Friday 30 August 2019

It’s Time to Indict Aung San Suu Kyi for Genocide Against the Rohingya in Myanmar

Source Theintercept, 24 Aug

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the opening ceremony of the Yangon Innovation Centre in Yangon on July 17, 2019. (Photo by Thet AUNG / AFP)        (Photo credit should read THET AUNG/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar's state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the opening ceremony of the Yangon Innovation Centre in Yangon on July 17, 2019.


Photo: Thet Aung/AFP/Getty Images

ISN'T IT TIME Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was indicted for war crimes and genocide at the International Criminal Court?

This Sunday marks two years since the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, arrived in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, to launch a renewed campaign of terror and violence against the country's long-persecutedRohingya Muslim minority. Unspeakable crimes were committed by Burmese troops and vigilantes: Rohingya men hacked to death; children burned alive; women and girls raped and sexually assaulted in their hundreds and thousands. Scores of villages were pillaged and razed to the ground as more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes. One cautious estimate put the death toll at more than 10,000.

Two years on, as Rohingya refugees languish in squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh, it is difficult to overstate the sheer barbarism they have had to endure. The U.S. State Department has called it "ethnic cleansing," with Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, describing the violence against the Rohingya "as bad as or worse than any other I have personally seen — including as one of the first U.S. officials to visit Darfur in 2004." In August 2018, a United Nations fact-finding commission accused the Burmese military of genocide — a view endorsed by, among others, experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and a unanimous vote by the Canadian parliament in Ottawa. The U.N.'s investigators even demanded Myanmar's top military commanders be investigated and prosecuted for the "gravest" crimes against civilians under international law.

But what about prosecuting Suu Kyi, the one-time darling of the West and hero to liberals and conservatives alike? When will that be in the cards? For the past two years, the former prisoner of conscience-turned-de facto head of state has blindly defended her country's lawless military while cynically downplaying the extent of their brutal crimes. A long-standing Buddhist nationalist, Suu Kyi has also fanned the flames of hatred against the besieged Muslim minority in her country, repeatedly engaging in brazenly Islamophobic behavior. On a recent visit to Hungary, of all places, she joined with far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban to bemoanthe "continuously growing Muslim populations" in their respective countries.

She might want to enjoy her trips abroad, and meetings with fellow racist leaders, while she can. In February 2018, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee — who was banned from the country for criticizing the Suu Kyi government — was asked by British broadcaster Channel 4 News whether a criminal tribunal might one day find Suu Kyi guilty of crimes against humanity and even genocide. "I'm afraid so," Lee replied, also stating, "She can't be not accountable. Complicity is also part of accountability."

The Burmese leader's dwindling band of international defenders includes, shockingly, her fellow 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They have joined with the Myanmar government to offer a range of bogus arguments as to why she cannot and should not be prosecuted  — or even be held responsible! — for the ongoing violence and repression in Myanmar.

First, they point out, Myanmar isn't a signatory to the International Criminal Court, so the ICC has no jurisdiction. Yet in September 2018, in a stunning move, the ICC ruled that it could indeed prosecute Myanmar for crimes against the Rohingya people, accepting, as The Guardian reported, "a novel argument that even though the allegedly coercive acts that forced the Rohingya to flee took place in Myanmar, the crime would not have been completed until the refugees entered Bangladesh, which is a party to the Rome statute that governs the court."

Second, say Suu Kyi defenders, as Myanmar's first civilian leader after 49 years of military rule, she has no control over the armed forces. Therefore she cannot be held responsible for their brutal attacks on the Rohingya.

But this, says Maung Zarni, a fellow at the Genocide Documentation Center in Cambodia, "is a complete mischaracterization of Suu Kyi's role" in those crimes. Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist who knows Suu Kyi personally and was once an ardent supporter of hers, points out that she controls four civilian ministries that have long been involved in repressing the Rohingya — the information, religious affairs, immigration, and foreign affairs ministries — not to mention her own high office of state counselor. The latter, as I noted in April 2017, "accused Rohingya women of fabricating stories of sexual violence and put the words 'fake rape' — in the form of a banner headline, no less — on its official website."

