March 21, 2018
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Holocaust Museum rescinds Elie Weisel Award to Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung Shine Oo | AP
Aung Shine Oo | AP
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark International Women's Day at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 8, 2018.
Michelle Boorstein and Anne Gearan, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announced Wednesday that it is rescinding the Elie Wiesel Award — its highest honor — it gave in 2012 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar political leader and Nobel laureate, saying military crimes against the Muslim Rohingya minority “demand that you use your moral authority to address this situation.”

The announcement, posted on the museum’s website, comes as calls are becoming louder and louder for Suu Kyi, once a towering human rights hero, to speak out. She is seen as the power behind President Htin Kyaw, a close friend and ally. Prevented by Myanmar’s law from running for political office, she holds the title of state counselor and foreign minister.

The museum posted its March 6 letter to Suu Kyi, sent via Aung Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States. Myanmar’s embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

“In recent years, the Museum has been closely monitoring the military’s campaign against the Rohingya and your response to it,” the letter reads. “As the military’s attacks against the Rohingya unfolded in 2016 and 2017, we had hoped that you — as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights — would have done something to condemn and stop the military’s brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population.”

The letter continues, urging her to use her position to cooperate with international efforts “to establish the truth about the atrocities committed in Rakhine State and secure accountability for perpetrators” and to lead changes to Burmese law, which leaves most Rohingya stateless.

“You can expand access for both local and international aid workers to administer life-saving assistance,” the letter states. “Finally, we urge you to condemn the hateful, dehumanizing language directed toward the Rohingya.”

The letter was first reported by The New York Times.

Suu Kyi, who endured 15 years of house arrest for taking on the military dictatorship in Myanmar, was given the award in 2012 — a year after it was created to honor famed Holocaust survivor Wiesel, who was the first recipient.

The award is given annually to “internationally prominent individuals whose actions have advanced the Museum’s vision of a world where people confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity,” the museum’s site says.

Some 700,000 Rohingya have been driven across the border into Bangladesh, bringing with them scant possessions and countless tales of atrocities, including gang rapes, the murder of children and the destruction of entire villages, The Post reported recently. What makes the survivors’ accounts even more disturbing is the realization that many of the horrors they describe were coolly planned and premeditated, as documented in a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

The museum does on-the-ground research into alleged genocide around the world. In its statement Wednesday, officials noted the museum has been focused in recent years on the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, an ethnic group that is mostly Muslim. It held a public event — called “Our Walls Bear Witness” — in 2013, made numerous visits to Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Bangladesh to gather evidence and do interviews, and published in 2015 a report “which documented the early warning signs of genocide.”

Last fall, the museum released more findings “documenting crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and what we termed ‘mounting evidence of genocide’ committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya civilians since October 2016. Regrettably over the last five years the situation has become progressively worse and today seems untenable for the Rohingya population,” the museum’s site says.

The revocation underscored Suu Kyi’s international fall from grace in the face of a humanitarian crisis and atrocities that international monitors blame squarely on the Burmese military.

The Burmese government considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants, despite their presence in the country for generations. They are denied citizenship.

Since Suu Kyi’s political party took power in 2016, she has done little to prevent a military crackdown on the minority group, which escalated last year in retaliation for attacks by Rohingya militants.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar and met with Suu Kyi and its top general in November. Shortly after he returned to Washington, Tillerson branded the actions of Burmese security forces and local mobs “ethnic cleansing.”

“No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued,” Tillerson said in a statement dismissing the Burmese military’s argument that militant attacks justify harsh action. “These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering,” Tillerson said. “It is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”

Suu Kyi had little to say in response: A spokesman said Tillerson’s assertions were made “without any proven facts.”

Suu Kyi has mildly urged restraint by both the military and militants, but has never fully condemned the actions of the Burmese forces. She has said her power is limited by her position — she is the de facto leader but not the country’s president, and she does not directly control the armed forces. But rights groups and her growing list of international critics say she abdicated her responsibility to use her moral authority instead.

Suu Kyi was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in absentia in 2008, when she was still under house arrest.

She collected that honor, the highest Congress can bestow, in 2012. By then she had been elected to Parliament and had begun a tentative political partnership with the military junta.

“It is almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the Rotunda of our great Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her.

Suu Kyi also collected accolades from across the political spectrum in Congress on that visit, and met privately with President Barack Obama. There were already complaints at the time that Suu Kyi was not using her political influence to defend minority rights in Myanmar and had appeared indifferent to the plight of the Rohingya in particular.

Suu Kyi sat for an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters on that trip, and bristled slightly as mention of criticism from human rights advocates.

“I do protect human rights, and I hope I shall always be looked upon as a champion of human rights,” she said.

The Washington Post editorial board in January wrote that she must “find her moral voice.”

“Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as a voice of the oppressed, having spent years as a democracy champion, kept under house arrest by Myanmar’s repressive generals. But she has not acted with the same eloquence and alacrity to the deepening crisis in Rakhine state,” The Post editorial stated. “It is true that Aung San Suu Kyi lacks real power over the military, which retains a quarter of seats in parliament and runs other institutions. But that is no excuse for her failure to wield her substantial moral authority to attempt to halt the assaults and seek reconciliation.”

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