Lena Odgaard has been a regular contributor to the American independent radio station, Free Speech Radio News (FSRN) since January 2013. Additionally, she has reported for international outlets including Radio France International (RFI) and Monocle24. 

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Myanmar’s transition to democracy provides opening for deeper social change

April 10, 2017 | FSRN

A year ago, citizens of Myanmar – also referred to as Burma – saw their first civilian president take office in a government led by pro-democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi. This major step toward a representative government came after more than half a century of brutal military rule. While for decades, any talk of human rights was banned, the country is now seeing hundreds of civil society organizations mushroom – but human rights advocates say not everyone is benefiting from the new freedoms in the country also known as Burma. 

In North Okkalapa, a suburb of Yangon, people are gathering in a large tin shack. Music is blasting from two speakers.

It’s the theme song of Akhaya, a local women’s organization that works to promote equality and rights for women throughout Myanmar. Today the organization is hosting a play that aims to shed light on sexual assault on minors.

In the play a young girl is raped by an ice cream salesman. The story is based on an attack that took place in the area a few years ago.

Papa Nan Htwe, program coordinator of the awareness theater, estimates that only about one in three rape cases are reported – and in half of the cases the girl is under 16.

“We believe three in one of survivors are reported to the police,” Nan Htwe says.

Nan Htwe explains that in much of Myanmar, the social construct around rape and even domestic abuse does not view these assaults as violence – and most people – both men and women – don’t consider sexual assault and domestic abuse violations of women’s rights.

She illustrated her point after the play, by asking if anyone in the audience knew of cases of violence against women and girls: “‘Is there any violence in this village?’ They said no. Do husbands beat their wives – yes. They don’t know what is violence.”

For 50 years, while Myanmar was ruled by an oppressive military junta, any call for human rights could lead to years in prison. This started to change in 2011 when the military government introduced a series of reforms that enabled activists and civil society groups to form and work openly. Hundreds of new organizations sprung up. At the same time, restrictions on access to information were eased and in less than five years, internet penetration has gone from less than 1 percent to 20 percent.

A year ago, after a landslide electoral victory, the National League for Democracy, the so-called NLD, took office. Led by the internationally praised Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the victory was hailed as the official beginning of a new democratic era for Myanmar.

In another Yangon suburb, LGBT rights activist Tin Ko Ko works at an office promoting awareness about HIV and AIDS. During the lead up to the landmark election, Tin Ko Ko and his community campaigned to get the NLD elected. They expected that the new government would cancel some of Myanmar’s repressive laws targeting the LGBT community.

While they can now talk openly about homosexuality, they are still waiting for meaningful legislative reforms.

“For us, it means we can work more freely and it’s easier to cooperate with other organizations,” Ko Ko explains. “But homosexuality is still not widely accepted, and even the new government and high level officials say that many issues are more important than LGBT rights.”

Officially, engaging in homosexual acts is illegal in Myanmar according to an old law dating back to British colonial times. It is rarely enforced, but according to Ko Ko police officers and authorities use it as an excuse to harass, blackmail and abuse members of the LGBT community.

“We hoped for and expected more rights with this new government,” Ko Ko says. “We worked actively to get them elected and voted for them ourselves. But we are not satisfied.”

And 12 months later, activists like Ko Ko are starting to wonder how long they must wait to see noteworthy changes in policies and laws.

Thet Swe Win plays with his four-year-old daughter. He has been a human rights activist since 2007 and was a staunch supporter of the NLD.

“We voted for this government because we believed they could bring change for the country, we believed that they were the government of the people,” Swe Win says. “But, it has been one year and there has not really been tangible change that we can see yet. Many are starting getting doubt.”

Echoing a number of international human rights organizations, Swe Win criticizes the government and especially Suu Kyi, locally referred to as ‘the Lady’, for continuing the oppression of minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingyas.

“They don’t really listen to the people,” says Swe Win. “They say they work for the people but, in reality, ‘The Lady’, she keeps quiet for the issues of Rohingya.”

In April, Myanmar will host a small bi-election. Swe Win predicts another landslide victory for NLD – mainly because there is no real opposition. He fears the party’s huge support will make them even more reluctant to move forward with democratic reforms, and that Myanmar’s new democracy is not truly a democracy for all its people.


Trump campaigners seek out American voters in Israel

October 27, 2016 | FSRN 

The U.S. presidential election is entering its final weeks and party activists are working non-stop to get voters to cast their ballots – including those who live abroad. An estimated 2.6 million eligible American voters live outside of the U.S., about 130,000 in Israel. Though that may seem like a small number,  GOP candidate Donald Trump’s supporters in Israel are certain  their votes are crucial.

Originally published on FSRN

New trade law could reverse 50 years of U.S. economic policy regarding occupied Palestinian territories

March 10, 2016 | FSRN

British private security contractor G4S announced Wednesday that the company will liquidate its operations in Israel after reporting a steep drop in annual profits. The multinational, which sells services and equipment to Israeli detention centers and West Bank checkpoints, has long been a focus of the BDS movement. But a new U.S. law, signed late last month by President Barack Obama, may complicate the economic shaming campaigns that have been gaining traction around the world.

