Kristof and Collins

In “In Myanmar, A Wife’s Wrenching Decision” Mr. Kristof says a woman in a camp for Rohingya was forced to weigh what her son should sacrifice for her to save her husband’s life.  Ms. Collins, in “Politics: Everything’s Relative,” offers rules for dealing with family members showing up in the presidential race, like when to give them a break and when to go for the jugular.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Sittwe, Myanmar:

How much should you sacrifice to save your husband’s life?

And how much hardship do you inflict on your son to rescue your husband?

Those are the questions Jano Begum faced. Jano, 22, and her husband, Robi Alom, 30, are among the more than one million Muslims who belong to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, subjected to an ethnic cleansing that a Yale study suggests may amount to genocide.

I’ve written several times over the years about the brutalization of the Rohingya, but I know that for some readers it seems obscure and remote. Why worry about a distant people when there are so many crises in our own backyard? But put yourself in Jano’s situation, as she sits in a hut in a concentration camp here, and think how far you would go to save your spouse.

Jano, Robi and other Rohingya have been confined since 2012 to concentration camps or isolated villages, stripped of citizenship and denied education, jobs and adequate food and health care. The conditions are calculated to induce despair. Sure enough, Robi proposed to his family that he join the wave of Rohingya boat people fleeing to Malaysia.

“I wouldn’t let him go,” Jano recalled. “We were arguing. He said, ‘Even if I die in the ocean, it’s better than being here.’”

Then one evening in October 2014 Robi disappeared. A friend passed a message to Jano: He had hopped on a human trafficker’s boat. He hadn’t dared to say goodbye for fear that Jano would stop him.

Jano was wounded and angry, but she also understood. “Here we live in something like a prison,” she said. “No jobs. No nothing. So that’s why he left.”

The Rohingya feel abandoned. The United Nations system, with the exception of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has downplayed the problem. Western embassies and governments have been too complacent. And Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose party just won elections in Myanmar, has been silent.

In the same camp where I spoke to Jano I also met Arafa Begum, a 27-year-old widow who arranged with human traffickers last year to travel with her five children on a different ship to Malaysia. Arafa knew that she was at risk of being sold to a brothel, along with her daughters. But, not knowing how her children could survive if she stayed in Myanmar, she boarded a human trafficker’s ship in July. “There was almost no food or water,” she remembered — and conditions were hellish in the hold.

The ship sailed for 50 days, trying to sneak past the Thai Navy, but finally gave up. Arafa and her children are now back in the concentration camp, but she’s thinking of trying again.

As for Robi, two and a half months after he disappeared, Jano received a message from a human trafficker in Thailand. He was holding her husband, and he demanded $1,200 for her husband’s life.

Jano sold belongings, borrowed from relatives and pawned her food ration card, managing to raise $500 and transfer it to the traffickers’ bank account. In phone calls, the traffickers pressed for more money. Sometimes they put Robi on the line and beat him with sticks, so the family could hear his screams.

But Jano told them she had nothing left. She didn’t quite tell me so, but she hinted that perhaps she could have raised a little bit more, but feared that their 5-year-old son, Muhammad — already hungry — would starve. I got the sense that she also thought the traffickers would capitulate and eventually release Robi.

If that’s what she thought, she miscalculated. She received a final call from the traffickers: Robi had died in the jungle.

“I didn’t raise the money, so they killed him,” Jano told me. After a long, aching pause, she added: “I blame myself. I didn’t save my husband.”

It’s not clear what happened. Maybe the traffickers beat Robi to death or killed him to sell his kidneys. Perhaps he died of malaria. Or perhaps they sold him to a Thai fishing boat on which he is enslaved.

Jano hasn’t told Muhammad that his father may be dead. The boy is losing weight, from either worry or malnutrition. The family owes $200 to get back its ration card, so food is scarcer than ever. Jano washes clothes for neighbors, earning 20 cents a day to eke out an existence. (A human rights group called Fortify Rights is trying to help her.)

