other parties' ability to start campaigning. When the government finally did reveal the campaign rules, they were so stacked against the opposition—for example, barring Aung San Suu Kyi from participating—that the NLD sued to have them revised. The case was rejected.

2. Even if the generals don't win, they could still "win."
In 2008, 92 percent of Burmese voters allegedly said yea to a constitution drafted by the junta. Never mind that the new constitution basically legalized forced labor or that the vote was held in the chaos following a cyclone that killed 140,000 people. Also, the last time the government held multiparty elections, in 1990, and lost to the NLD by a landslide, it simply declared the results void and kept Aung San Suu Kyi incarcerated.

3. Even if the generals admit that they don't win, they still can't actually lose. According to the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, and the current government picks the candidates for president. And in the event that parliamentarians do start exercising too much power, the military machine could always just reassert control of the state, as it did in the coups of 1962 and 1988. Than Shwe reminded the populace of this possibility last weekend when he made the wholly unveiled threat that the army can step into politics "whenever the need arises."

4. Bad guys will continue to hold the purse strings.
The Times has cited the government's decision to sell "a raft of state-run factories and assets to cronies in the private sector" as a sign of progress. But the reason the military is hastily selling off hundreds of state-owned properties—buildings, land, oil and hydro projects, ports, an airline—to its leaders and crooked friends is to guarantee that the country's economy will remain in their grasp no matter what the election outcome.

5. There's the matter of rampant discrimination and war crimes. Don't discount, as most Western media does, the millions of ethnic minorities inside Burma's borders, many of whom will not participate in the elections (the rules of which were published only in Burmese and English) and some of which have armed insurgent groups threatening to come out of retirement in the face of election-related turmoil. Also rarely discussed is the full-on, horribly bloody war in the east of the country. These minorities' continuing disenfranchisement and targeting for annihilation is hardly a move toward peace and democracy. A UN official and more than 50 US congresspeople have called for an investigation into the regime's crimes against humanity, but a clause in the wildly popular constitution stipulates that the perpetrators cannot be brought to justice. 

ASEAN's Pitsuwan may have cause for saying that the Burmese government's decision to hold elections is a "step forward"—after all, that's not saying much about a government known for its total disregard for political and human rights. But such falsely hopeful messages diminish the gaping distance between Burma's current state and true democracy. Did the National League for Democracy have any choice but to sacrifice their chance to play along with the charade?