Credit: Comune Parma / Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Peters

Glasgow City Council has passed a motion withdrawing its award of Freedom of the City to Aung San Suu Kyi, State Councillor of Myanmar and leader of the ruling National League for Democracy party. The award was offered in 2009, when she was under house arrest, a sentence she had been serving since 2003.

As the country’s pro-democracy leader, she was detained for a total of 15 years over a 21-year period.
The council’s withdrawal of this award has been prompted by the latest outburst of violence against the country’s Muslim population, the Rohingya of Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar. They have faced persecution, from the state and the majority Buddhist population for decades; in 2013, they were described by the UN as one of the most persecuted groups in the world.

The councillor who proposed the motion of withdrawal, Soryia Siddique, told The Glasgow Guardian that she hopes this will “send a strong message that Glasgow will not offer its Freedom of the City to those who turn a blind eye to violence.”

She explained: “I presented an emergency motion over a month ago. The inadequate response prompted the motion regarding withdrawal of the Freedom of the City of Glasgow.
“Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya minority has led to international condemnation, the United Nations calling their treatment ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’.
“But although over 500,000 have fled violence in the South-East Asian nation’s Rakhine state to seek refuge in Bangladesh in recent months, inside the country, the government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to remain silent in condemnation or action.
“The Rohingya have lived as one of the persecuted ethnic minorities in the country for generations and are not recognised as Myanmar’s citizens.”

The government of Myanmar claims the violence is the result of a counter-insurgency operation, launched by the security services in August in the wake of an attack by Rohingya militants in Northern Rakhine state.

But this comes amid rising Islamophobia, which has been documented in a 2-year study conducted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. They have found widespread anti-Islamic outbursts, with some towns and villages declaring themselves “Muslim Free”, a practice tolerated by the authorities.

Martha Wardop, Scottish Greens councillor for Hillhead, told this paper that the displacement of Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh “is a human catastrophe on a massive scale.”

She said: “I agreed to second an emergency motion passed unanimously by Glasgow City Council on 14 September which asked the Lord Provost to raise concerns with Aung San Suu Kyi as Leader of the National League for Democracy of Myanmar and holder of Freedom of the City.

“In recent weeks, Ms Suu Kyi has responded with an apparent defence of Myanmar’s use of excessive military force and violent treatment of its Rohingya minority. Under these circumstances and with cross party consensus at a meeting of Glasgow City Council on 2 November, it was possible to reach agreement to withdraw the offer of Freedom of the City to Ms Suu Kyi.

“This decision highlights the support for the humanitarian action being undertaken to protect the refugees and seeks to promote efforts to restore peace and security within Myanmar.”

Political power is a precarious balance in Myanmar, between the State Councillor and the military, the Tatmadaw, who retained much of their power from the military dictatorship established in 1962, but this has not stopped calls for Aung Suu Kyi to intervene and defuse the situation.

This is not the first time Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused of being slow to react and sparing in her words when violence is inflicted upon Myanmar’s Muslims. In January, following the assassination of her own party’s head lawyer and constitutional adviser, Ko Ni, she remained silent for days. He, like the more than 500,000 displaced and persecuted Rohingya, was a Muslim.

With international condemnation mounting, it remains to be seen if Myanmar’s leaders can quell the violence and restore peace to Rakhine state. But it is unclear how this country of 136 different nationalities, still reeling from the effects of civil war and military junta, can maintain lasting peace.

Councillor Siddique suggests the answer may lie in moves such as the council’s symbolic motion, saying: “Peaceful steps, including international condemnation of Myanmar’s government, sanctions, loss of aid are potential steps to bring human rights and equality for the persecuted Rohingya minority.”