As a recent graduate of St Hugh’s College, I stand in your debt. You have been a pioneer of human rights, a symbol of equality and someone who represents all that St Hugh’s College stands for.
When you were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 we, at St Hugh’s, looked on with pride at the contribution of one of our most famous alumna. We celebrated with you at the news of your election victory in November 2015. Each one of us has passed your portrait, at the entrance to the college, and looked on with admiration. You represent the best of what it means to be a ‘Hughsie’: a woman of courage, who has battled oppression with strength and persistence.
For these reasons, you deserve your honorary fellowship. You have been a wonderful ambassador for our college and we are proud of your achievements. You inspire each new generation of students to live with integrity and to value equality, human rights and democracy.
As an ambassador of our college, your actions reflect upon all of us. It is with this in mind that I write this short letter to you. The situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar, is deeply concerning. The reports emerging from trustworthy news agencies, the United Nations, and human rights organisations of violations—including, but not limited to, the killing of hundreds, the destruction of homes, mass rape and the displacement of tens of thousands of people—are alarming and need to be addressed. We are aware that the political situation is volatile and that you have to tread carefully, but we ask that you take a stand and act.
In your interview on 2 December, you asked the international community to tone down its response and to stop focusing solely on the “negative side of the situation”. You emphasised inadequacies, in international commentary on events, by highlighting that there are two sides to this story and that the fears of Rakhine Buddhists about Muslim population growth are seldom heard. It is certainly true that international coverage often fails to recognise that division is fuelled by an atmosphere of intense fear in Rakhine State. Journalists need to contribute to the debate in a responsible way, which does not polarise opinion.
Yet, please forgive us if we continue to concentrate on the scale of human suffering involved. While UN officials are describing “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity” being committed against Muslims in Rakhine, we will continue to call on you to take a stand.
It may be that you have “managed to keep the situation under control and to calm it down” and that the many trusted human rights organisations and news agencies, which are reporting atrocities, are in error. If that is the case, please could you clarify why your government has banned international media from entering Rakhine State since October 9? If the situation is under control, why is there anything to hide? Please consider allowing an independent international inquiry into Rakhine State to establish the facts. Charges of genocide are too serious to sweep under the carpet: the situation should be brought into the light.
Perhaps more urgent than this, though, is the need for an end to blocks on international aid. There is no justification for the obstacle that your government, and your predecessors, have imposed on international aid agencies in Rakhine State. Thousands, in the region, are currently under pressure from the triple threat posed by a rampaging military, scarce food supplies, and a lack of health care. No political complexities are sufficient to warrant continuing aid blocks on vulnerable people in these circumstances.
You have long been a courageous advocate for freedom in the midst of deep oppression. Now is not the time to stop holding to these core values. You are a moral leader in Burma today—people rightly follow you—and you are one of the few influential figures who can help navigate the nation out of an increasingly desperate situation. You have been a woman of courage and a powerful advocate for human rights over the years. We hope that, in this political crisis, you will take further measures to safeguard your legacy as a champion of humanity.