Student activists in the UK are working to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of honours bestowed on her during the course of her career as a democracy activist, as anger mounts over her alleged inaction over the Rohingya crisis.
Last week, students at the London School of Economics (LSE) voted to remove an honourary presidency awarded to Myanmar’s de facto leader by the Students’ Union in 1992, with immediate effect.
In a statement issued shortly afterwards, the union said the move would “act as a strong symbol of our opposition to (Aung San) Suu Kyi’s current position and inaction in the face of genocide”.
LSE Students’ Union president, Mahatir Pasha, told Al Jazeera the organisation has a “long and proud history of embracing political progress and speaking out against injustice”.
“We have made clear to the world that LSE students stand in solidarity with the brutally oppressed Rohingya people,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi led a decades-long struggle against the Burmese military that culminated in a landslide victory for her party in elections held in 2015.
During the course of that campaign, she earned international acclaim and was awarded accolades across the world, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
However, many who once supported her have taken issue with her silence over the Burmese army’s ongoing campaign against the Rohingya Muslim people in Rakhine state, which the UN has condemned as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since Myanmar launched a campaign ostensibly targeting Rohingya armed groups in August.
Journalists and human rights groups have documented widespread rape, killing, and destruction of homes by government troops but Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to recognise the atrocities and condemn the Burmese military.
The students at LSE are not alone; activists at her alma mater have also moved to remove the Burmese state chancellor’s honours.
In October, students at St Hugh’s College at the University Oxford dropped Aung San Suu Kyi’s name from its common room. In September, her portrait was removed from display.
The 72-year-old leader studied at the college between 1964 and 1967 and is regarded as one of its most famous former students.
Affnafee Rahman, a student of Engineering at St Hugh’s, told Al Jazeera he and others at the college were not convinced by the argument that Myanmar’s political leadership was powerless to act against its military.
“(Aung San Suu Kyi) has been celebrated across the globe because of her stance on democracy, human rights, equality and she has been deemed the champion of human rights (but) now she’s a changed as a person,” he said. “She’s more complicit than silent … she’s just refusing that things are going on at all.”
Rahman said the group of student activists, having played a role in removing Aung San Suu Kyi’s name from the common room, are now petitioning the college principal to write a letter to the politician condemning her “complicity and silence” on the Rohingya issue.
St Hugh’s College representatives failed to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Western governments are reluctant to act, and therefore reluctant to speak of genocide. Academic institutions and student unions can pressure their own governments on this
According to Dr Thomas MacManus, a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, activism on campuses serves a practical as well as symbolic purpose.
“Western governments are reluctant to act, and therefore reluctant to speak of genocide. Academic institutions and student unions can pressure their own governments on this,” he said.
“They can also pressure the Myanmar state by boycotting Burmese state academic institutions while reaching out to those individual academics and senior members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions who will listen in order to foster understanding and condemn widespread anti-Rohingya, Islamophobic hate speech inside Burma.”
The backlash extends beyond academic institutions: The Burmese leader was stripped of her “Freedom of the City” award by Oxford City Council in October after a unanimous vote by councillors.
“The City Council has written to Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, to ask her to speak out and to do whatever she can to stop the ethnic cleansing in her country,” the motion enshrining the move read. “In the absence of a helpful response from her and with deep regret, Council believes it is no longer appropriate for Aung San Suu Kyi to hold the Freedom of the City.”
Other local authorities in the UK are pursuing similar moves, including the Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
One of Britain’s largest unions, Unison, has also suspended Aung San Suu Kyi’s honourary membership in response to the crisis in Myanmar.
For Pasha and the students at LSE, it is time for other bodies that have conferred the Burmese leader honours to follow their example.
“I would urge all other institutions who have conferred similar awards to Suu Kyi, especially the Nobel Committee, to follow suit and immediately strip her of the honour she no longer deserves.”