Democratic members of Congress are contemplating stripping human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi of her Congressional Gold Medal for her silence on the human rights violations being carried out in the country of Myanmar against Rohingyan Muslims.
Suu Kyi, who is now Myanmar’s democratically elected civilian leader, had been under house arrest for the better part of twenty years in the 90s, 2000s and the early part of this decade. She had been jailed for leading peaceful protests against brutal government policies and subsequent strict rule by military juntas.
Former President Obama and then-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton paid Suu Kyi a much-publicized visit in the home where she spent most of her time during that period, in 2012.
In 2015, Myanmar held its first democratic election in twenty-five years. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won the two-thirds required seats to gain a majority in parliament, making Suu Kyi’s that nation’s leader.
Rohingyan Muslims were not allowed to vote in that election, and the year before, were not counted in that country’s first census in more than three decades.
In 2017, offenses began being carried out by the military and security forces against Rohingyans after Rohingyan Arsa’s, a separatist group, conducted coordinated attacks against twenty police posts. According to officials in Myanmar, twelve security officers were killed.
Nearly 7,000 Rohingya, including more than 700 children under the age of five, were killed in the month after the violence broke out. Since that time an estimated 13,000 Rohingyan Muslims have been killed – 1,000 of them children, according to the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières.
More than 600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, with Myanmar forces burning their villages and expelling them from the country. At least 288 villages have been burned to the ground in the northern Rakhine state, the province where the Rohingya are most concentrated according to an analysis of satellite imagery conducted by Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations has called the actions of Myanmar’s security forces “acts of genocide” and as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Suu Kyi’s voice on the subject however, has been muted. In October she condemned the “unlawful violence,” but also sounded a defiant tone, adding that Myanmar “does not fear international scrutiny.”
Her silence has caused governments and organizations to revoke honors bestowed on her for her years of leading peaceful protests and her dedication to human-rights advocacy. The rock band U2 pressured Irish lawmakers to rescind its Freedom of the City of Dublin award which was bestowed on her in 1999. That honor was removed in December.
Last week the Smithsonian’s Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., revoked its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award which was bestowed on her in 2012. “As Elie Wiesel said, ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented,’” Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield wrote in her letter.
Now several members of Congress are debating whether to rescind their award as well.
“Whether it’s that she’s been complicit, or that she’s just been silent, what she hasn’t done is be vocal enough. So it’s been very, very disappointing, because I had great admiration for her,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA).
“Desperately sad” is how Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) described his feelings about the crisis, adding that Suu Kyi needed to find her voice on the issue in the name of “moral clarity.” Crowley is the Congressman who sponsored the 2008 bill bestowing the Medal on Suu Kyi.
“What happened to our hero?” asked Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), adding that the Myanmar leader’s reluctance to speak out has cost credibility on the world stage. “That can take power from you, too,” Eshoo cautioned.
Many in Congress are mindful of the tenuous situation Suu Kyi finds herself in, trying to strike a delicate balance between a civilian government inching its way toward democracy and an entrenched military elite that exerts outsized influence over the nation’s public. But, they said, given the gravity of the situation, Suu Kyi must do a better job of speaking out.
“I’m not unmindful of the challenge for her, but you’ve got 700,000 or 800,000 Rohingya who are at enormous risk,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said. “And you cannot be silent given your profile internationally.”