Mohamed Rafique. Photo by Tom Farrell.

From where Mohammed Rafique is standing, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, he thinks it is clear what Dublin City Council should do.

“Dublin should not be remembered as a city which gave its most precious Freedom of the City of Dublin to someone who completely went against human rights,” he says, over the phone.

At Monday’s monthly meeting, Dublin City Councillors touched on whether or not to take back the award from Aung San Suu Kyi, amid mounting worldwide revulsion at the massacres and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people taking place in Myanmar.

“I was the lord mayor that gave her the Freedom of the City. I’d be slow to interfere with that,” said Labour Councillor Mary Freehill, at the meeting.

“But I do think that it’s very important as a city council that we do, in a public way, let it be known how we are very concerned about what is happening to the Rohingya people and the lack of action from Aung San Suu Kyi herself,” she said.

The Freedom

Suu Kyi’s reputation as an icon of democratic reform in Myanmar has been badly damaged since August, when a massive military campaign was launched in the nation’s western state of Rakhine, forcing out”>over 500,000 people from the Rohingya ethnic group, most of whom are Muslims.

“This is the worst refugee crisis I have ever witnessed in my life. Now more than half a million Rohingya are now in Bangladesh – the majority of them are minors and women who are in the serious risk of illnesses,” said Rafique, who usually lives in Carlow.

“I have talked to refugee women who have lost their husbands, fathers, brothers and children; others lost female relatives who were raped and killed later by the military and the extremists,” he said. “I have listened to their horror stories with great pain and disappointment for the lack of political will and concrete actions of world’s leaders.”

This is something Rafique knows about only too well. He says that, having been expelled from Myanmar with his family during a similar purge in 1991, he lived for 17 years as a virtual prisoner in a Bangladeshi refugee camp before acquiring refugee status in Ireland in 2009.

After she emerged as the leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) during the late 1980s, Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in Yangon, which until 2005 was Myanmar’s capital city.

The NLD challenged a murderous military junta that had ruled Myanmar for decades, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. When there were openly-contested elections in 2015, the NLD swept into power.

That left Suu Kyi as de facto head of government (she is legally barred from actually taking power), but the Myanmar Armed Forces still retain huge influence over internal politics.

Moreover, there is widespread prejudice in majority-Buddhist Myanmar towards the country’s Muslim, Christian, and Hindu minorities, as well as those outside the dominant Bamar ethnic group.

Violence against Rohingyas goes back decades: military operations by the old junta drove thousands out of the country in 1978 and 1991.

Suu Kyi’s reaction to this year’s violence in Rakhine State has varied from saying nothing to complaining about “fake news” to making a national address on 19 September that outsiders criticized as deferential to the armed forces.

The government lays the blame for the violence on attacks by a local insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which is thought to number several hundred members. The ARSA leadership denies that they are jihadists or connected with jihadists.

To Revoke or Not?

Haikal Mansor, is a Rohingya from the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine, scene of some of
the worst violence of recent weeks. He believes that Suu Kyi should have the Freedom of the City revoked.

Now living in Carlow, he adds that he has lost contact with many of his relatives, who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh since late August.

“When she arrived here 18 June 2012, she was given the Freedom of the City, she said it was an unforgettable day, that she had been welcomed to Ireland as though I belonged there,” he says.

“Under her government, she has since denied and defended all the well-documented crimes against humanity.”

Says independent Councillor Nial Ring: “I’m coming down on the side now that we should [rescind her Freedom of the City] because there’s no evidence coming forward that she isn’t just standing idly by and letting this genocide happen.”

“When you have someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu coming out and advising not to stand idly, absolutely she should have the Freedom the City rescinded,” he said.

But some Irish politicians with a long-term interest in Myanmar oppose the idea.

“I wouldn’t be in favour of that. We gave it to her for her work to date. To take it away is steeped in risk: do we take exception to things anyone who got the award did?” says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who has been a member of Burma Action Ireland for some years.

Some observers of Myanmar’s politics have speculated that although Suu Kyi is the de facto ruler of Myanmar, the ongoing disaster of the Rohingyas has exposed the extent to which she is still under the influence of Myanmar’s military – or suggested that the conflict is a price she is willing to pay to achieve future constitutional changes.

“I think it distracts from the reality of the issue. I think the government should be looking at
leading the campaign with regard to sanctions against Myanmar,” says Darragh O’Brien TD, Fianna Fáil spokesman on Foreign Affairs.

“I think withdrawing the Freedom of the City is more symbolic. It’s going to do nothing and we do need to leave the lines of communication open. I don’t think it’s something that will serve any purpose other than sever any ties we have over there.”

But How?

In the Dáil last month, Minister of State Helen McIntee said that it was up to Dublin City Council to deal with whether to take the award back. “It was a decision made by the council in the first place, so any decision on this has to be taken by it,” she said.

But, according to some councillors, the situation is a bit more complicated. There is no precedent for rescinding the Freedom of the City – and nothing in the Local Government Act 2001 that deals with how to take it away from people.

Back in September, the council’s South Central Area Committee backed a motion put forward by People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh calling on the council to write to Aung San Suu Kyi and ask her to give up the award voluntarily.

Failing that, the council might write to the central government and ask it to legislate so it can take the award away.

A motion that the council take these steps is down to be debated and voted on by the full council when it meets later this month, said MacVeigh.

Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who has written extensively on Asian politics for various publications in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.

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