Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been stripped of a human rights award after weeks of backlash over the beleaguered former icon of freedom’s response to the Rohingya crisis.
Oxford City Council voted unanimously this week recommending that Suu Kyi’s Freedom of the City award should be withdrawn, citing deep concerns over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims under her watch.
However one Myanmar expert strongly believes Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s “best hope” and says she deserves more sympathy.
More than 500,000 members of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority have fled across the border to Bangladesh since late August, when militant Rohingya attacks led to a violent crackdown by the army.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Suu Kyi, previously renowned for her human rights activism, has been widely criticised for her silence on the subject.
Oxford local councillor Mary Clarkson said in a speech proposing the motion that the city’s reputation is “tarnished by honouring those who turn a blind eye to violence”.
She added: “While the UN calls the situation a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, Aung San Suu Kyi denies any ethnic cleansing and dismisses numerous claims of sexual violence against Rohingya women as ‘fake rape’.”
The ‘best hope’ for the Rohingya people
Professor John Blaxland, director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute told The New Daily there were a number of “unrealistically high expectations” of what Suu Kyi can do without losing her position.
He said she did not control the border, army, police or the budget.
“She is the best hope for the Rohingya people,” he said.
“She is the conduit between the people and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces). They will listen to her. We should be using that leverage, not be piling criticisms on her.
“Let’s be real. She’s in a very constrained political environment. If she was to denounce the situation it would further marginalise her and she could effectively be removed from office.”
Prof Blaxland said he was confident Suu Kyi was trying to act constructively within the system, rejecting protests against her response as “self-righteous and superficial”.
“What the Tatmadaw is doing is abominable. But there is very little opportunity to verify what exactly is going on because there are strong incentives to exaggerate the facts, on both sides,” he said.
“Some reports could very well be something the Tatmadaw has put out there to make life difficult for her (Suu Kyi). We don’t know.
“I think the best way to address the situation is to collectively and constructively engage with the Tatmadaw, not by cutting ties. Doors need to be opened. Australia can play a role and so can neighbouring countries.”
Failure to denounce ‘ethnic cleansing’
In a speech in late September, her first public statement on the subject since the exodus of refugees began, Suu Kyi said her government condemned all human rights violations and promised to punish perpetrators.
But she did not address accusations of “ethnic cleansing” and did not criticise the Myanmar army’s actions.
Her speech was described as “little more than a mix of untruths and victim-blaming” by Amnesty International director for the region, James Gomez.
A similar Freedom of the City award is being considered for withdrawal by Sheffield City Council, in the north of England, after residents submitted a petition last month.
The award will likely be reviewed by councillors this month, the council’s democratic services team told Reuters.
Oxford University college St Hugh’s removed Suu Kyi’s portrait last week from public display while Unison, Britain’s second-largest trade union, announced last month it would suspend her honorary membership.