It is fair, then, to damn Suu Kyi and her civilian officials for dismissing and denying the crimes against the Rohingya, thereby legitimizing and encouraging further violence by the security forces. Or, as the U.N. reportput it, contributing "to the commission of atrocity crimes."

As Zarni says, "There is no absolution of her responsibility for the official statements, bills, measures … all designed to deprive Rohingyas of access to education, health service, due process, livelihoods opportunities, factual information about Rohingya history, legal status, past citizenship activities and citizenship." Suu Kyi, he told me bluntly, plays a similar role to that of Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany, "perhaps less blatantly, but no less effectively."

Suu Kyi has "without a doubt played an important role in the genocide," agrees Azeem Ibrahim, author of "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide," by providing the Burmese generals with "cover at every step." It was her presence at the top of government, as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning face of Myanmar to the world, which "emboldened and encouraged the military to undertake the final solution," Ibrahim told me.

Third, the Suu Kyi apologists argue, any action taken against The Lady, as she is known, would upset the delicate balance of power inside of Myanmar and risk handing back power to the generals, maybe in the form of a military coup. McConnell calls Suu Kyi "the best hope for democratic reform in Burma," while Ramos and others worry about risking a "fragile political transition." However, as Ibrahim points out, this argument is "patently false." The reality, he explains, "is that the military is now in the perfect situation: they have power without accountability. They have [Suu Kyi] taking all the criticism whilst they can get on with the genocide … and at the same time enrich themselves dramatically. Why would they want to upset that perfect set-up and return to power, inviting international sanctions and once again becoming a pariah state?"

Zarni is equally scathing. "This post-military Burma under Suu Kyi's presumed enlightened rule is a complete fantasy that comes from self-interested diplomats and foreign governments," he says.

So when will these foreign governments, which claim to care about human rights and make pious declarations of "never again," take action to tackle the perpetrators of a modern-day genocide in Myanmar? There have been the mildest of travel bans imposed on a handful of Burmese generals but nothing whatsoever imposed against the state counselor herself. Suu Kyi has been stripped of various awards and freedoms from the likes of Amnesty International and the cities of OxfordEdinburgh, and Paris, but do such minor humiliations really amount to justice for the Rohingya victims of "murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery, persecution and enslavement"?

To be clear: The refusal to sanction Suu Kyi, or consider prosecuting Myanmar's de facto leader for her role in the Rohingya genocide, two years later, is not just an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees waiting for some sort of accountability in Bangladesh and beyond. It endangers Myanmar's other minorities, such as the Kachin Christians in the north, who have also been on the receiving end of Tatmadaw violence and terror in recent years.

As Ibrahim warns: "If you allow one genocide to go unpunished, you are opening the door to many others."


Source BurmacampaignUK, 19 Aug

Burma Campaign UK today publishes an updated version of its 'Dirty List', adding 38 companies to the list of companies linked to Burma's military, or to projects linked to human rights violations and environmental destruction in Burma.

The 'Dirty List' is available here.

Companies added include:

  • American technology giant Google, which hosts apps for the Burmese military commander Min Aung Hlaing and military companies.
  • American technology company Apple, which hosts apps for military-owned companies.
  • French energy giant EDF, involved in a dam project in Shan State linked to conflict.
  • Huawei, Chinese communications technology company working for Mytel.
  • TPG Capital, an American investment company which is the majority owner of two telecom tower companies working for military-owned Mytel.

49 companies were placed on the original 'Dirty List' published in December 2018. Three have since ended their involvement, and one company has been merged into its parent company, also linked to the military, bringing the total number of companies on the list to 83.

Almost two years ago, on August 25th 2017 the Burmese military launched an offensive against the ethnic Rohingya, which left thousands dead, 700,000 refugees in Bangladesh, and has been described by United Nations investigators as genocide.

To date the only practical sanctions against the Burmese military, taken by a small number of countries, has been banning a small number of military personnel from taking holidays in their country.

The British government, the European Union and other governments around the world have decided not to impose targeted sanctions against military-owned and controlled companies. Instead they are allowing companies to continue to do business with, and thereby helping to fund, the military.

As the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar has reported, military-owned companies provide the military with revenue which it can use in its operations where human rights violations are committed.

