National Column: The disgraceful metamorphosis of Aung San Suu Kyi

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Who does not belong in this group?

Raoul Wallenberg

Nelson Mandela

The Dalai Lama

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aga Khan IV

Malala Yousafzai

They are the six distinguished individuals who have been given honorary Canadian citizenship.

Never has such a tribute been revoked.

For Suu Kyi, de facto president of Burma — as the Star style guide insists on calling Myanmar — it should be.

Where once Suu Kyi was a human rights icon, the world’s most famous political prisoner, kept under house arrest for nearly two decades by Burma’s military regime, she has undergone a disgraceful metamorphosis, neither raising a finger nor uttering a word of condemnation for her country’s “ethnic cleansing” of the uniquely despised and dehumanized Rohingya Muslim minority.

Upwards of a million Rohingya have fled over the border into Bangladesh since a ferocious military crackdown against them began in August 2017, subsisting in squalor into displacement camps with scarce food, clean water or medicine. Tens of thousands have been killed. Satellite images show that more than 200 hundred Rohingya villages have been incinerated. Untold numbers have drowned attempting escape to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia by boat, putting their fates in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.

Mass rape has been committed, although some Burmese officials deny this, arguing that couldn’t have happened because Rohingya women are too “filthy.”

The humanitarian catastrophe has triggered international outrage but fallen on deaf ears in Naypyidaw, the capital and seat of government.

Out of 135 officially recognized ethnicities within Burma, only the Rohingya are excluded, historically regarded as illegal immigrants, even though their presence in the country stretches back centuries. They are considered a vestige of the colonial era, when Burma was incorporated into British India and the British brought non-Buddhists from elsewhere as labour.

The Burma government even forbids use of the name Rohingya, and most people there call them Bengali. Islamophobia is deep-seated in a country that is nearly 90 per cent Buddhist, fanned by extremist monks. Rohingya were excluded from the 2014 census, not even recognized as a people.

At the end of August, following a United Nations fact-finding mission (which Suu Kyi had initially fiercely resisted by denying them visas), the UN Human Rights Council released a damning report, urging prosecution of the armed forces’ top generals by the International Criminal Court for genocidal attacks — murder, rape, torture and extermination, “crimes of atrocity,” in Rakhine as well as other states — while also blaming Suu Kyi for failing to halt the violence.

“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 in Rakhine state,” the report stated. The UN body further criticized Facebook as a “useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate” in a country where the social media platform is a dominant form of communication.

There is no appetite in the Security Council to support referral to the ICC.

The Burmese government has agreed to a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate refugees but few have returned, with leaders saying they would not do so unless guaranteed safety.

Nothing Canada can do, really, to ease a crisis on the other side of the planet. Rohingya are not clamouring to seek refugee shelter in this country and we already have our hands full with the stream of migrants — mostly Nigerians and Haitians — who’ve crossed from the U.S. But we can find our moral backbone, if only symbolically.

We can strip Suu Kyi of the honorary citizenship conferred by Canada in 2007, tabled by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, passed unanimously by the House of Commons.

“The Lady,” as the daughter of Burma’s (assassinated) modern nation-founder is known, has become worse than an empty shell of her former venerated self, so tarnished as her reputation become. Beholden to the generals who still effectively rule the country, despite a landslide victory three years ago by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

The military insists their brutality towards the Rohingya was a response to militant attacks against army and police posts. Suu Kyi, who formerly shone as a paragon for non-violent dissent standing up to ruthless generals, now parrots that message, blaming a Rohingya group for the violence and describing them as “terrorists.” The woman who chose not to visit a husband dying from cancer in England for fear the generals would not allow her back in the country has now allied herself with accused war criminals.

A Nobel laureate herself, she has ignored the pleadings of fellow Nobel luminaries such as Yousafzai and Bishop Desmond Tutu to intervene, to use her influence and moral authority. Suu Kyi, 73, is forbidden from becoming president under Burma’s constitution because she has children who are foreign nationals, but essentially she holds that position under the official title of state counsellor.

On Tuesday, the fact-finding mission formally presented its 444-page report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It makes for obscene reading. Describing one incident of villagers who’d escaped the army’s assault on their homes, the account tells how soldiers had caught up with them, shooting the men and methodically slitting their throats, snatching babies from their mothers and throwing them into a river, tossing others into a fire, then raping the women and girls.

“The killing was widespread, systematic and brutal,” the report says.

“At the core of every incident and every human rights violation we examined was the extreme brutality of the Myanmar military,” panel chairman Marzuki Darusman told the council.

“The killing of civilians of all ages, including babies, cannot be argued to be a counterterrorism measure. There can be no military imperative to rape women and girls or to burn people alive.”

Yet Suu Kyi does nothing, says nothing.

Many international organizations and civic groups have over the past 18 months stripped Suu Kyi of various honours previously bestowed. For its part, the Nobel committee says it cannot revoke a laureate.

Canada has never rescinded honorary citizenship — although the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion Thursday to recognize the crimes against the Rohingya as a “genocide” — but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

That may fly in the face of a declaration Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made during the 2015 federal election campaign — “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” But that remark was made during a town-hall meeting in Winnipeg and was directed at calls for convicted terrorists with dual citizenship to have their citizenship revoked.

The world in 2018 is not the world as it was in 2007. Suu Kyi is not the heroine she was in 2007.

Suu Kyi is not “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

Take it back. It won’t matter a damn to her. It should matter a great deal to us.

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