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Harvard Foundation Criticizes Myanmar Leader

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
By Delano R. Franklin, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Foundation called on Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to better address her country’s ongoing persecution and expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in a statement Wednesday.

The Foundation previously presented Aung San Suu Kyi with its Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2016 at at an awards ceremony that met with some student protest at the time.

“We urge her to recognize publicly the Rohingya people, their identity, and their rights,” the students interns who penned the statement wrote Wednesday.

The statement outlines the development of the Rohingya crisis and criticizes the national leader for what it dubs her “tentative” response. Thirty-two faculty and student members of the Harvard Foundation signed the document.

Following a military crackdown in Myanmar last fall, the Foundation began conversations with student groups to discuss how to better respond to criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi, according to Foundation student intern Jasmine Chia ’18.

“The Harvard Foundation therefore believes that Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of public recognition for the Rohingya, and the continued brutality in Rakhine state, does not live up to the spirit of the award we gave her,” Cengiz Cemaloglu ’18 wrote in an email.

According to its website, the Harvard Foundation presents its humanitarian award “to an individual whose works and deeds have served to improve the quality of our lives and have inspired us to greater heights.” Rihanna and Elton John received the award in 2017.

When the award was given to Aung San Suu Kyi, S. Allen Counter, former director of the Harvard Foundation, praised “her courageous struggle for democracy, human rights, and peace in her nation” at the Sept. 2016 awards ceremony. Counter passed away in July 2017.

“The courageous struggle for democracy was and is still inspiring,” Cemaloglu wrote.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her continued advocacy for nonviolence and democratization while Myanmar was governed by a military junta. After Myanmar democratized and held elections, she won a seat in parliament and became the leader of her party.

Legally ineligible to run for the presidency, she assumed the newly created position of “state counsellor” in 2016. Filling a role similar to that of a prime minister, she is the de facto head of government in Myanmar.

Though the Harvard Foundation celebrated her achievement of democratic reforms in 2016, the award ceremony drew protest from students in the Harvard Islamic Society, who had earlier criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s selection given her silence on the persecution of the country’s Rohingya minority.

The Foundation’s Wednesday statement shows a reversal on part of the Harvard Foundation, which now echoes those criticisms.

“We hope to encourage the Burmese government to recognize the humanitarian atrocities of the situation and move towards a more inclusive citizenship policy,” Chia wrote. “The rights of ethnic minorities must be taken more seriously, not just with the Rohingya but with the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the various other 135 ethnic groups that live within Myanmar’s borders.”

Representatives of the Burmese government were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

“This year, the Harvard Foundation is actively working to make it’s process more transparent and more comprehensive, beginning with our 2018 Scientist of the Year Award,” Chia also wrote.

The Harvard Foundation will be seeking input from Harvard affiliates in the nomination process in the future, according to Chia.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at

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