Multiply Jano’s tragedy by a million and you get the tapestry of the Rohingya suffering today. The horror arises not just from the savagery of human traffickers, but also from a government’s systematic effort to destroy a particular ethnic group, one met by global indifference.

Genocide? I don’t know. A stain on our collective humanity? Absolutely.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Have you noticed how often family members are turning up in the presidential campaign?

Consider the irony of that Ted Cruz-Canada debate. Cruz was born in Calgary and Donald (“People Are Saying”) Trump has raised the question of whether that makes him ineligible to be president. We’ll let constitutional scholars figure it out. But, meanwhile, we can enjoy recalling that Cruz’s father, Rafael, once told a Texas Tea Party group that he’d like to send President Obama “back to Kenya.” Hehehehe.

Even noncrazy relatives are popping up all over. This week Chelsea Clinton set off a major battle over Bernie Sanders’s health care plan. There’s been reporting on Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law, who was once a rather high-level drug dealer in Florida. Ted Cruz’s little daughters popped up in a political cartoon.

Remember Jeb? He was going to run as his own man, but people on the campaign mailing list are getting requests for donations from George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barbara Bush, George P. Bush and Columba Bush. The family that fund-raises together stays together.

And how are we supposed to react to all this? Let’s review a few rules:

Forget family members who aren’t in politics — unless they hijack a plane or something. Don’t hold it against Marco Rubio that his brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia, served 12 years in prison on drug charges. Perhaps in a perfect world, when Rubio was a leader in the Florida Legislature and sent a letter recommending that the newly released Cicilia be given a real estate license, he might have mentioned that the ex-convict in question was something more than a typical constituent. But still.

In his memoir Rubio wrote about the trauma of the arrest, and coming home as a teenager to find his pregnant sister sleeping on the family sofa with her little boy. The image, Rubio wrote, “has remained with me all my life.” This is the only part of the story I would like us to consider a little bit, since the chapter does not end with Marco offering his sister his own bed for the night. Maybe he was too modest to mention it. But inquiring minds want to know.

Never make fun of children. Not even if Ted Cruz puts his small daughters in a campaign ad in which the 7-year-old reads from a mock Christmas book called “The Grinch Who Lost Her Emails.” A Washington Post cartoon portrayed them as trained monkeys and that was out of line. Leave the kids alone. When they’re teenagers, they’ll figure out their own ways to get revenge.

Adult relatives should generally get a break. Right now there are dozens of spouses, siblings and offspring of candidates staggering around Iowa shaking hands, thanking people for coming and recounting homey anecdotes about the time Dad or Mom flew a thousand miles to get to the school play. They’re tired and they just discovered they’ve gained seven pounds since that raccoon roast in Arkansas. Have mercy.

However, there’s a limit. We hardly need note that Bill Clinton gets no family-member slack, ever. Chelsea Clinton is a little different. In the past she’s been superdisciplined. I remember back in 2000 watching her trot after her parents to the New York State Fair, looking dutifully at a life-size refrigerator carved out of butter, and thinking this is a whole new level of being a good daughter.

But Chelsea made news this week in New Hampshire where she told an audience that “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare … dismantle Medicare and dismantle private insurance.” This is a whole new line of attack, and you’d at least expect it to come first from the candidate. “Chelsea Clinton is as policy-obsessed and as smart and as attentive to the details as both her parents when it comes to policy,” said a Clinton spokesman. That’s campaign-speak for “it was an accident.”

Go for the jugular if the relative is saying something the candidate wants to say without being held responsible.This takes us back to Rafael Cruz, an evangelical minister who has claimed, among other things, that gay rights advocates want to “legalize pedophiles” and that if America had no abortions it would also have no national debt. His son is currently trying to court the far right without sounding quite that loopy in person.

Cruz talks a lot about his hyper-patriotic father, who came to the United States from Cuba on a student visa, worked his way through college and then began climbing up in the world. Actually, most of the climbing occurred in Canada, where Dad worked and became a citizen in 1973. The family came back to the United States, but Rafael didn’t get around to becoming an American for 30 years.

The delay was due to “I guess laziness, or — I don’t know,” he once told David Welna of NPR.

Just saying.


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