By Sally Kantar Irrawady News
Activists and refugees demonstrated as State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was presented with the Freedom of the City of London award on Monday, calling the recognition “disappointing” in light of ongoing abuses against ethnic and religious minorities, journalists and rights activists in Burma.
“I’m so disappointed. She needs to stand on her moral ground—people have been dying, people have been raped,” said Ko Aung, an 88-Generation student activist and former security assistant of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who, before moving to the UK nearly 20 years ago, spent seven years as a political prisoner in Burma.
Along with the Kachin National Organization (KNO), Burma Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), and the charity Restless Beings, Ko Aung helped organize Monday’s demonstration in central London. It was attended by around 40 people who opposed the award, citing reports of abuses in Burma which they say have continued since the elected National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government took office more than one year ago.
Demonstrators protest outside of London’s Guildhall while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Freedom of the City award. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)
Chanting “Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you,” they stood on the chilly London street corner for nearly three hours, holding signs calling for a release of political prisoners, a halt to religious hate speech, and an end to military violence against different ethnic nationalities, including the Kachin, Ta’ang (Palaung), Rohingya and Shan.
“We have a chance to cooperate here. In Burma, we had no chance,” said Ring Du Lachyung, chairperson of the KNO, regarding the attendance of demonstrators from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. “We are the same victims of military perpetrators,” he added.
Ring Du Lachyung of the KNO holds a sign the London protest. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)
The Freedom of the City honor, which dates back nearly 800 years, was awarded to Daw Aung Suu Kyi in a private ceremony in London’s Guildhall, to which a spokesperson for the city of London confirmed to The Irrawaddy that no media was invited. Fellow Nobel Peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have also received the same award.
Ring Du Lachyung told The Irrawaddy at the protest that he objected to the State Counselor receiving a “freedom” award from the city of London, when, “in reality, they don’t recognize the freedom of the Kachin.”
“The UK government should stand with us, but they stand with her,” said Daw Khin Hla, a former schoolteacher from conflict-torn Buthidaung Township in Arakan State and current member of BROUK, on why she had decided to protest the event, adding, “they aren’t accepting our suffering.”
The State Counselor has come under increasing international criticism for a stalled peace process with ethnic armed groups, continued military clashes and displacement of civilians in the country’s north, and increased arrests of journalists under the country’s defamation law. At an EU press conference on May 2, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also said that she would “disassociate” from a United Nations fact-finding mission mandated to investigate recent reports of rape, extrajudicial killings, arson and torture by security forces against the Rohingya community in Arakan State in late 2016 and early 2017.
In an April interview with the BBC, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rejected assertions that crimes against the Muslim minority in northern Arakan State amounted to ethnic cleansing, and her government has repeatedly described the issues as an “internal affair.”
Two counter-protesters at the London demonstration echoed these sentiments and said they had come to “support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” and to “condemn” the protest.
Two counter demonstrators hold signs in support of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)
“Aung San Suu Kyi is our legitimate leader,” said Htein Lin, who came to London as a refugee in 2007, but denounced the Rohingya who have also sought asylum in the UK, saying, “they are not a real nationality.”
‘Screened From Criticism’
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in London on Friday night—after previously visiting Belgium, the Vatican and Italy—and, according to Burmese state media, was met by a delegation at Heathrow airport, including U Kyaw Zwa Min, Burma’s ambassador to the UK.
When The Irrawaddy contacted the Burmese embassy in London to inquire about the State Counselor’s visit, this reporter was told that the embassy knew “nothing” of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s schedule or public engagements during her trip.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is reportedly staying at The Dorchester hotel for the duration of her time in the British capital. It is the same establishment in which her father, the late independence leader Gen Aung San, and his delegation stayed in January 1947 during the trip in which he negotiated an agreement with then Prime Minister Clement Attlee guaranteeing independence for Burma by within one year. Weeks later, he signed the Panglong Agreement in Shan State, promising ethnic nationalities equality and autonomy within a federal Union.
It is said that during his weeks at the establishment 70 years ago, Aung San invited members of the Burmese community in London to The Dorchester to share meals, music and memories of their homeland.
Activists have noted that his daughter’s trip—her third to the UK in the last five years—has been considerably more guarded.
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—in pink, right—arrives at the venue for the ceremony in which she was given the Freedom of the City of London award. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to meet “select” members of the Burmese community on Tuesday, but at the time of reporting it remained unclear who would be attending the event.
Not invited, said those at the protest, are members of the Burmese Muslim and the Kachin communities in London.
Ko Aung, who remembers “working tirelessly” for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release when she was under 15 years of military-imposed house arrest, met her during her trip to the UK in 2012, but will not be attending Tuesday’s gathering.
Mark Farmaner, director of advocacy organization Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), which was not involved with Monday’s protest, confirmed to The Irrawaddy that his organization had also not been invited to any events relating to the State Counselor’s London visit.
“[The Burmese embassy] is not making official approaches to community organizations,” he said in an email. “She won’t be meeting a representative group and is being screened from criticism.”
BCUK published ten questions in a statement for British officials to consider during the State Counselor’s trip to London. It highlighted the continued detention of political prisoners, restrictions on aid to communities displaced by conflict in Arakan, Kachin, and Shan states, an increase in prosecutions under the country’s Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, the continued use of a visa ban list affecting diaspora activists, and the rejection of the United Nations fact-finding mission.
Reuters reported that the State Counselor met the UK’s Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace for lunch on Friday, and that they were joined by other members of the British royal family.