MUSLIM students and groups are protesting Harvard Foundation’s selection of Myanmar (Burma) leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi for the “2016 Humanitarian of the Year” award, saying she has done nothing to address the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in her country.
Suu Kyi, who received the foundation’s Peter J. Gomes award during a ceremony in Cambridge Saturday, first gained international prominence as the General Secretary of the newly-formed National League for Democracy in Myanmar in 1990.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the fourth Nobel Peace Prize laureate to receive the Harvard Foundation Humanitarian Award https://t.co/ekzM4K8XkO
— Harvard University (@Harvard) September 17, 2016
She later became one of the world’s most well-known political prisoners when in 1989 she was sentenced to 15 years’ house arrest due to her participation in anti-government protests. With the support of her country, she was later appointed to the newly-created position of state counselor, a role similar to that of a prime minister.
In 1991, Suu Kyi was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.
But since she claimed the reins of government in April, Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized by activists across the globe for failing to aid Myanmar’s Muslim minority – the Rohingya – who the United Nations calls one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
In The Crimson, a Harvard College daily, Harvard Islamic Society director of external relations Anwar Omeish said the student organization felt the foundation’s selection of Suu Kyi for the award 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,” she was quoted saying.
The report said Muslim students also planned to stage a protest during Suu Kyi’s visit, but it is not immediately known if this transpired.
Other organizations unaffiliated with Harvard voiced similar concerns over the award. The Burma Task Force USA, a group lobbying for an end to the persecution of the Rohingya, reportedly called and sent emails to the Harvard Foundation to protest the matter, The Crimson said, quoting media relations director Jennifer Sawicz.
“The message [this awards sends is] that our education institutions care far more about surface images than the complex truths.
“Yes, Suu Kyi did fight for democracy and that’s great, but this isn’t a democracy award, this is a humanitarian award,” Sawicz was quoted saying.
— Burma Task Force (@BurmaTaskForce) September 16, 2016
In its website and Facebook page, the group posted a statement urging its followers and supporters to contact the foundation, its director and the Harvard president, and flood Twitter with messages of outrage.
It also posted a laundry list of reasons why Suu Kyi was undeserving of such an award, saying among others that she has been “unconscionably silent on the plight of the Rohingya”.
Across social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, similar discontent was expressed by Muslims.
“@thecrimson why in the world, @Harvard is giving Humanitarian of the year award to #SuuKyi? What is the logic here?” asked Abdul Malik Mujahid who is Burma Task Force’s chairman, Huffington Post blogger and Chicago Iman.
“On the bodies of persecuted Rohingya,” another Twitter user, AKahn, Voice of America blog editor, wrote.
— Abdul Malik Mujahid (@MalikMujahid) September 13, 2016
On the bodies of persecuted Rohingya
Suu Kyi to be bestowed with Harvard award https://t.co/c3FjhrOvu0
— AKahn (@akahnnyc) September 16, 2016
Suu Kyi’s government announced last month the formation of a nine-member advisory commission to resolve the “protracted issues in the region”, referring to religious and ethnic strife in the Rakhine state.
The council is made up of six locals and three foreigners – including former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as its chair – a factor that has been fiercely protested by the Burmese.
Suu Kyi’s office said the commission will “consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine”.
Rohingya Muslims have lived in the northwestern Rakhine state for generations but are denied citizenship because they are considered outsiders. More than 100 people, mostly Rohingya, were killed in clashes with the Buddhist majority in 2012.
Many Buddhists inside Burma prefer to call them ‘Bengalis’, arguing that the million or so members of the minority are mostly illegal immigrants and not a native ethnic group.
According to the Associated Press, the closest the government came to acknowledging the Rohingya was by saying that the commission will “examine international aspects of the situation, including the background of those seeking refugee status abroad.”
Every year, tens of thousands of Rohingya flee persecution in Burma and make perilous journeys in rickety boats to seek refuge in other Southeast Asian countries. Many, however, have perished in their pursuit of better lives, while others fall victim to human traffickers.