Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar De Facto), Oxford University and Genocide
Since her release from house arrest in 2010, having spent most of the previous two decades in detention, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from a human rights icon, including being awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University, to being severely criticised by almost every major human rights organisation in the world, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Much of this criticism has been over her response to two large scale military offensives, in 2016 and 2017, against the Rohingya Muslim minority, where thousands were killed and almost a million Rohingya forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. A United Nations investigation has concluded that what took place is genocide.
How complicit is Aung San Suu Kyi in this genocide? Her defenders point out that under the constitution of Myanmar, which was drafted by the military, her civilian government has no power over the military. This is correct. However, nothing in the constitution says that the government has to protect and defend the military when it commits genocide, but that is exactly what Aung San Suu Kyi has done.
At the time of the 2016 military offensive Aung San Suu Kyi and her government immediately launched a propaganda operation to attempt to cover up what was taking place, and further demonise the already oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority. Journalists were refused access, false information was published, and when media and human rights organisations reported on the mass use of rape by the military against Rohingya women and girls, Aung San Suu Kyi’s website displayed a ‘Fake Rape’ sign, claiming all the reports, later verified by the United Nations, were false.
There was a widespread shock that Aung San Suu Kyi would take such an approach, but those who had been watching Myanmar more closely were not so surprised. When the first outbreaks of violence against the Rohingya began in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi, then head of the opposition party, was criticised for being silent. This was not true. Her response was that there needed to be a rule of law, and she talked about the problem of immigration. She was using her language carefully so as not to alienate international supporters, but the message to the people of Myanmar was clear. The propaganda against the Rohingya was that they were illegal immigrants, invaders from Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, the most admired person in the country, gave credibility to this racist lie. Like many people in Myanmar, and despite all her previous fine words on human rights, it was clear Aung San Suu Kyi shared the prejudice against the Rohingya Muslims.
After she took power in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi kept in place severe restrictions against Rohingya living in camps after fleeing attacks in 2012. These restrictions were, and still are, killing people, including the young, the elderly and the sick. All the repressive laws and policies against the Rohingya were kept in place. Amnesty International has described it as apartheid.
The official United Nations investigation into the attacks against the Rohingya concluded that: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet the Government’s responsibility to protect the civilian population or even to reveal and condemn what was happening. On the contrary, the civilian authorities have spread false and hateful narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations…overseen the bulldozing of burned Rohingya villages and the destruction of crime sites and evidence. As such, through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have tacitly accepted and approved the Tatmadaw’s brutal, criminal and grossly disproportionate actions…the civilian authorities supported and publicly defended the severe, systemic and institutionalised oppression of the Rohingya; they have condoned, mirrored and promoted the false, hateful and divisive narratives espoused by ultranationalist Buddhist groups; through silencing activists and critical voices, they have fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives and incitement to discrimination and violence is facilitated; through their obstinate denials of credible allegations of human rights violations and abuses, they emboldened perpetrators.”
And most damning of all on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, they stated: “Through these acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.” The UN Investigators have called for further investigations into the complicity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in what happened, investigations which could one day see her on trial at the International Criminal Court.
It is no surprise then that so many cities, universities and human rights organisations have been withdrawing the awards they once bestowed on Aung San Suu Kyi. The surprise is that Oxford University still hasn’t withdrawn the honourary degree they gave her. To have such a prestigious honour in the hands of someone complicit in genocide shames any institution. It devalues the awards worth for those truly deserving of it. Oxford University can do the right thing now and revoke the honourary degree, or it carries on prevaricating until more evidence comes to light at a future that forces their hand, suffering much reputational damage in the meantime. Perhaps most damaging is the impression of Oxford University’s indifference to the suffering of the Rohingya, victims of genocide.
Sheikh Ramzy the Director and founder of Justice4Rohingya UK.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s human rights record
For many years Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed as a champion of human rights. She spent most of the 1990s and 2000s under house arrest, jailed by a brutal military dictatorship who feared her. She stood for human rights and democracy in Burma, leading the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
During her periods of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi received many awards from all over the world. These awards were not just a way of recognising her own leadership and sacrifices, but also as a way of showing solidarity and support to all the people of Burma in their struggle for human rights, and to keep attention on a country which was often forgotten by international governments and media.