The stated aim of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 is to remove unfair barriers to competitive U.S. trade, but the legislation also includes provisions designed to oppose boycotts and similar economic measures against Israel. While the bill passed without much controversy or coverage in the U.S., Lena Odgaard reports that its implications could mark a change in 50 years of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jewish and Arab parents push for integrated schools for all religions, cultures in Israel

February 3, 2016 | FSRN

While tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have surged in recent months increasing ethnic cracks in Israeli society, a group of Jewish and Arab parents in Jaffa are fighting to open a school that pays equal respect to all its student’s religions and cultural traditions.

TEL AVIV - A group of around 70 Jewish, Christian and Muslim parents and children gathered in front of City Hall in Tel Aviv chanting “Hand in Hand,”  first in Hebrew, then Arabic. The children wore stickers on their jackets and sweatshirts with the words “Jaffa demands school for all: bilingual, equal and public.”

The parents want the municipality to allow them to open a public school in neighboring Jaffa under the auspices of Hand in Hand, an organization that runs bilingual, public Arab-Jewish schools throughout Israel.

“That’s what we are fighting for. We want to be able to give our kids education based on equality that is bilingual, multicultural. That will expose our kids to all types of populations, nationalities, religions and backgrounds,” explains Honey Shamy, a Palestinian Christian mother, has two young daughters, the oldest of whom is ready to start elementary school in the fall. Both girls attend a kindergarten run by Hand in Hand and this has given her hope in better future.

Find the original report here

West Bank violence spreads to Gaza; Israeli airstrike kills young mother and toddler

Oct. 12, 2015 | FSRN

Tension continues to spiral in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.  After a week of growing unrest in the West Bank, the violence spread to Gaza where the Israeli military met week-end rocket fire with anairstrike — killing a pregnant mother and her 2-year-old daughter.  Monday another four stabbing attack attempts were reported in East Jerusalem.

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Violence spirals in West Bank amid holy site tension and calls for a third Intifada

Oct. 9, 2015 | FSRN

Only days after both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas spoke at the UN claiming they were committed to deescalate tensions, violence suddenly surged with Palestinian youth calling for another uprising, or so-called Intifada, against the Israeli occupation.

The violence is spiraling, with Friday funeral services for one of the Palestinian victims deteriorating into some of the most intense cashes in this latest round of escalated unrest. Lena Odgaard reports from the West Bank.

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S. African Jews apologize to Palestinians displaced from their village by the Nakba

May 15, 2015 | FSRN

Each May 15th, about five million Palestinian refugees worldwide commemorate the ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for ‘the Catastrophe’) – when nearly half of the Arab population within the borders of what used to be the British Mandate of Palestine was displaced in the war following Israel’s independence. The refugees still demand the right to return but most have nothing to return to as around 400 villages were destroyed. FSRN’s Lena Odgaard joined a small group of Palestinian refugees who were invited back to the ruins of their village, Lubya, in northern Israel where they received an unexpected apology.

Israel’s Netanyahu claims decisive victory after 11th hour hard-line push

Mar. 18, 2015 | FSRN

Just before Israeli voters went to the polls yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out the hard-line rhetoric and it looks like it hit its mark, earning him a victory in the election. But his U-turn on a two-state solution and his overt criticism of U.S. and European negotiations with Iran may have further distanced Israel from Western allies.  FSRN’s Nell Abram spoke with correspondent Lena Odgaard from Ramallah to discuss the outcome and what people are saying about it in both Palestinian and Israeli West Bank communities.

New party could be a ‘game-changer’ in Israeli elections

Mar. 13, 2015 | FSRN

Aida Touma-Suliman (right) of the Joint List Party at a public debate in Tel Aviv hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation

Aida Touma-Suliman (right) of the Joint List Party at a public debate in Tel Aviv hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation

Ahead of the upcoming Israeli parliament election a new party has emerged – the Joint List. It merges four predominantly Arab parties into one, making it potentially the third largest in the Israeli parliament, Knesset. It has been called a ‘game changer’ in Israeli politics as it aims at not only to unite Arab voters but also reaches out to the Israeli Left. 

Israel showcases drone technology as the world’s top exporter

Dec. 19, 2014 | FSRN

Wikileaks this week published a CIA assessment of its program to assassinate so-called “high value targets.”  In the internal secret report from 2009, the CIA recognized the program could be counterproductive in that targeted killings “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.” According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, within one year of the report’s internal publication, casualties attributed to  drone strikes in Pakistan reached historic highs.

The use of weaponized and surveillance drones is often associated with the no-longer-secret CIA program, but the U.S. actually restricts the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles. However, a close military ally of the U.S. has cornered the market, becoming the world’s top exporter of UAV technology.

Gaza Strip youth express concerns about Hamas authorities restricting their political rights

October 5, 2013 | FSRN

GAZA - In the Palestinian Gaza Strip, young men and women complain that they feel targeted by the Hamas authorities for being too westernized. They say the authorities harass them because of their clothing, hairstyles or the music they like. Since there are no official laws against Western culture, youth and local NGOs say its intimidation and a way to silence criticism of the government.

Women in Gaza, facing restrictions in public activism, find outlet online

July 2nd, 2013 | FSRN

Palestinian activists in Gaza have been speaking out against a range of issues: the Israeli siege, the treatment of prisoners held in Israeli prisons and the Hamas-led government’s recent attempts to implement religious policies. But for women, the freedom to express themselves and engage in political activities is largely limited. In the conservative, male-dominated society it can be challenging  for women to take their voices to the street, but through social media they are finding other means.