There was a time when Aung San Suu Kyi needed sanctuary, and the world responded. Few people in recent decades were feted with as much goodwill as the Nobel Laureate from Myanmar, who stood on the moral high ground of democracy and demanded to be heard.
She did that on behalf of all people who lived in Myanmar; or, at least, that was the assumption. Global leaders fawned, and accolades followed. Many sought gravitas by taking up her cause, making Suu Kyi a household name and a brand ambassador for all that’s right.
But Suu Kyi’s status has declined rapidly since she has made the transition from a human rights advocate to leading her country in government. While that transition was always going to be somewhat rocky, her failure to respond vigorously following the Rohingya crisis, which has escalated into a genocide and forced over 700,000 members of the Muslim minority group, by one estimate, to flee across the border and into Bangladesh last year, has been seen as the main cause of this international frustration.
This week, in further evidence of this ongoing trend, the Canadians reacted by stripping her of her honorary citizenship in a unanimous vote in their senate, following a similar outcome in the House of Commons.
“Stripping her of her honorary citizenship may not make a tangible difference to her, but it sends an important symbolic message,” said Senator Ratna Omidvar. “She has been complicit in stripping the citizenship and the security of thousands of Rohingya, which has led to their flight, their murder, their rapes, and their current deplorable situation.”
Further adding to these negative perceptions, Suu Kyi defended the jailing of two Reuters journalists – who investigated and reported the torture, rape, and horrible murders of the Rohingya – highlighted by her notorious reaction at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi recently. She justified their imprisonment, saying that their case had “nothing to do with freedom of expression.”
Of course, the great shame remains that Suu Kyi could not spare a modicum of kindness – the same kindness that was lavished on her by the international community – for the Rohingya, whose eviction and plight is now underpinning calls for a genocide tribunal.
As Chris Sidoti, a UN human rights investigator, noted in the release last month of a 400-page report on alleged genocidal crimes in Myanmar, Suu Kyi could have done much more given her enormous moral authority after winning 80 percent of the popular vote in the 2015 poll.
“The very first thing she could have done was not provide cover for the military by dismissing the overwhelming number of reports of mass rape as fake,” Sidoti, an ex-commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, said. “She could have refused to provide a fig leaf for military atrocities of the most serious kind.”
And there were plenty of warnings.
In 2012, The Economist noted: “Rakhine politicians say frankly that the only alternative to mass deportation is a Burmese form of apartheid, in which more Rohingyas are corralled into squalid, semi-permanent internal-refugee camps.”
While the stripping of Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship spawned many headlines, there are questions about what may lie ahead as well. One is whether anyone else will follow Canada’s lead.
Particular focus will be on the Nobel Committee. The Nobel Peace Prize has arguably undermined its own mission in the past on some occasions by awarding the prize to those who may have been deemed unworthy or sparked controversy about how deserving they were of the award. Among those nominees: U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho (who did decline), and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Never has the Nobel committee rescinded an award, and it insists this cannot be done. But it’s about time that changed.
Beyond that, it is not clear which other countries, organizations, and groups may also follow suit by recognizing that Suu Kyi today is a far cry from where she was yesterday, and that this change should be followed by corresponding changes in her status in the world as well.
Canada is one of the very few countries to maintain some type of moral backbone in recent years in this regard, when others have pushed global trade to the fore ahead of human rights issues and the international laws they signed up to at the UN.
Suu Kyi deserved to be stripped of her honorary citizenship in Canada. It was just the latest episode in a tragic saga that has marked her fall from grace, causing much embarrassment for those who backed her, whether world leaders or rock stars.
It’s a saga that’s far from complete.