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HRW Report: Myanmar's Minorities Oppressed, North Korea Worse Than Ever

Human Rights Watch's annual human rights report doesn't make for uplifting reading. A snapshot of the human rights situation around the world, the report presents a depressing, if somewhat familiar conclusion: The perennial human rights offenders of the world haven't changed much. 

Myanmar's slow crawl toward democracy, for example, remains stunted by ongoing violence against Muslim and ethnic minority communities. Though the government released more than 200 political prisoners in 2013, HRW notes that attacks on Muslims, including those carried out by and ethnic Buddhists, increased during 2013. Efforts on the part of a 10,000-strong contigent of monks to pass a law banning interfaith marriage have further fueled the intolerance. Meanwhile, "state-sponsored discrimination" against ethnic Rohingyas has displaced 180,000 people. The government, despite a considerable international outcry, still refuses to grant citizenship to the marginalized group, despite the fact that many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

HRW's findings are particularly troubling given the apparent ambivalence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's long-jailed opposition leader who now serves in the its parliament, on these matters. As William McGowan wrote for Foreign Policy in 2012, "Suu Kyi has reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when confronted with the Rohingya issue ... At no point did she or the NLD denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims." In an October BBC interview, the Nobel Peace Laureate reiterated her unsettling position on violence against ethnic and religious minorities, implying that recent attacks on Muslims do not compare to the suffering of Buddhists at the hands of the former military regime. "There are many, many Buddhists who are also in refugee camps for various reasons... This is a result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime," she said, adding that the conflict is driven by fear between Buddhists and Muslims: "There is a perception that global Muslim power is very great." 

Meanwhile, in North Korea, HRW reports that Kim Jong Un spent much 2013 consolidating his "rights-abusing rule." Since succeeding his father in 2011, Kim continues to rely on an extensive prison camp system to punish dissenters and has made it more difficult and dangerous for North Koreans to flee the country (leaving the country without permission is, of course, illegal).

Among other tactics, Kim has ordered border guards to shoot illegal crossers on sight. "The government now recognizes that the accounts of escaping North Koreans reveal Pyongyang's crimes -- so it is doing what it can to stop people from fleeing," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in a statement. "The fiction that Kim Jong Un might be somehow more moderate because of his education in Switzerland has been thoroughly refuted by the continued brutality of the government he now leads," he said. A recent Frontline documentary featuring secret footage from inside the country, as well as interviews with recent defectors, has shed a light on the depth of the Supreme Leader's brutality -- and the tiny rumblings of dissent against him.

HRW's findings on Russia are also noteworthy, given the Russian Foreign Ministry's recent attempt at playing rights arbiter by issuing its own scathing report of human rights abuses in the EU. As my colleague Hanna Kozlowska described the report, it presents Europe as "a dark, dark place, filled with Nazis and xenophobes ... but coming from Russia -- a country with a vibrant population of political prisoners, whose government largely controls the media, whose ethnic minorities are severely discriminated against, and whose laws prohibit the expression of one's sexual orientation -- the accusations are of course hugely hypocritical."

HRW would agree. While the report notes serious problems in the EU -- among them, continued discrimination against Roma, immigrants, and asylum seekers, and 47 percent of LGBT respondents in the EU said they had experienced harassment in the past 12 months -- it doesn't go easy on Russia. Despite all eyes being on the country ahead of the Sochi Olympics, President Vladimir Putin has overseen a legal crackdown on the country's sexual minorities, which has fostered homophobic rhetoric and violence. Moreover, has continued to crack down on free speech and political dissenters.

The full report is available here

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

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How One Beirut Street Found Itself on the Front Lines of a Regional War

BEIRUT — At first glance, there is not much that distinguishes al-Areed Street, in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, from any other neighborhood in the Lebanese capital. It is lined with small clothing shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and modest apartment buildings. A large mosque stands nearby, guarded by thick cement barriers.

The area wears its support for Hezbollah on its sleeve. Pictures of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and of its assassinated military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, line the walls of some shops, and portraits of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decorate a few street corners. Meanwhile, banners above the street commemorate young men "martyred" in the service of Hezbollah. But none of that really sets al-Areed Street apart from many other predominantly Shiite, pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.

This fairly typical Beirut street, however, unexpectedly finds itself on the front line of a regional struggle for political power in Syria and Lebanon. A car bomb exploded on the street on the morning of Jan. 21, killing four people and wounding dozens more. The al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was in retaliation for "the massacres of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] against the children of Syria."

And retaliations are occurring with worrying regularity. On Jan. 2, a different al Qaeda affiliate orchestrated a car bomb attack mere yards from today's blast, killing another four people. The twin attacks, coming less than a month apart, have residents scared -- but defiant against an enemy that they believe wants to wipe them out completely.

"If it was up to me, I wouldn't live here -- but it's where my shop is," says Mohammed, sitting inside his clothing shop down the street from the explosion. "Who can you blame? If there wasn't Hezbollah, they [the attackers] wouldn't do anything different. They want to erase the Shiites from Lebanon."

The once active commercial neighborhood, Mohammed said, grew quiet after the first bombing -- and things are now bound to get worse. "The business is dead, dead, dead," he said. "People are afraid to walk on the street."

The attacks on al-Areed Street are just one part of the sectarian violence that has recently gripped Lebanon. Two other car bombings have shaken the country in the past month: The Dec. 27 assassination in downtown Beirut that killed Mohammed Chatah, a senior advisor to a key anti-Assad politician; and a car bombing in Hermel, a northeastern town that Hezbollah uses as a gateway to Syria, which killed five people. Meanwhile, seven people have been killed since Jan. 19 in the northern city of Tripoli, where clashes between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods have become a regular occurrence.

Neither Hezbollah's supporters nor the predominantly Sunni anti-Assad opposition have given any sign that they are looking for a grand bargain to prevent the country from spiraling into chaos. When asked whether there would be future bombings, many residents of al-Areed Street responded with a bitter fatalism.

"As long as there are people without humanity, without religion, this will continue," said Mohammad Abbas, the owner of Abu Jaafar restaurant, which overlooked the bomb site. The culprit, at the end of the day, was Arab presidents and foreign powers who follow "the path of Satan," he said, wreaking havoc in residential neighborhoods.

"All we can do is go about our lives," Abbas said. "Everyone has their time to die."

Behind him on al-Areed Street, Lebanese Army soldiers and Hezbollah-affiliated guards protected a cordon around the shattered building that had borne the brunt of the explosion. Someone had hung a new Hezbollah flag from one of its balconies, which fluttered over the outraged crowd below. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images