In publishing this list we hope that in addition to pressuring companies to stop doing business with the military, it will also draw more attention to the need for greater pressure on the military by the international community.  The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar has also called for sanctions on Burmese military-owned companies.

"When an international company does business with a military-owned company, including promoting their products, they are helping the military to make the money it uses to commit violations of human rights," said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. "No company should be doing any form of business with Burma's genocidal military. It is inexplicable why a company would want to work for, or allow on its platform, a military which rapes children and throws babies into fires. Companies which work with and for the military are helping to fund genocide."

The full 'Dirty List' is available here.


Notes to editors:

The new companies added to the 'Dirty List' primarily represent new research rather than any surge in companies doing business with the military.

There is little transparency in the ownership of military-owned companies. We have based entries on the 'Dirty List' based on the best available information which we have. We welcome information on any mistakes we may have made, or on any companies which we should add, which will be treated in confidence.

All companies have been written to in advance and given the opportunity to correct inaccurate information or to end their involvement without publicity. The vast majority of companies have not responded. Responses are published on a company's 'Dirty List' entry where we have received them.

Given our policy of approaching companies before adding them to the 'Dirty List', we have not yet had sufficient time to approach and receive responses from new companies named in the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission report on the economic interests of the military. We will publish a further update before the end of 2019.

The criteria for being added to the 'Dirty List' is broader than that used by the United Nations Fact-finding Mission as we also include companies involved in projects linked to human rights violations and environmental destruction.

A list of companies removed from the 'Dirty List' after ending their involvement is here.

The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar report on military economic interests is available here.

Burma Campaign UK does not support general trade sanctions on Burma. We are calling for targeted sanctions on military-owned companies. We are not saying that companies should not do any business in Burma, we are saying that companies should not be doing business with military-owned companies.

This media release was corrected on 23rd August 2019 to remove Peel Ports after we learned they had sold their subsidiary, Portia Management Services, which operates a military-owned port in Burma. Portia Management Services has replaced Peel Group on the 'Dirty List'.

Bangladesh/ Myanmar situation: How victims can submit their views to ICC Judges

Source ICC, 16 Aug

On 4 July 2019, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court ("ICC"), Fatou Bensouda, requested the authorisation from Pre-Trial Chamber III to initiate an investigation into alleged crimes against the civilian Rohingya population in Myanmar since at least 9 October 2016 ("Situation in Bangladesh/Myanmar").

As per the ICC's legal framework, the victims of the alleged crimes committed against the Rohingya population in Myanmar have the right to submit "representations", i.e. to provide their views, concerns and expectations, to the ICC Judges who are considering the Prosecutor's request.

The Victims Participation and Reparations Section ("VPRS") of the Registry is responsible for assisting victims in the process of submitting representations. To help facilitate this process, the VPRS has prepared a template victim representation form which is available in various formats: PDF form in EnglishBurmese and Bangla/Bengali, aRohingya audio recording of the form and an online form in English. Guidelines on how to fill in the form are also available in EnglishBurmeseBangla/Bengali and Rohingya (audio) to help victims understand and fill in the representation form. Victims can also submit representations in other formats, e.g. video, audio, etc. It is important that the representations, irrespective of their format, contain the information requested in the template representation form.

The deadline for submitting victim representation forms to the ICC is 28 October 2019. Please note that the process of submitting representations is voluntary and free of charge.

This is not an application process for participation in court proceedings or for obtaining reparations before the ICC. The process initiated by the Prosecutor is limited to the submission of victims' views, concerns and expectations on the Prosecutor's request to open an investigation. Representations made under article 15 (3) of the Rome Statute do not grant victims participatory status in potential future judicial proceedings. Should such proceedings arise in the future, victims interested in applying to participate in judicial proceedings before the ICC or for reparations in this situation will have to fill in a separate application form which will be made available then.

A Questions and Answers Document is available in EnglishBurmeseBangla/Bengali and Rohingya (audio).

For further information on the situation, click here.

Please contact the VPRS at for any questions in regards to filling in the representation form and any related issue.

Friday 16 August 2019

International legal options for addressing the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh

Source thesentinelproject, 13 Aug

Inline image
A view from the side of the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, which houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague Academy of International Law, and the Peace Palace Library.

