Are Oxford doing enough to condemn Aung San Suu Kyi?

The portrait of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and University of Oxford graduate Aung San Suu Kyi has been removed from public display in the university, following criticism over her perceived silence in response to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

St Hugh’s college, Oxford, made the decision to remove the portrait in an act of subtle condemnation towards the way the Burmese State Chancellor has reacted to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. This follows a string of international criticism, and most recently the retraction of her Freedom of Oxford award.

In spite of this, the University of Oxford have allowed San Suu Kyi to maintain her honorary degree awarded in 2012, likely reflective of the fact that although she is not publicly condemning the actions of the Myanmar military, she is not openly supporting them either.

Since 1948 there have been over 13 military operations against Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar who are often described as being one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. In Myanmar itself, they are not recognised as one of the country’s eight ‘national races’, and as such are restricted in their freedom of movement and education.

The overall international response to the silence of San Suu Kyi is overwhelmingly unanimous in one thing: the actions of the military in their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya peoples are morally and humanitarianly wrong. The University of Oxford have made their stance clear; while they have not erased her completely from their records, the removal of the portrait indicates that she will no longer be honoured as a role model within the university.

Crimes and discrimination against Rohingya Muslims has been ongoing for several decades, however the recent military ‘ethnic cleansing’ operation has resulted in a vast increase of media coverage across Myanmar. St Hugh’s removal of the painting serves to express their denunciation of San Suu Kyi’s silence in response to the operation.

As State Chancellor, a position akin to that of Prime Minister, San Suu Kyi has a duty to protect her country and her people. It may appear straightforward that she should therefore be publicly denouncing the military and condemning the operation in Myanmar, however the situation is not so clear cut.

On the one hand, there is insurmountable violence and racism being enacted against the Rohingya Muslims, and as argued by Desmond Tutu, ‘if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep’. Many agree with Tutu, and believe that the Chancellor should be speaking up against these actions and trying to create peace within Myanmar despite the consequences it may have on her popularity and political influence.

However on the other hand, as highlighted by Mark Field, Foreign Office Minister, San Suu Kyi is in a difficult position. Speaking the the BBC, he acknowledged that “she finds herself treading a fine line between the international criticism… but also public opinion in Burma”. As Oxford have perhaps noted in deciding how to respond to her silence, it is not solely international criticism which she must face, but also the public opinion within her own country which generally remains strongly anti-Rohingya.

The painting itself, by Chen Yanning, belonged to Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband and fellow Oxford student Micheal Aris. It was gifted to the college following his death in 1999. Some charities such as the Burma Campaign UK have criticised the removal of the painting as passive cowardly, stating that Oxford would do better to write to the leader, urging her to respect human rights.
The removal also follows a string of wider protests within universities over artwork on display, such as the replacement of a bronze cockerel from Jesus College. This came after students argued that it celebrated a ‘colonial narrative’, having been looted from Africa in the 19th century.

Whether Oxford have done the ‘right’ thing in their removal of the portrait is open to debate. Though they are making public their objection to ethnic cleansing and the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, their response does not show the same level of condemnation and outrage as international media.

Image: Htoo Tay Zar via Wikimedia

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