What does it matter if Canada strips Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship?

Published on October 6, 2018

Stripping the Myanmar state counsellor of her honorary citizenship is but a symbolic move, says one observer.

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Channel NewsAsia – October 6, 2018

Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor and foreign minister of Myanmar, was formally stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship on Tuesday (Oct 2) for her refusal to call out the army to put an end to the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi became the first person to be stripped of the honorary citizenship, which Canada also gave to five other notable individuals – Raoul Wallenberg (1985), Nelson Mandela (2001), Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (2006), Karim Aga Khan IV, 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims (2009), and Malala Yousefzai (2014).

The news has been widely carried in news around the world.

Several questions have also been raised, such as the significance of the Canadian government’s move, whether Suu Kyi should be stripped of her Nobel peace prize, as well as whether she might be motivated by the fear of reprisal.

LARGELY SYMBOLIC

Stripping the Myanmar state counsellor of her honorary citizenship is largely symbolic, and therefore, does not have much significance, which also means that it does not make a significant difference for Aung San Suu Kyi as an individual.

Such honorary citizenships are bestowed on foreigners of exceptional merit.

The recipient does not take the oath of citizenship, and does not receive any rights, privileges, or duties typically held by a Canadian citizen.

This was quite clear from the comments of Senator Ratna Omidvar, who introduced the motion in the Canadian chamber, when she said: “Stripping her of her honorary citizenship may not make a tangible difference to her, but it sends an important symbolic message.”

She added: “She has been complicit in stripping the citizenship and the security of thousands of Rohingya, which has led to their flight, their murder, their rapes and their current deplorable situation.”

But as Omidvar rightly said, it sends an important message to Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar.

It is also a timely calculated political decision by Canada as Myanmar is under greater international scrutiny, especially in the aftermath of the UN Fact-Finding Mission report released three weeks ago which called for the investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s military leaders for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The UN report also concluded that “Aung San Suu Kyi has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state” and that her government had “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” through “their acts and omissions.”

BUT MYANMAR IS NOT WORRIED

While Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government are isolated by the international community, particularly by the Western democracies, she is apparently not worried or concerned partly because she has the unequivocal support of China, a veto-wielding power in the UN Security Council.

In fact, China has been a reliable partner for Myanmar since the days of the military government, which put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest during the years of her pro-democracy movement.

Bilateral ties were strengthened when Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding with China by agreeing to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in September, not long after the UN report was released.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government, as well as the military leadership, understand quite well that international pressure will largely remain ineffective as long as the UN Security Council does not intervene, either by authorising the International Criminal Court (ICC) or by recommending or supporting the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

And as it appears, Aung San Suu Kyi is more concerned about the support of China and the Myanmar military to sustain her leadership role and the elected civilian government.

She seems willing to cast aside international recognition and accolades and has embraced her role as the true leader of a Myanmar people, who overwhelmingly call the Rohingya illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

IS SHE AFRAID OF REPRISAL?

There have also been calls for the stripping of her Nobel peace prize which she won in 1991 in absentia for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.

Occasionally, the Nobel prize committee has made public statements that the rules regulating the Nobel prizes do not allow for a prize to be withdrawn since it is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement of the past.

Some have asked why she has stayed silent and whether it is out of a fear of reprisal from her people. People say it is only a matter of time before she speaks out against the military.

Indeed, taking such initiative would have been a bold step but her speeches and reaction to international criticism suggests that is not a path she is likely to take.

What many have failed to understand is that Aung San Suu Kyi belongs to the majority Bama or Burman ethnic group in an ethnically diverse country.

She might have been an internationally recognised icon for democracy and human rights for decades but she is now a leader of a country who has other priorities and a politician who wants to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Like many other citizens of Myanmar, she and her government hold the view that the Rohingya are illegal migrants who cannot and should not be considered one of the ethnic groups of the country.

While the military is directly responsible for the security matters of the country, it is also important to understand that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government share a similar perception about the Rohingya.

Since Myanmar adopts a hybrid regime, the military leadership understands that the international community will not put the blame entirely on them. It is unlikely, at least in the near future, that the military or the civilian leadership will be held accountable for the crimes they are accused of.

Instead, there is a sign that the international community is retreating to its approach when Myanmar was ruled by the military – when there were conflicting approaches (sanctions and engagement) that sustained the country’s survival.

Unless the Security Council reaches an agreement to intervene either by authorising the ICC or by recommending or supporting the concept of R2P, the Rohingya crisis will make no significant progress.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratization of Myanmar.

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