There is a video from Oxford’s 2012 honorary degree ceremony, and it sends shivers down my spine. Aung San Suu Kyi (St Hugh’s, 1967) is in full gown for the occasion, and with her fellow honorands reporting “tears in their eyes”, says:
“Every human being is expected to have a value, and a dignity of her kind or his kind. And that’s why, throughout the years, when I was struggling for human rights in Burma, I felt I was doing something of which my old university would have approved. And to feel the approval behind me has helped me a great deal. The most important thing for me about Oxford was […] that I learned there in terms […] of a respect for the best of human civilisation. It gave me a confidence in humankind.”
Could this be more shockingly at odds with the scandalous silence and apparent indifference of the Myanmar government over its military forces’ brutal persecution of the Rohingya people? The UN now speaks of genocide, but Suu Kyi’s mantra continues to be: “There have been allegations and counter-allegations. We have to listen to all of them. We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.” Allegations and counter-allegations? Is this diplomacy or deception? Perhaps both.
As Einstein put it many years ago, “the world is a dangerous place — not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Nothing could be truer of Suu Kyi’s direct responsibility in allowing for and indifferently standing by one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters of the 21st century.
Suu Kyi, once a widely celebrated defender of human rights — Time Magazine named her one of the “Children of Gandhi”; and in 1991 she received the Nobel Peace Prize — has switched sides in the history of her country. She is now among perpetrators, among “those who look on and do nothing”. For this simple reason, it is time that Oxford should follow the example of several other UK universities and revoke Suu Kyi’s honorary degree. Myanmar’s head of government has gone from being a human rights defender to not seeming to care at all, and alleged waiting for “solid evidence before we take action” cannot be an excuse for allowing a military-led ethnic cleansing campaign to continue.
Last year, more than 700,000 Rohingya people were expelled from their homes in northern Rakhine state, fleeing from a nightmare of mass murder, rape, and burnt-down villages. The latest UN report calls for the prosecution of the military’s top tier for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Further, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Bensouda has now confirmed that the court will be able to take the case to trial — what had before been considered difficult, given that Myanmar never signed the Rome Statute, is now possible by focusing on crimes committed in signatory country Bangladesh. Faithfully in line with her overall refusal to acknowledge the problem, Suu Kyi calls the ICC’s involvement “meritless”.
The University of Oxford has not been completely silent on the developments. In September last year, as Cherwell reported, it issued a statement calling on Suu Kyi to “eliminate discrimination and oppression,” – adding, however, that it would not review the honorary degree. In the same month, St Hugh’s college decided to remove Suu Kyi’s painted portrait – without a political statement. A month later, St Hugh’s students removed Suu Kyi’s name from the Junior Common Room. Yet, what the university itself has done so far is not enough.
Some may argue that it is not the university’s place to get involved in politics, and that doing so would blur the lines of when it is legitimate for the university to intervene in political issues. But if the degree was awarded to honour human rights, can it not be revoked to honour human rights? If human rights aren’t “too political”, speaking out against genocide isn’t too political either. A university that happily hands out honorary titles to prominent political leaders cannot claim that revoking those would be too much of a “political intervention”.
Instead, this could be a powerful public statement against Suu Kyi’s implication in a campaign of mass violence against the country’s Muslim minority. Of course, revoking a degree is symbolic, and thus by definition insufficient. Yet being symbolic, it is also by definition meaningful — and not, as argued in a Cherwell Comment article last year, “evidence of western self-obsession”. The issuing of honorary degrees is part of how Oxford portrays itself to the world — taking that seriously doesn’t speak of self-obsession, but only asks for one small and simple change.
Of course, much more action is needed. But doing nothing on this level, in such a case, is still as politically unacceptable as it is humanly irresponsible. And how much responsibility can an irresponsible university teach?