Myanmar Rallies to State Counselor’s Defense Amid Award Stripping

By San Yamin Aung 12 October 2017

YANGON —Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi does not find it surprising to be stripped of awards honoring her struggle to achieve democracy in the country over the past decades.

She told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview: “Actually, nothing is surprising, because opinions change and world opinions change like any other opinion,” considering reactions from western countries on her stance amid the Rakhine crisis.

But the majority of those in Myanmar who supported and believed in her—including members of parliament—see the wave of condemnation as humiliating to the leader they elected.

The 72-year-old Myanmar’s de-facto leader who is barred from running for president under the military-drafted Constitution, is now under strong international censure for failing to criticize the military’s actions against the self-identifying Rohingya and address accusations of ethnic cleansing in the conflict-marred state.

Amid mounting criticism on the issue, Britain has seemed to be the most active among many other countries. One of Britain’s largest trade unions Unison has suspended an award given to her when she was placed under house arrest, while the London School of Economics’ students union said it would be stripping her of her honorary presidency.

St Hugh’s College of Oxford University, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics between 1964 and 1967, removed the painting of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as the college received the gift of a new painting. The portrait had been there since 1999.

Nay Phone Latt, Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi, a senior research fellow at University of Oxford and Daw Zin Mar Aung with the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi portrait at Oxford University from L to R. (Photo: Dr-Mar Oxford/ Facebook)

Oxford City Council voted unanimously last week to strip her of the Freedom of the City award, as it was “no longer appropriate” for her to hold it.

A number of other British institutions also say they are reviewing whether to revoke honors bestowed upon her.

British Ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Patrick told The Irrawaddy via email, “The UK government is not involved in decisions taken by independent institutions, such as Oxford University and its colleges.”

“She is our country’s leader and people will feel bad about those acts. As a citizen, I feel bad too. But we need not to focus on that much and instead on what we can do for our democratic transition,” Lower House lawmaker Daw Zin Mar Aung said.

She said the international community need to be mindful when making decisions on Myanmar based on wrong and incomplete information because it is not helpful for the country’s fragile democratic transition.

“They need to know Myanmar is still in the young democratic transition which they have praised. But what the international governments and experts are forgetting is that they are pressuring Myanmar as if it is an established democratic country.”

Yangon regional lawmaker Nay Phone Latt also agreed.

“Politically, it is really a difficult situation. The civilian government itself doesn’t have full executive power under the current Constitution. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is also severely restricted under the circumstances. For us, we can understand her. But some international organizations seemingly don’t really understand the conditions,” he said.

“If they decide without getting enough information, it is unfair. If that is the case, the college’s image would be harmed [in the future],” he added, referring to the removal of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s portrait at St Hugh’s College of Oxford University.

Many Myanmar citizens changed their Facebook profiles to a picture of the removed portrait and photos of the State Counselor to show their support, writing “the pictures of the State Counselor in their heart couldn’t be taken down’.”

In response to international pressure, thousands have gathered in Myanmar’s major cities to proclaim, “We stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” in recent weeks.

People gather in downtown Yangon on Sept. 19 to show their solidarity with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she makes a diplomatic address on Rakhine State. / Thet Htun Naing / The Irrawaddy

 Artist MPP Ye Myint who showcased paintings of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon and Mandalay, saw the acts of stripping the leader of her awards as “childish.”

“I admired her since 1988 when she gave her public speech for the first time near Shwedagon Pagoda. The admiration never changed and kept growing,” he said.

Hkun Okker, leading patron of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, said some countries are stripping her of awards to protect their own interests, worrying about their own business activities with Muslim nations.

“It is their decision. Because they took back awards, it doesn’t mean the State Counselor is wrong,” he said.

Christian leader Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who is Myanmar’s first ever cardinal and archbishop of Yangon, said at a mass interfaith event in Yangon on Tuesday the country trusts in the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who has made many sacrifices for the country and democracy.

“It is not that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has begged for the Nobel Prize, but it is only international organizations that followed around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and gave her awards. They can take all their awards back. And we’d rather like to return those awards with an extra refund,” the cardinal said.

“But, there is something that they can’t take away—the love of citizens toward Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. No one can grab their reliance on her. She has the hopes of millions of people in her hands…There is a need for the international community to understand and help this government. Condemning and blaming is meaningless.”

Ethnic Karen Naw Susana Hla Hla Soe, a prominent women’s rights activist who is now an Upper House lawmaker, echoed similar sentiments, saying no one asked for the prizes, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

“They gave their own and have now taken them back. It is too sloppy. But Aunty Suu won’t respond to those. She will only be serious for the country,” she said.