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Muslim Students Criticize Selection of Myanmar Leader for Humanitarian Award

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the development of democracy in Burma at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in 2012.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the development of democracy in Burma at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in 2012.
By Mia C. Karr, Crimson Staff Writer

Some undergraduates are criticizing the Harvard Foundation’s selection of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as its 2016 Humanitarian of the Year, arguing Myanmar’s recently-elected head of government has remained silent on persecution against the country’s Muslim minority.

The Harvard Foundation grants the annual award to “an individual whose works and deeds have served to improve the quality of our lives and have inspired up to greater heights,” according to its website. Recent award recipients include education activist Malala Yousafzai and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the development of democracy in Burma at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in 2012
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the development of democracy in Burma at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in 2012 By Jessica C. Salley

Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work promoting democracy. In 1989, she began 15 years of house arrest for protesting the country’s dictatorship. But, since she became state counsellor—the country's top leader—in April, activists across the globe have denounced her for failing to aid Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya, who the United Nations has called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The Harvard Islamic Society Director of External Relations Anwar Omeish ’19 said the student organization felt the decision to award Suu Kyi, who will receive the award at a ceremony Saturday evening in the Science Center, was “really jarring.”

“I think for us we see the type of rhetoric surrounding the Rohingya in Myanmar, the similar war on terror rhetoric that creates violence against people across the world and that affects us here,” Omeish said. She added that the choice was surprising, given that the Harvard Foundation has over the years provided support for the Islamic Society, including funding.

Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter wrote in a statement that the Foundation has met with a small number of Islamic students who plan to protest Suu Kyi’s visit Saturday.

“We believe that the protest of this distinguished Harvard Foundation guest, who is widely respected by Harvard students and faculty of all ethno-cultural backgrounds, including Harvard Muslim students and faculty, is hurtful to our Burmese/Myanmar students and improper,” Counter wrote.

Omeish said that the Islamic Society is still working out plans for the event.

Organizations unaffiliated with Harvard also criticized the award. The Burma Task Force USA, a group that advocates for an end to persecution of the Rohingya, has called and sent emails to the Harvard Foundation to express its concern, according to Media Relations Director Jennifer Sawicz.

“The message [this award sends is] that our educational institutions care far more about surface images than the complex truths,” she said, “Yes, Suu Kyi did fight for democracy and that’s great, but this isn’t a democracy award, this is a humanitarian award.”

In his statement, Counter wrote that, “In our choice of guest speakers and honorees from student and faculty nominations, as in all aspects of the Harvard Foundation’s work, we focused on the constructive and the betterment of humankind through interethnic understanding and respect.”

Suu Kyi addressed the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum in 2012, before becoming state counsellor, to speak about her experience as a political dissident.

—Staff Writer Mia Karr can be reached at Follow her on twitter @miackarr.

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