By Mike Lillis
Some Democrats are wondering whether Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese human rights advocate and Nobel laureate, should be stripped of her Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Congress voted unanimously in 2008 to present Suu Kyi with the award. A decade later, lawmakers are questioning whether the honor should be revoked over Suu Kyi's reticent response to Myanmar's brutal campaign against the Rohingya, a minority Muslim group targeted by the country's military.
Suu Kyi, now Myanmar's democratically elected civilian leader, has faced intense international backlash over the violence, which the United Nations has deemed “acts of genocide.” Just this week the Smithsonian’s Holocaust Museum in Washington rescinded a prestigious award named after another Nobel Peace laureate, Elie Wiesel.
“Whether it’s that she’s been complicit, or that she’s just been silent, what she hasn’t done is be vocal enough. So it’s been very, very disappointing, because I had great admiration for her,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a liberal California Democrat who said he’s hearing concerns from a number of constituents with roots in the region.
The Myanmar leader's silence in the face of the violence runs in stark contrast to the persona she built over the course of decades as a pro-democracy advocate and human rights champion who spent 15 years under house arrest at the hands of the nation’s repressive military junta.
It’s also led some lawmakers on Capitol Hill to weigh the merits of rescinding Suu Kyi’s Gold Medal award, presented just over five years ago, in an effort to compel her to voice an aggressive public rebuke of the military attacks against the Rohingya.
Khanna said he’s “open” to the notion of revoking Suu Kyi’s Congressional Gold Medal, suggesting the issue should be explored by a bipartisan caucus founded by the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).
“Maybe that’s something to explored to the Lantos Human Rights Commission, and to have a hearing on it, and to have a hearing on her role,” Khanna said.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a physician and member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said he’s also amenable to stripping Suu Kyi of the congressional award if she doesn’t take a stand.
“If that’s what it takes to get there,” Bera said. “As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, she should be speaking out much more against the atrocities that are taking place right now. I mean, she does have the bully pulpit."
“We’ve got to send her the message that she ought to be speaking out and trying to moderate the government and military response here.”
To be sure, there seems to be no concerted push in Congress to revoke Suu Kyi’s Gold Medal. And a number of lawmakers were quick to note the difficult political position she’s in, straddling efforts to manage a civilian government and steer the country toward a more robust democracy without sparking a revolt from the formidable military elite who still yield outsized authority over public policy — and who could potentially knock her from power.
“There’s great tension — that could easily break into something else — between the military and the civilian government she’s trying to shepherd, so this is a very delicate balance. None of that excuses silence. But it does put it in context,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who has visited the region. “It’s a very, very tenuous and delicate balance. And she’s at the heart of it.”
Still, the frustration in Suu Kyi’s diffident reaction to the Rohingya crisis, even among her most ardent congressional supporters, is mounting to a point of exasperation.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the 2008 bill granting Suu Kyi the Gold Medal, said he’s “desperately sad” about the Rohingya’s plight, urging Suu Kyi to find her critical voice in the name of “moral clarity.” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — wondering aloud “what happened to our hero?” — said the Suu Kyi’s failure to confront the violence has eroded her revered reputation around the globe.
“That can take power from you, too,” Eshoo warned.
And Connolly emphasized that even the tough political constraints on Suu Kyi have their limits in the face of systemic dislocation and mass killings.
“You’ve got to call out genocide. If you’re a human rights activist, you can’t have carve-outs,” said Connolly. “There hasn’t been talk of revoking [the Gold Medal], but it would be very useful to remind her of how she got it.”
The comments are a far cry from the ones coming from lawmakers just a few years ago. In 2012, when Suu Kyi was officially awarded the Gold Medal in a moving ceremony beneath the Capitol Rotunda, congressional leaders from both parties turned out with words of glowing admiration. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), now the majority leader, praised her "hidden, luminous heroism.” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi(Calif.) hailed the Nobel laureate’s “unwavering commitment to peace.” And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was imprisoned himself during the Vietnam War, lauded Suu Kyi’s "implacable resistance" during her lengthy house arrest.
“Aung San Suu Kyi didn't scare worth a damn,” he said at the time.
The Rohingya crisis has changed the tone of the debate and the views of her prestige. In October, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees were streaming into Bangladesh, Suu Kyi addressed the crisis by condemning the “unlawful violence,” but also downplaying her government’s culpability. Myanmar, she said, “does not fear international scrutiny.”
The global outcry was far-reaching, and a number of institutions around the globe have already penalized Suu Kyi’s reaction by rescinding humanitarian honors they’ve granted her in years past.
Irish lawmakers, for instance, pressured by the rock bank U2, voted in December to revoke Suu Kyi’s Freedom of the City of Dublin award. And this week, the Holocaust Museum followed suit, rescinding its Elie Wiesel Award.
While Congress may not be at the point of publicly rebuking her by revoking the congressional medal, a growing number of lawmakers appear sympathetic to the gesture.
“I’m not unmindful of the challenge for her, but you’ve got 700,000 or 800,000 Rohingya who are at enormous risk,” said Connolly. “And you cannot be silent given your profile internationally.”