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Harvard-Honored Humanitarian Oversees Ethnic Cleansing

By Teddy Kim

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was the Harvard Foundation’s 2016 Humanitarian of the Year. Currently, she oversees the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in her country of Myanmar.

If Suu Kyi had received the Humanitarian Award a decade ago, Harvard could not have been faulted. In fact, when she came to the Institute of Politics in 2012 to deliver the prestigious Godkin Lecture, she was enthusiastically welcomed as an inspirational dissident and a champion of democracy who had just risen from years of imprisonment to political power. But it is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile Suu Kyi’s admirable history with her recent actions.

Who is she today?

Even in 2016, the Foundation’s selection of Suu Kyi as the Humanitarian of the Year was controversial. She had already been criticized by human rights advocates for refusing to even use the term “Rohingya” at all (the government maintains they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh). The New York Times had published an editorial earlier that year condemning her “cowardly stance” as she “continued an utterly unacceptable policy of the military rulers she succeeded.” Just three months after she received the honor, activists, including 13 fellow Nobel laureates (among them former Humanitarian Award recipients Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu), published an open letter criticizing Suu Kyi for remaining silent on the persecution of the Rohingya, which “[amount] to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

While the Rohingya have been persecuted for years, the last several months have been especially horrific. The death toll in this recent span is likely over 10,000, and almost two-thirds of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya population have been forced to flee their homes as government soldiers kill those remaining and burn entire villages to the ground. The Associated Press has found evidence of mass graves and the systematic use of rape by Myanmar’s armed forces, which the United Nations has called a “calculated tool of terror.” The U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein has called the conflict a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and could not rule out “elements of genocide.”

And journalist Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 has characterized Suu Kyi as the “chief apologist for this ethnic cleansing.” It isn’t her silence so much as her active defense of the military and her efforts to discredit documented atrocities. She has accused international aid groups of contributing to a “huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to [promote] the interests of the terrorists,” continuing to frame the campaign against the Rohingya as chiefly an anti-terrorist one. Her Facebook page has responded to widespread evidence of sexual violence with propaganda that these reports are “fake rape.”

Suu Kyi’s situation is complicated, as journalist Roger Cohen carefully analyzes. She is not the commander-in-chief of the military, with which she only shares power. Speaking out would alienate Buddhist nationalists, the military, and the general public which remains unsympathetic to the Rohingya. Given the circumstances, Cohen articulates the most sympathetic reading of her motivations: As a leader of a country that is not quite yet a unified nation, she is “playing a long game for real democratic change,” perhaps too cautiously but not indifferently.

Perhaps. Cohen quotes former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who says that with Suu Kyi, “the saint has become a politician.” Perhaps in the future her people will even remember her as a great one. Great, in the way nation builders are often revered, like Lee Kuan Yew, Atatürk, Simón Bolivár—that is to say, with relief that their turbulent works are in the past and a readiness to leave the complications behind with them.

Aung San Suu Kyi. A potential legacy as a tenacious nationalist then, but a humanitarian? No, not anymore, not for the Rohingya people suffering here and now.

This Tuesday, almost a year and a half after her selection, the Harvard Foundation released a statement urging Suu Kyi “to uphold her legacy as someone who was once a trailblazing proponent of peace and human rights in Myanmar.” While the Foundation’s statement is welcome, it is much too little, much too late. The time for light admonishment is long past.

Paranoid cries of “fake news” and blanket categorizations of people as illegal immigrants or terrorists should sound familiar to us. It is remarkable that, especially in this day—when we boycott the wrong fast food restaurant, refuse to watch the wrong director’s work, and campaign to divest from the wrong companies—we equivocate on what is tantamount to genocide.

Suu Kyi has faced and continues to face decisions that we do not. But her calculus does not need to be ours. Former Governor Bill Richardson, a long-time friend of Suu Kyi, resigned from her advisory board last month, calling it a “whitewash.” Students at institutions like Oxford and London School of Economics have revoked her past honors because they too understand the patina of respectability such endorsements lend. Harvard should join them in unequivocally rescinding ours.

Teddy Kim ’18 is a Government concentrator in Leverett House.

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