Image Caption: Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international pressure for her silence in response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and Canada has stripped her of her honorary citizenship in a symbolic move.
After months of intense pressure, the Canadian Senate unanimously voted to rescind Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship on October 2, 2018.
Kyi, the State Counselor of Myanmar, has faced considerable scrutiny in the last year for her handling of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations Human Rights Council has characterized the crisis as a genocide. Over the last 14 months, 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh. According to the United Nations, over 10,000 Rohingya have been executed and countless others have been subjected to systematic rape.
Kyi has long been regarded as a critical figure in the global pro-democracy movement. Kyi first attempted to wrestle power from the hands of a military junta in Myanmar in 1990 in favor of democracy and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts. Subsequently detained by Myanmar’s military government, she was released from house arrest in 2010 and formed government in 2012. The Canadian government bestowed honorary citizenship upon her in 2007 in recognition of her accomplishments. She is one of only 6 people to be recognized with honorary Canadian citizenship. Other recipients include Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, and Raoul Wallenberg.
Kyi’s reputation has steadily declined in the last year, transitioning her from a landmark figure dedicated to democracy to a leader ambivalent to the genocide happening in her country. Penny Green, a law professor at the University of London, says that “in a genocide, silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Although there has been some international response to the Rohingya crisis, such as the aforementioned UN Human Rights Council investigation, James Silk, Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School, says that it has not had “any preventive effect” on the crisis.
“So many of the Rohingya are now in Bangladesh that [the effect of international action] is diminished,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Canada’s symbolic act will have any effect on Kyi or on the crisis as a whole.
“There’s such a wide range of potential symbolic actions, so it’s hard to assess in any general way whether they can have an impact,” Silk said. “In many ways, Canada’s action is less a symbolic action than it is a statement of Canada’s own sense of responsibility and moral principle. We can identify examples where something that appears purely symbolic can be important. However, if we are talking about this one, or the withdrawal of awards generally, they are unlikely to have much impact.”
Although it may not directly impact the crisis, moral statements are far from useless. As Green noted, silence is complicity, and symbolic actions can bring greater attention to important issues. By creating attention for the Rohingya crisis, Canada can contribute to a broader movement that could spur further action.
“The utility of symbolic action is something you have to assess on a case-by-case basis,” Silk said. “How powerful a symbol is it? How susceptible is the person who is responsible for the abuse to pressure from these kinds of things? These are two important variables. Some leaders aren’t susceptible to shaming or other sorts of pressure, and some are.”
It remains unclear whether Kyi will be influenced by international shaming. According to Silk, Kyi is susceptible to pressure in some ways. However, Kyi has a complex political situation because of her unusual relationship with Myanmar’s military. This complexity makes it difficult to assess her susceptibility to pressure.
“The appearance so far has been that she views herself as beholden to the military in ways that make it difficult for her to act in a protective way,” Silk said.
With the military exerting significant control over her reign, it is difficult to assess whether she would have the power to take preventive steps towards the crisis even if international shaming was successful in persuading her to do so. Her standing remains tenuous because of her history with the military. Myanmar is less than a decade removed from being ruled by a military junta.
The popular opinion amongst the Buddhist population of Myanmar is that the Rohingya crisis is overblown by the international media. Many Buddhists hold outward prejudice towards the Rohingya and see them as “terrorists.” With public opinion slanted in favor of the military actions, the military could take advantage of any weakness from Kyi to force her from power and re-establish a military dictatorship. Thus, it is impossible to empirically assess the power of symbolic actions on the crisis.