In 2012 however, following her release from house arrest, some concerns began to be raised about her stance when it came to human rights for Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims in particular.
Attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority left many dead and tens of thousands displaced. On social media and in media there was widespread hate speech and incitement of violence against the Rohingya. Many, including Rohingya, looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to show leadership and speak in favour of Rohingya rights. She did not do so. Aung San Suu Kyi has often been criticised for her silence, but this is not correct. She was not silent. She spoke about Rohingya in the context of immigration and the rule of law. Her message was very clear to the people of Burma, she was endorsing the view that Rohingya were illegal immigrants into Burma.
Following the 2015 election, which was won by her party, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi overcame a constitutional ban on her becoming President by creating a State Counsellor post. She is the de facto leader of Burma, although under the military-drafted constitution she does not control all government ministries, and has no control over the military.
Her three years in government have given rise to a great many concerns about her record on human rights, which go beyond the issue of the Rohingya.
Under Aung San Suu Kyi:
• There have been two large scale military offensives against the Rohingya, which the United Nations has stated meet the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi dos not control the military, so cannot be blamed for these offensives. However, instead of condemning what took place, she has defended the military and denied human rights violations have taken place. Despite the UN and other agencies documenting thousands of cases of rape by the Burmese military, she has a notice on her website stating claims of rape are fake.
• All discriminatory laws and policies against the Rohingya have been kept in place by Aung San Suu Kyi. These laws and policies violate international law, including depriving the Rohingya of their right to citizenship.
• Aung San Suu Kyi has kept in place restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rohingya which is killing people, causing immense suffering and hardship, and depriving Rohingya children of their right to education.
• The United Nations Fact Funding Mission on the situation stated in its report of September 2018: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet the Government’s responsibility to protect the civilian population or even to reveal and condemn what was happening. On the contrary, the civilian authorities have spread false and hateful narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations, including of the Fact-Finding Mission; and overseen the bulldozing of burned Rohingya villages and the destruction of crime sites and evidence. Ignorance on the part of the Myanmar civilian authorities was effectively impossible….through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have tacitly accepted and approved the Tatmadaw’s brutal, criminal and grossly disproportionate actions. Moreover, in the period under review, the civilian authorities supported and publicly defended the severe, systemic and institutionalised oppression of the Rohingya; they have condoned, mirrored and promoted the false, hateful and divisive narratives espoused by ultranationalist Buddhist groups; through silencing activists and critical voices, they have fostered a climate in which hate speech thrives and incitement to discrimination and violence is facilitated; through their obstinate denials of credible allegations of human rights violations and abuses, they emboldened perpetrators. Such conduct is not only in violation of Myanmar’s obligations under international human rights law; it has also been profoundly damaging to the country and its democratic transition.” (https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23575&LangID=E)
• In addition to her record on the rights of the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi has also taken discriminatory approaches to all Muslims in Burma, not having any Muslim candidates in the election, not appointing any Muslims as government ministers, and Muslims are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain citizenship documents.
• Aung San Suu Kyi has kept in place and in some cases even strengthened repressive laws used to jail journalists and activists. Her government does not control the police but it does have the majority in Parliament needed to repeal repressive laws, and has chosen not to. It has defended these laws and her government and party has used them against critics.
• Aung San Suu Kyi is keeping dozens of political prisoners in jail. Her government has the power to release them but refuses to do so. This includes two Reuters journalists jailed for exposing a massacre of Rohingya by the Burmese military.
• Aung San Suu Kyi has appointed a former military officer accused of raping ethnic Chin women as Minister for Religious Affairs.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s record on human rights is very bad, and she receives most of the international criticism, it is important to remember that the main person responsible for human rights violations in Burma is Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military, and he has still faced no serious sanctions for his actions.
Many organisations, including Amnesty International, councils and universities, have now withdrawn awards to Aung San Suu Kyi in response to her record on human rights. It is felt that awards intended to reward the promotion of rights cannot credibly be held by someone violating human rights. It also tarnishes the reputation and credibility of the awards given. No institution wants to honour someone responsible for a wide range of human rights violations, and who defends genocide.