Amnesty International has recently removed its highest honour, the Ambassador of Conscious award, from Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi due to her neglect of the Rohingya and other minorities in Kachin and northern Shan states. In a letter formally addressed to her by the organization, the group states that she is no longer “a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defense of human rights.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San (a martyred national hero of independent Burma) and Khin Kyi (a prominent Burmese diplomat). She is known for her long nonviolent battle for democracy in Myanmar, which cost her freedom several times for decades during the military junta which ruled the country from 1962 until 2011. In 2015 her party (the National League for Democracy) won the majority of parliament seats in historic elections, making her presently the de facto leader of Myanmar. However, in the last couple of years, her reputation as a hopeful voice for the oppressed and the democracy of Myanmar has been vastly compromised by her disregard for the Rohingya crisis. When the topic was addressed in conversations she had with BBC, she blamed the violence on a “climate of fear” and said “[she doesn’t] think there is ethnic cleansing going on” and thinks that “ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening”. The Dalai Lama said he had tried twice to push her to act upon this issue, to which she said that “things were not simple but very complicated”. Before her election, she’d spoken to BBC about the Rohingya crisis and said: “Prejudice is not removed easily and hatred is not going to be removed easily… I’m confident the great majority of the people want peace… they do not want to live on a diet of hate and fear.” Now that she is part of the government, she can no longer simply defer responsibility to it.

However, it is important to note that despite her power in the government today, the military still controls the ministries of home affairs, defense, and border affairs. Thus, it has the authority of the police and “is the real power in northern Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh.” Suu Kyi not speaking out in favor of the Rohingya could also stem from her wanting to avoid angry reactions in her country from the general public (who tends to be unsympathetic towards the Rohingya) and the Buddhist government.

The Rohingya are the largest ethnic Muslim group (around one million people) in Myanmar where the majority of the population is Buddhist. They have their own culture and language and have been part of the region for generations. The government of Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and have even refused to recognize them as people by excluding them from the 2014 census. Oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar isn’t new: discriminatory policies since the 1970’s have coerced the group to flee in predominantly Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Thailand. These tensions renewed in 2017 when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed an attack undertaken on police and army posts. In response, the government marked ARSA as a terrorist organization. The military started killing thousands of Rohingya and destroying hundreds of their villages. Currently, the Rohingya crisis refers to the military government of Myanmar pushing what the UN calls an “ethnic cleansing” and clearly evidences that the nation’s leadership hasn’t established a functioning democracy. United Nations’ investigations have discovered precise findings of mass killings, villages being burned down, and gang rapes of the ethnic group in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have had to escape the country. Several countries in the UN council demanded Myanmar’s military leaders be held accountable for these actions.

Amnesty International joins a list of various other organizations such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that have rescinded their award from Aung San Suu Kyi since the beginning of the Rohingya crisis. All were due to her failure to speak up for the ethnic group, and for her administration’s denial of the issue itself; it has rejected the UN’s findings the Rohingya crisis and said it set up its own Independent Commission of Inquiry in “response to the false allegations by the UN agencies and other international agencies“. She still, however, holds her Nobel Peace Prize (1991).

Featured Image Via Michał Józefaciuk

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