Addressing the seemingly intractable Rohingya genocide and the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh requires looking at all possible international legal options. The continued (in)action of the Burmese government demonstrates that state officials are unwilling to bring the perpetrators to account. As international pressure mounts for Myanmar's government to change its conduct, various countries and actors in the international system have started to consider various legal channels. This article articulates a few means of recourse that can be used to introduce a modicum of accountability.

The International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is located in The Hague, the Netherlands and it exists to institute legal proceedings against individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Since Myanmar is not a State Party to the Rome Statute (the treaty that led to the creation of the ICC), the ICC does not have jurisdiction with respect to crimes committed on Burmese soil. However, as a UN Member State, if the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) were to refer Myanmar to the ICC, then the state would be obliged to cooperate. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the UNSC would vote on a referral to the ICC since China and Russia are also not State Parties to the Rome Statute and they consistently oppose the possible jurisdiction of the ICC over a non-State Party.

While the ICC's jurisdiction applies only to crimes occurring within the sovereign territory of a State Party to the Rome Statute, and Myanmar is therefore unlikely to be affected, there may be a novel alternative. ICC prosecutors have been conducting a preliminary examination since September 2018 into crimes which are alleged to have been partially committed within Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a State Party to the Rome Statute and, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 1,000,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar. On 5 July 2019, the Presidency of the ICC created the Pre-Trial Chamber III after the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, notified judges that she will seek an authorization "to investigate alleged crimes within the Court's jurisdiction in which at least one element occurred on the territory of the People's Republic of Bangladesh… as well as any other crimes which are sufficiently linked to these events." Those alleged crimes include the crime of deportation. Once Bensouda submits her request, the Judges of Pre-Trial Chamber III will decide whether or not to authorize the Prosecutor to open an investigation.

These are steps in a promising direction. However, as the international law experts John Packer and Payam Akhavan have noted, "The ICC has serious resource constraints, is notoriously slow, and could not arrest any Myanmar officials." And, as Packer further states, "Accountability mustn't be limited to trials of individuals. The Myanmar state itself can and must be held to account." A verdict by the ICC might result in prosecuting some individuals, such as those named in the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IFFM) Report, but would not necessarily ascribe guilt to the Burmese state as a whole, and genocide is very much a state crime. Continued efforts should be made to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC. Unfortunately, it is an expensive and lengthy process with narrow reach, meaning that other legal options may be preferable or be pursued in tandem. 

The UN Human Rights Council

Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an intergovernmental body made up of 47 states which are collectively responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights. The UNHRC passed a resolution in September 2018 that includes the establishment of an evidence gathering mechanism called the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM). The IIMM is responsible for preparing case files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings for any future criminal prosecution in either a national or international court of law. In this case, the mechanism is mandated to "collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011." UN Secretary-General António Guterres named Nicholas Koumjian of the United States as the head of this mechanism. This channel presents a means of collecting vital information for future trials. However, it is unclear which court will be used for the case, or if a dedicated tribunal will be set up for this express purpose.

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the UN and, like the ICC, is also located in The Hague, in the Peace Palace. The ICJ's purpose is to settle international legal disputes between states and to give advisory opinions on legal issues referred to it by the UN. This channel is important in the case of Myanmar since Article 9 of the UN Genocide Convention confers jurisdiction on the ICJ to determine the responsibility of governments for the crime of genocide, including their failure to prevent or punish perpetrators.

Canada and Myanmar have both signed and ratified the Genocide Convention, which means that Canada could open a case against Myanmar. According to Packer and Akhavan, "Such a case would provide a unique and important platform for victims and witnesses to testify about these shocking atrocities, and for the court to issue an authoritative judgment against Myanmar. At the very least, exposing the truth in this way would increase pressure on Myanmar and perhaps achieve some measure of deterrence against ongoing atrocities." They outline that directing the ICJ's attention towards this case would place scrutiny on the government of Myanmar's actions in multiple ways. First, it could afford the victims some degree of reparation and restitution. Second, it could also generate negative economic repercussions for the state as foreign investors would be cautious about doing business in a state that appears to be acting unlawfully. 

