Amnesty International said Monday that it had withdrawn its highest human rights honor from Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar, citing her defense of the military’s deadly crackdown against Rohingya Muslims and growing restrictions on free speech.
The human rights advocacy group, which presented Suu Kyi with its Ambassador of Conscience award in 2009 to mark her long struggle against Myanmar’s military dictatorship, told Suu Kyi it was “deeply alarmed and disappointed by your clear and consistent betrayal of the very values you promoted for decades.”
“Today, we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defense of human rights,” the organization’s secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, wrote in a sharply worded letter.
“Amnesty International cannot justify your continued status as a recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience award and so with great sadness we are hereby withdrawing it from you.”
The letter was dated Saturday and addressed to Suu Kyi’s office in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw; it was not clear if she had received it. Suu Kyi was in Singapore attending a Southeast Asia regional summit and did not immediately comment on the issue.
Suu Kyi, who leads a civilian government that shares power with Myanmar’s army, has tarnished her image as a global democracy icon by defending the military’s attacks against the Rohingya, which have sent 700,000 people fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh over the past 15 months.
United Nations investigators have described the military campaign as ethnic cleansing and human rights groups have documented widespread atrocities including executions of children, mass rapes, arson and looting.
Suu Kyi has also shown apparent indifference to the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested while reporting on an army massacre in a Rohingya village and convicted of violating a colonial-era secrecy law. They were sentenced to seven years in prison and have appealed the verdict.
At a forum in Vietnam in September, Suu Kyi said the journalists “have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong, if they consider it wrong.”
At the same event, Suu Kyi declined once again to criticize the military’s actions against the Rohingya, saying “the situation could have been handled better” but that the army had acted “for the sake of long-term stability and security.”
The former democracy icon still holds her Nobel Peace Prize – which the Norwegian Nobel Institute has said it won’t revoke – but she has been stripped of many other honors.
The Scottish capital of Edinburgh and several other cities in the United Kingdom and Ireland have voted to rescind her “freedom of the city” awards. She lost her honorary Canadian citizenship and her honorary presidency of the London School of Economics student union.
Amnesty International was one of Suu Kyi’s earliest and staunchest defenders during the 15 years she spent under house arrest, declaring her a prisoner of conscience in 1989. Other winners of the Ambassador of Conscience award include Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.
But Suu Kyi has not been fazed by the torrent of criticism now directed at her, including from her fellow Nobel laureates.
Her government and the military are pressing ahead with a plan to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, despite warnings from human rights groups and Rohingya leaders that conditions are not safe for them to return – in large part because the army accused of slaughtering them would be responsible for their security.
The official Global New Light of Myanmar ran a four-page spread Monday emphasizing the government’s readiness to repatriate the first group of about 2,000 refugees starting this week.
The U.N. refugee agency said the Rohingya should be allowed to visit their lands in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state so they can decide on their own whether they want to return. In a statement, the agency said it “does not believe current conditions in Rakhine state are conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh.”
Shashank Bengali is Southeast Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali