Tom Andrews at his home in Fairfax, Virginia. John Boal photo for the Portland Press Herald 

If you’ve caught any coverage of the crisis in Myanmar this winter, chances are you’ve seen or heard the United Nation’s independent human rights expert interviewed about the military coup and violent crackdown on protesters, ethnic minorities and the political opposition in the country in Southeast Asia.

The U.N. “special rapporteur” has been all over the world media, denouncing the Feb. 1 coup on CNN, drawing attention to the use of live ammunition against protesters on NPR, and calling for tougher economic sanctions against the regime on Fox News.

What you may not have noticed is that person is none other than Tom Andrews, who once represented Portland at the State House and Maine’s 1st District in Congress before losing the contest to fill George Mitchell’s Senate seat to Olympia Snowe, Maine’s 2nd District congresswoman.

The Bowdoin College graduate made a name for himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a Portland-based social activist who took on the city for buying buses that disabled people couldn’t use, pressed the state to better detect cancer clusters and helped expose the abuse of students at the Baxter School for the Deaf.

Now he’s doing much the same on an international stage: organizing campaigns to confront those in power on behalf of those suffering from their actions or inaction.

“It doesn’t surprise me in that he’s always been an activist and a bit of a rabble-rouser,” says political consultant Dennis Bailey, who was Andrews’ congressional campaign press secretary in the early 1990s. “He’s still pushing against established power and fighting for human rights and decency.”

Andrews, reached at his home in Fairfax, Virginia, agreed with that assessment. “I’ve been a human rights advocate and organizer my whole life, and while the venue for that advocacy changes, the work has been essentially the same,” he says. “From advocating for accessible transportation in Portland to Congress to working for justice and human rights in Myanmar, it’s the same core work.”

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Anti-coup protesters wearing protective gear take positions as police gather in Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday. Myanmar’s military, fresh off a coup, has killed scores of unarmed protesters. AP photo

‘HE’S HAD A BIG IMPACT’

Andrews, 67, was appointed a year ago to his current position by the U.N. Human Rights Council and charged with monitoring the human rights situation in Myanmar – also called Burma – and making recommendations to the U.N. Security Council and world community on the same. Andrews receives no salary and, to ensure his independence, operates independently from the U.N. bureaucracy but has the backing of the international body.

“Their expenses are covered, but they do it because of their passion for the job,” explains Myanmar expert Christina Fink, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. “Andrews has played an instrumental role in getting Myanmar front and center for all U.N. bodies and particularly the U.N. Security Council. And because he’s on Twitter, he’s had a big impact inside the country as well.”

Andrews has sought to make fact-finding trips but even before the coup was denied permission to enter the country, supposedly because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s relied on virtual meetings with journalists, activists, human rights workers, businessmen, and members of parliament, international organizations and the diplomatic corps to investigate and draw attention to conditions there. His recommendations can influence the decisions made by the U.N. Security Council and demands made by the U.N.’s special envoy to Myanmar – its senior diplomat – the Swiss diplomat Christine Burgener.

“The unique thing about this position is that I’m part of the U.N. but also independent of it, so nobody can tell me what I can say or not say, but I also have the organization’s support,” Andrews says. “My constituency are the people who are besieged in Myanmar, and I have access to member states, their governments and their foreign ministries, which means I have a platform where I can really engage on their behalf.”

When he was first approached by the U.N. Human Rights Council, Andrews was already well acquainted with Myanmar, which had spent decades recovering from a 1990 military coup that resulted in the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize shortly thereafter. The coup – which followed the opposition’s triumph in an election – made a deep impression on Andrews because it had occurred around the same time he had been elected to Congress.

“I won my election and got to go to Congress, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a big victory and went to prison,” he notes.

Many would-be members of Myanmar’s parliament wound up in exile in the United States, and 10 years later Andrews was hired to serve as a media and government relations consultant for their provisional government in exile, a gig that was itself an outgrowth of a human rights consultancy he’d created shortly after losing the 1994 Senate race to Snowe.

“We were from a very isolated country and didn’t have international experience, so Tom was able to assist us in international relations, U.N. relations, and Congressional relations,” says Bo Hla Tint, who was the exiled government’s foreign minister at the time. “He showed us how to be able to raise our voices across the globe.”

Their voices were raised to a shout in December 2001, when Andrews managed to organize a rally in Oslo, Norway, on the sidelines of a symposium marking the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize. Thirty living Nobel Peace Prize laureates – including Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama – stood in the cold rain in front of the Norwegian Parliament Building and denounced Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention on what was also the 10th anniversary of her winning the prize. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke via satellite link from Washington while the prime minister of Norway oversaw the meeting.

Shortly thereafter, the junta released 100 political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party to reopen its offices. “Don’t underestimate the power of people organizing and calling for justice and human rights,” Andrews says of the event, which drew on skills he honed as a young activist in Portland.

‘I WILL MAKE IT WORTHWHILE’

Thomas Andrews, the “special rapporteur” on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said, “I’m part of the U.N. but also independent of it, so nobody can tell me what I can say or not say, but I also have the organization’s support.” John Boal photo for the Portland Press Herald

Andrews grew up on a farm in Easton, Massachusetts, and, in his own telling, had a pretty conventional childhood until, at age 16, his life turned upside down.

“I had not had much of a care about anything other than who would win the ballgame that weekend and who I would date, and then I found myself flat on my back having been diagnosed with cancer,” he recalls. “I can remember vividly lying in my hospital bed and wondering that if this was it, what had been the point. And as I didn’t have an answer to that question I made one of those classic deals with the Almighty: ‘If you let me live, I will make it worthwhile so that the next time I am lying in that bed I will have an answer.’”

“I’ve have been trying to keep my end of the bargain ever since … and She’s kept hers,” he adds.

Andrews ultimately had his right leg amputated and has walked with a prosthetic ever since. He came to Maine to attend Bowdoin College, graduating in 1976 with a degree in philosophy and religion, moved to Portland, and was soon organizing campaigns against injustices he saw around him. He founded a low-income advocacy group, We Who Care, and then the Maine Association of Handicapped Persons, which rallied against the cities of Portland and South Portland over their decisions to buy new buses that were inaccessible to disabled people. They sued the state to make courtrooms accessible and exposed allegations of gross abuses of children at the Baxter School for the Deaf that turned out to be terribly true.

“He was an unabashed progressive, which is why I often think of him as the Bernie Sanders of Maine, only 20 years earlier,” says Alan Caron, who was then a young activist and who helped staff Andrews’ 1982 campaign for state legislature. “I remember the big problem we had in the campaign was having too may volunteers willing to drop everything to help him out.”

He won the legislative seat and, to everyone’s shock, defeated the establishment’s state Senate candidate, Gerard Conley Jr., in the 1984 Democratic primary and went on to the upper chamber. “He had this terrific smile, could light up a room, and was one of the better speakers to come out of Maine, and I’ve heard them all,” adds Caron, who became a top political consultant in the state in this era. “He was this rising star in the party, and nobody knew what the ceiling was.”

‘THIS VERY PRINCIPLED STAND’

Andrews repeated this feat in 1990, defeating Attorney General James Tierney and future Maine House Speaker and Senate President Libby Mitchell in the congressional primary, and then crushing Republican Dave Emery – who had held the seat for four terms in the late ’70s and early ’80s – with 60 percent of the vote in the general election.

In Washington he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus with Sanders of Vermont, California’s Maxine Waters and three other members, and served on the Armed Services Committee during the contentious post-Cold War process to reduce the number of U.S. military bases.

Andrews had called for a reduction on military spending, and when an independent panel put Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base – built to drop atomic weapons on the by-then-nonexistent Soviet Union using B-52s that had been made obsolete for this purpose – on the chopping block, Andrews was the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation who didn’t demand they reconsider. “There was no pork-barrel politics, no sleight of hand, no backroom deals,” Andrews told The Boston Globe at the time. “We got a fair hearing.”

Many northern Maine voters didn’t see it that way and punished him for it when he tried to run for an open Senate seat in 1994. Although outgoing Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell had endorsed Andrews to replace him, he lost the race to Snowe.

“He had taken this very principled stand about the closure of Loring and Olympia was able to use it against him like a hammer,” says Bailey, who was campaign spokesman for the victorious gubernatorial candidate that year, Angus King. “His appeal was that he was someone who would challenge the status quo and shake things up, but I think he probably overreached on the base closure.”

Andrews agrees Loring probably hurt him but notes that 1994 was a terrible year for Democrats: an election when a new crop of fiery Republicans under Newt Gingrich toppled Democratic control of the House and Andrews’ vacated House seat was captured by Republican James Longley Jr. “People didn’t know me in CD2,” he adds, “and Olympia was a very good candidate.”

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Anti-coup protesters run toward smoke from tear gas on a road full of debris in San Chaung township in Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday. AP photo

‘RISE TO THE OCCASION’

He began commuting to Washington, D.C., not long after the election and began a series of jobs leading antiwar and human rights campaigns, including as national director of Win Without War (which opposed the invasion of Iraq) and president of United to End Genocide (which confronted atrocities in Sudan, Myanmar and other countries). He moved to Washington full time in the early 2000s, but kept his Maine camp, where he spends “as much time as possible.”

As U.N. Special Rapporteur, Andrews last Thursday issued a report to the Human Rights Council denouncing the coup and calling on the U.N. Security Council “to take decisive and unified action against the military junta, including targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, and a referral to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute atrocities.”

This Thursday, Andrews will release a more detailed annex detailing human rights violations that preceded the Feb. 2 coup. It will show that Myanmar’s security forces have “continued to murder, torture and fire indiscriminately on Rohingya civilians, while continuing to deny them equal access to citizenship rights” in violation of an order from the International Court of Justice.

“I sincerely hope that the international community will rise to the occasion of this moment of history by following the lead and the inspiration of the people of Myanmar,” Andrews says in a statement issued by his office Thursday. “And, that justice, dignity and human rights will finally prevail for all.”


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