By Isaac Wilks
On Tuesday, October 2, the Parliament of Canada voted unanimously to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship—the first time it has ever done so to a former honoree. Much has changed since Parliament first awarded it to the Burmese leader in 2007.
Suu Kyi was under state-mandated house arrest when she first heard, on the radio, that she was to receive the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. “During my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world,” she remembered years later, at her belated Nobel address. “What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived. It had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community.” But today, nearly three decades later, her presence in that community is more in question than ever.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of the prominent Burmese liberation fighter Aung San. She rose to international acclaim as the leader of the democratic opposition to the despotic Burmese regime of the late 1980s and won a contentious national election in 1990. But the ruling government ignored the results, and shortly thereafter she was jailed. She was finally freed in 2010, and rode a wave of popular support to the presidency in 2015.
In recent years, Myanmar’s military has perpetrated a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people in the southwestern state of Rakhine. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have lived in the hills of Rakhine for centuries, have long been subject to discrimination at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. However, in recent years their situation has become dire. In 2012, spurred by accounts of a purported rape of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men, state-backed Buddhist extremists pillaged Muslim neighborhoods, displacing tens of thousands of Rohingya. Things worsened when, two years after Suu Kyi’s ascent to power, Rohingya militants attacked Burmese military installations in Rakhine. The military retaliated, torching hundreds of villages and displacing upwards of 400,000 Rohingya, mainly to neighboring Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi, the new head of government, tacitly permitted this ethnic cleansing, refusing to reign in the military. According to a U.N. Human Rights Council report, Suu Kyi “has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events…on the contrary, the civilian authorities have spread false and hateful narratives…blocked independent investigations…and overseen the bulldozing of burned Rohingya villages and the destruction of crime sites and evidence.”
To this day Suu Kyi has refused to wholly acknowledge the attacks. She has assumed the role of genocide apologist, deflecting pressure from journalists with annoyed obfuscation. During an official address in late 2017, presumably to demonstrate her military’s clemency, Suu Kyi noted that “more than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact.”
The once-reverent international community has turned on her. She has been condemned by global icons from Malala Yousafzai to Desmond Tutu. Op-eds proclaim her fall from glory left and right (“Strip Aung San Suu Kyi of Her Nobel Prize” cries the New York Times). Canada is the latest domino to fall.
“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, who initiated Parliament’s decision regarding Suu Kyi, who she describes as “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.”
Last month, rather than endure the wrath of world leaders, Suu Kyi skipped the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Rather than facing the “real world,” Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be returning to that isolation from which she emerged decades ago.
Isaac is a first-year in Pauli Murray. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.