Momentum has been growing in Canada for the government to take action through the ICJ. On 20 September 2018, members of Parliament from all political parties unanimously adopted a motion that endorsed the findings of the IFFM, which concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed against Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar. On 11 April 2019, Canadian Senator Marilou McPhedran introduced a motion in the Senate urging the Government of Canada to invoke the Genocide Convention and hold Myanmar to its obligations while seeking provisional measures and reparations for the Rohingya people. On 29 May 2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes Against Humanity called for Canada to initiate legal proceedings before the ICJ with regard to Myanmar's breach of the Genocide Convention. On 25 June 2019, a letter co-signed by 34 senators and more than 100 human rights organizations and advocates was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland urging Canada to initiate proceedings before the ICJ for breaching the Genocide Convention.

Other State Parties to the Genocide Convention, such as Bangladesh, could also use this channel. As Maung Zarni of the Free Rohingya Coalition emphasizes, if Bangladesh were to pursue a case against Myanmar at the ICJ then this could result in Myanmar paying reparations to Bangladesh for hosting the Rohingya refugee population. Bangladesh could make this demand independently through the ICJ, jointly with other State Parties, or jointly with other state-led initiatives. At the same time, Canada and Bangladesh are not alone in their potential to use the ICJ in addressing the situation in Myanmar. On 4 July 2019, the Dutch House of Representatives adopted a motion asking the Dutch government to commence legal proceedings against Myanmar before the ICJ for violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention.

While the ICC, UNHRC, and ICJ all present avenues for addressing the situation in Myanmar, other potentially influential legal channels have not been outlined here. For example, Myanmar has acceded to both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and it has also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and, Cultural Rights (CESCR). All of these treaties may afford other opportunities for holding the Burmese government accountable since they protect human rights which have been violated in Myanmar.

Regardless of which legal avenues are pursued, the most important element for any of these options to succeed is political will. With the second anniversary of the Rohingya genocide approaching on 25 August 2019, it is critical that the pressure against Myanmar, from all possible angles, remains steadfast and resolute.

Sunday 11 August 2019

UN reveals network of businesses funding the Myanmar military

Source SMH, 5 Aug

Jakarta: Myanmar's military is using a huge network of businesses to help fund its brutal operations against ethnic minorities, including Rohingya Muslims, according to a new report.

The report into the economic interests of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, was conducted by an independent fact-finding mission for the United Nations' Office of the High Commission for Refugees.

It sets out in detail the complex network of more than 120 companies owned and operated by some of the most senior figures in the military as well as "crony" private companies that contributed millions to the military's budget. It also names foreign companies that are selling weapons to Tatmadaw and working with it in joint ventures.

A Myanmar army band in the Kachin state in 2008.

A Myanmar army band in the Kachin state in 2008.CREDIT:KATE GERAGHTY

Targeted sanctions by the United Nations against the Tatmadaw's companies and a comprehensive arms embargo that would stop the sale of weapons including fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers are recommended by the report.

Many western countries including Australia, the US, the European Union and Canada already have arms embargoes in place, though Australia has been criticised for providing training to the Tatmadaw.

Two of Myanmar's least-transparent companies, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) come in for particular scrutiny.

These companies are owned and influenced by senior military leaders including the Tatmadaw's commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and deputy commander-in-chief, Vice Senior General Soe Win. The fact-finding mission has previously recommended both men by prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

MEHL and the MEC, according to the report, own at least 120 businesses that are involved in the construction industry, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking.

They also hold jade and ruby mining licences in Kachin and Shan states where human rights violations, including forced labour and sexual violence, have been perpetrated by the Tatmadaw.

Rohingya woman Fatima Begum comforts her twins Asia and Rubina as her sick son Sadeka lays by her side at the Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. Some 900,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh two years ago.

Rohingya woman Fatima Begum comforts her twins Asia and Rubina as her sick son Sadeka lays by her side at the Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. Some 900,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh two years ago.CREDIT:KATE GERAGHTY

One of the three members of the fact-finding mission, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said the investigation should "compel the international community and individual States to take a coordinated multilateral approach to accountability, justice and ending the human rights crisis in Myanmar".

Fellow team member Christopher Sidoti, a former Australian Human Rights commissioner, said the revenue from these businesses helped strengthen the Tatmadaw's independence from elected civilian oversight - including by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi - and allows a wide array of international human rights and humanitarian law violations.

