Revoking Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary degree would be meaningless

Patrick Storey argues that our concern should be the suffering of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, not revoking pieces of paper

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Aung San suu Kyi speaking after receiving her honorary degree from Oxford in 2012. Image: University of Oxford on YouTube.

Aung San Suu Kyi was, until recently, something approaching a saint in the eyes of the world. As both an activist and symbol, she has had considerable success in the quest to bring democracy to Myanmar.  Her reputation has fallen quickly from these lofty heights as the plight of the Rohingya has become obvious. The Annan report noted that the Muslim Rohingya minority has been oppressed within Buddhist-dominated Myanmar for years. They lack citizenship and other basic rights.

Anger over this marginalisation appears to have come to a head with attacks on border posts in 2016 which the government in Myanmar blames on Rohingya extremists. The military response has been overwhelmingly violent with thousands of refugees fleeing in what has been described by the UN as ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’. These refugees are fleeing military attacks which have destroyed villages and killed many. The Burmese military is a powerful political force but it no longer dominates as it did in the years of the Junta. Aung San Suu Kyi stood up to the Burmese military for many years when she did not hold high office. In this context, the bland call for an investigation in her speech (19th September) is so disappointing.

The debate has raged since then on whether the assorted awards she has won in recognition of her activism, including both a Nobel prize and an honorary degree from Oxford, should be taken away. It seems obvious to point out that a failure to act to prevent suffering makes us complicit in that suffering. This applies to all of us but some, in this case Aung San Suu Kyi, have the power to do more. Her refusal to condemn the actions of the military and police in Rakhine state will help prolong the crisis and cause more suffering. In short then, she seems no longer to possess the courage and kindness that first brought her acclaim and accolades. Others may be guiltier but they are not renowned for her qualities. We cannot expect those we regard as heroes to be perfect but the longer her inaction continues the more it begins to resemble complicity.

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Taking her various awards, however, can be seen as a mere distraction from the problems of Myanmar. We have no guarantee and very little reason to assume that taking away any awards will put pressure on her. The focus on the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi’s degree then reveals either arrogance or naivety. Do we believe that the power of our approval alone is sufficient to change things in Myanmar? I would hope not. There seems then to be an overwhelming interest in preserving the ‘sanctity’ of the award. Oxford, a world-famous and globally-leading institution cannot have its honours and awards borne by a person who has failed so cataclysmically as Aung San Suu Kyi, we are told.

This arguably valid interest cannot help by appear self-indulgent now that hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered Bangladesh. There almost seems to be a fear that not taking the degree away would amount to a form of approval, but this too is illogical. Rhodes, for example, a man whose actions and ideology most would today condemn, has a statue in Oxford. And yet we worry about the message that a piece of paper sends?

This debate over the issue of her awards seems to be evidence of western self-obsession rather than of concern for the condition of the Rohingya. We seem to be scared that the tarnishing of our symbols of approval will do damage to us. But our consciences will be far more troubled if we fail to move beyond this self-indulgent concern for symbolism and act practically to help the Rohingya. This crisis is nearly a year old and as its anniversary approaches, we seem no closer to finding a solution or to helping Bangladesh deal with the refugees. In short, inaction and symbolic arguments are not going to help anyone. It is time that the Rohingya came first in the eyes of the world. Otherwise, this crisis might see many more anniversaries.

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