Aung San Suu Kyi 'squandering' her political clout by failing to protect Rohingya minority

Burma's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing criticism from human rights groups in Canada and around the world for her response to violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma's Rakhine State.

'The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting,' says fellow honorary citizen Malala Yousafzai

Muslim women hold posters of Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, on Wednesday. (Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press)

She has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is one of just six people to have received honorary Canadian citizenship.

But Aung San Suu Kyi has lately become a source of frustration and bitter disappointment for human rights campaigners around the world.

Suu Kyi became a global symbol of the struggle for democracy during the years she spent under house arrest, a prisoner of the military regime of Myanmar.

Now, as Myanmar's state counsellor or civilian leader, Suu Kyi's critics say she has ignored allegations the government is pursuing a campaign of brutal repression against the country's Muslim Rohingya minority.

"Her response has been deeply disappointing," said Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch Canada. "Her silence in the face of grave human rights abuses has been deafening."

The United Nations says tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Rohingya insurgents launched attacks on Myanmar security forces in what they claimed was an effort to stop further persecution of their people. The Myanmar military responded with what it called "clearance operations" to root out the militants.

Each side has accused the other of committing atrocities. But Rohingya people who have fled to Bangladesh have told stories of soldiers killing indiscriminately, firing on villages and setting buildings alight. Human Rights Watch, which this month released satellite images showing roughly 700 burnt-out houses in a single Rohingya village, has urged the Myanmar government to allow independent monitors into the country.

Calls to revoke Nobel Prize

For her part, Suu Kyi has played down any suggestion the Rohingya are being mistreated, posting a message on Facebook this week that claimed the Myanmar government was "defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible" and decrying what she referred to as "fake information" that was being reported "with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists."

Suu Kyi's response has led to demands that her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize be revoked. An online petition in Canada has called on the Canadian government to take back her honorary citizenship.

In an interview with the CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Syed Badiuddin Soharwardy, of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said Suu Kyi has shown she is undeserving of either honour.

"If this does not stop, the Nobel Peace Prize for Suu Kyi should be withdrawn as well as the Canadian citizenship," he said.

"She does not deserve this honour of being a Canadian citizen. She does not deserve to be a Nobel Peace Prize recipient."

Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar and an honorary Canadian citizen, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in June. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Gloria Nafziger, of Amnesty International Canada, calls Suu Kyi's response to the crisis in Rakhine "gravely disappointing" but wonders how much real control she has, as a civilian leader, over Myanmar's military.

As for demands that Suu Kyi's awards and titles be revoked, Nafziger said that does nothing to help the Rohingya people.

"Wasting time on whether she should or should not be a citizen is a debate for another time and place," she said.

"Immediately targeting the authorities that are directly in charge, asking them to take some proactive action in terms of stopping the violence, is the most important thing that can be done right now."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met with Suu Kyi in Ottawa in June, posted a statement on Twitter this week: "Canada is deeply concerned by the flow of refugees from Myanmar & reports of serious abuse against the Rohingya," Trudeau wrote. "Civilians must be protected."

He was asked Thursday in Kelowna, B.C., about what Canada can do to pressure Myanmar to address the situation.

"The minorities that have been attacked and affected and are fleeing for their lives need to be defended and supported," Trudeau said. "When Aung San Suu Kyi was in Ottawa I expressed our deep concern for the situation the Rohingya were in then, and we continue to put pressure on the Myanmar government and all authorities to take concrete action to de-escalate this terrible conflict."

Trudeau expresses 'deep concern' over Myanmar conflict

5 years ago
Duration 1:36
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government continues to put pressure on the Myanmar government to deescalate the conflict in the country. Trudeau refuses to say whether he would revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship.

The federal government has pledged $1 million to help assist with humanitarian effort in Rakhine state. 

'Squandering her status'

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who bestowed honorary citizenship on Suu Kyi in 2012, would not respond to questions sent via email on Tuesday. But Andrew Bennett, who served as Canada's religious freedom ambassador under the former Conservative government and who now sits as a senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, told The Canadian Press Suu Kyi has squandered her status by not standing up for persecuted Muslims in her country.

"She had tremendous public backing for her leadership and her role in the country, significant international backing, and she is squandering that by not taking a strong enough position in defence of her own citizens," Bennett said.

Should Aung San Suu Kyi's honorary Canadian citizenship be revoked?

5 years ago
Duration 5:29
'She doesn't bring credit to Canada,' says Canada's former ambassador to the UN, Allan Rock.

Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel laureate and honorary Canadian citizen, Malala Yousafzai, has been equally direct.

In a statement this week, the 20-year-old activist called for an end to the violence against Rohingya people and called out Suu Kyi for her silence.

"Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment," she wrote. "I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting."

Activists of an ultra-leftist organization burn a poster featuring a photograph of Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the persecution of Rohingya Muslims near Myanmar Consulate in Kolkata, India, Monday. (Bikas Das/Associated Press)

Erin O'Toole, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, said the federal government needs to lean "very heavily" on the fact that Canada has a good relationship with Suu Kyi. 

"We can use the relationship we've developed with her to push for religious freedom, for tolerance to make sure that people that are being persecuted that that's stopped," O'Toole said at the Conservative caucus retreat in Winnipeg on Thursday. 

O'Toole said while both the government and the opposition have been expressing concern, he has been troubled by some of the language coming out of Myanmar. 

"We would expect her to adhere to our values towards religious minority."

Myanmar 'is becoming a real humanitarian catastrophe'

5 years ago
Duration 7:27
Pierre Peron of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs discusses the situation in Myanmar for the Rohingya Muslims.

With files from The Canadian Press