A demonstration organised by a Buddhist monk in support of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's handling of the Rohingya crisis in Yangon, 2017.

A demonstration organised by a Buddhist monk in support of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's handling of the Rohingya crisis in Yangon, 2017.CREDIT:ADAM DEAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES

The report itself stated that the outsized power of the Tatmadaw, even following the transition to democracy, allowed it to operate as an autonomous institution free from civilian government oversight.

Furthermore, the Tatmadaw's economic interests had "enabled its conduct", including human rights violations in the Rakhine, Shan and Kachine states.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced by the Tatmadaw to flee Rakhine state across the border to Bangladesh, where more than a million refugees have been sheltering in squalid refugee camps. Many Rohingya have been raped or murdered while fleeing their homes.

It also identified the countries supplying arms and military equipment to the Tatmadaw - including China, Russia, the Ukraine, Israel, India and Singapore - and at least 15 foreign companies that were in joint ventures with the military-owned MEHL and MEC.

Those companies include Inno Co and Posco Steel from South Korea, Japan's Kirin Holdings and Japan Tobacco, China's Norinco, Vietnam's Viettel and Singapore's Virginia Tobacco Company.

The report, released on Monday, builds on the fact-finding mission's September 2018 report into who from the senior ranks of the Tatmadaw should be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

From child refugee to president: Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Source BBC, 4 Aug

Vaira aged five in Riga, Latvia, in 1942Image copyrightVAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGAImage captionRiga, 1942: Vaira aged five - she soon became a refugee

The little girl who fled from war-torn Latvia spent more than 50 years in exile - but soon after returning she became president.

Not only that, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became the first female head of a former Soviet bloc state.

"My parents never let me forget that I am Latvian," she told the BBC.

The Baltic state was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War Two.

Germans with Soviet POWs, Riga, July 1941Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionThe Germans swept into Latvia in July 1941 and took many Soviet prisoners

She has vivid memories of that chaotic time, especially 1944, when Russian troops - the communist Red Army - marched back into Latvia.

"I was impressed by the ones with the red flags and the fists. So at one point, as one of them marched by, I raised my fist in the air and shouted 'hurrah!'," she says.

"At that point I saw my mother lean against the lamppost, absolutely stricken, with tears streaming down her cheeks, saying 'Please, child, don't do that. This is a very sad day for Latvia'."

Cruel lessons

The family's odyssey westward took Vaira, aged seven, first to devastated Germany. Then they moved to French-ruled Morocco, then to Canada.

She did not return to Latvia until 1998, aged 60, and became president within eight months.

Vaira and classmates in Lübeck, 1949Image copyrightVAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGAImage captionVaira (circled) with classmates at a refugee camp school in Lübeck, north Germany, 1949

Vaira remembers her father listening to the BBC World Service in 1944, desperately trying to fathom where the war was heading.

Later that year her parents made the agonising decision to leave Latvia.

"We took the ship on New Year's night of 1945. It was a transport ship with troops and with armaments and of course if it gets torpedoed it's going to blow it up. But they have taken a certain number of civilians with them, who also want to flee from communism at any price. Latvians gathered on the deck and sang the Latvian anthem."

The family reached the refugee camps being set up across Germany. The conditions were very harsh and her baby sister fell ill with pneumonia and died, just 10 months old.

Within a year Vaira's mother gave birth again, to a baby boy. But for Vaira the event was overshadowed by another cruel life lesson.

"A young girl of 18 was lying in the same room with my mother. She had given birth to a little girl and didn't want her. She didn't want to name her child and she didn't want to have anything to do with it, because the child was the result of a group rape from Russian soldiers," she says.

"Each time the nurses brought that poor child to the mother, she would turn her face to the wall and cry and refuse to talk to her. The nurses gave a name to the girl - Mara, which was my sister's name.

"And I thought that was really too much, because here was a Mara who was born, who was surviving and who was absolutely not wanted in this world. And our Mara, whom we had wanted so much, was taken from us. I realised that life was really very strange and certainly very unfair."

Child marriage scare

At the age of 11, Vaira had to move again, to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Vaira aged 11 in Daourat, MoroccoImage copyrightVAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGAImage captionVaira aged 11 in Daourat, Morocco

"We were thrown out, as it were, from a truck in the middle of the night in what turned out to be a small, temporary village. It was a world in miniature," she says.

"There were French people there, there were all sorts of foreigners, Spaniards from the time of the Civil War, Italians and old Russian émigrés from the European quarter in Shanghai."

One of her father's Arab co-workers said she was ready to be married off, though she was just a child.

"Dad would come home and he's saying, 'He's giving me 15,000 francs dowry. And he offered me first two donkeys and cattle and then later he kept upping the price and I said, but she's just a child and she has to go to school.' He said, 'That's all right, we're willing to let her finish school'."

Her parents laughed at that, but Vaira was alarmed.

Sexist professor

Soon however the family moved to Canada.

Vaira got a job at a bank, aged 16, and went to night school. She eventually made it to the University of Toronto. And while there, she met the man she would marry, Imants Freibergs, another Latvian exile.

She studied psychology and was eventually awarded a PhD, in 1965. But she says her choice of subject was simply "the fickle finger of fate".

Vaira at the University of Toronto in 1957Image copyrightVAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGAImage captionVaira at the University of Toronto in 1957

"The registrar had a list of subjects and I looked at it upside down and I saw something, a long word starting with P and ending in Y, and I put my finger on it and said, 'Sir, this is the one I want to take'."

She learned quickly though that women were tolerated, rather than welcomed.

"Our dear professor at one point in a seminar said, 'Yes, well, we actually have three married women here in this PhD programme, it's such a waste, because they're going to get married and they're going to have children, and they're actually taking up a place that a boy could have taken who will become a real scientist.'

"And all of us girls in that seminar, we remembered that for the rest of our lives."

She says they resolved to show that sexist professor "that we women can succeed even better than his favourite boys".

Vaira lecturing in 1978Image copyrightVAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGAImage captionVaira lecturing in 1978

Vaira spent 33 years at the University of Montreal. She became fluent in five languages and wrote 10 books.

Home again... finally

In 1998, aged 60, she was elected professor emeritus and decided to retire.

But one evening her phone rang. It was the prime minister of Latvia. And Vaira got the offer to head a new Latvian Institute.

She was told they wanted "somebody actually from the diaspora who is multilingual, understands Western mentality, but also with good understanding of Latvian culture".

But almost immediately she found herself caught up in Latvia's presidential race.

She gave up her Canadian passport to run for election and, just eight months after returning, she became Latvia's first female president.

Vaira at her second-term inauguration as president in 2003, with husband Imants FreibergsImage copyrightAFPImage captionVaira at her second-term inauguration as president in 2003, with husband Imants Freibergs

At one point her approval ratings soared to 85%.

"I was somebody who was not interested in making money or anything like that, but simply in doing a job.

"And there was great enthusiasm amongst certain newspapers to find things to criticise, for instance, that I was a great spendthrift, having lived a life of luxury in the West. Complete fabrications," she says.

"I discovered that if you couldn't trust the media, you have to go directly and speak to the people."

Media captionThe BBC's Joe Lynam reports on the impact of EU membership in Latvia

She was instrumental in Latvia joining both Nato and the European Union in 2004.

"Being a woman was an advantage. I remember at the Istanbul Nato summit, President [George W] Bush took me by the elbow, because I had high heels and it was a gravel path, and we walked slowly along.

"I did all I could to tell him how important it was to enlarge Nato and to make sure that Latvia was included and how much progress we had made and how full of goodwill we were.

Vaira meeting former President George W Bush in Riga, 2006Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionVaira meeting former President George W Bush in Riga, 2006

"We were walking slowly and enjoying ourselves and I was doing my best to pour as much Latvian propaganda into his ear as I could. I didn't think it hurt at all," she says.

Vaira's second term ended in 2007, a few months before her 70th birthday. She co-founded the Club de Madrid - an organisation of former leaders, with a mandate to promote democratic leadership and governance.

She also has a particular focus on women's empowerment. Still haunted by that professor in Canada, she knows the battle is far from won.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga talks to Lyse Doucet in the first episode of the new series of Her Story Made History. You can listen to it now on BBC Sounds.