Belfast Telegraph

Ulster University 'no plans' to strip Myanmar leader of degree despite refugee crisis

By Allan Preston

Ulster University has said it has no plans to strip the de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi of a 2009 honorary degree, despite weeks of international condemnation on her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Last week it was reported that Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar were still flooding towards the border with Bangladesh, despite government assurances it was preventing the mass exodus.

Since August, half a million Rohingya have made the dangerous journey, making it the largest refugee crisis in Asia in decades.

On Thursday, the Myanmar government's information committee said it had stopped 17,000 Rohingya from fleeing in just four days last week. "The Burma authorities in northern Rakhine went to the border areas where thousands of Bengalis (the official government description for the Rohingya) await to flee and talked to them," it said.

"The local authorities told the Bengalis if they have difficulties with their livelihood, they will provide food and security and to return to their villages. The Bengalis agreed to stay."

Ulster University academic Monica McWilliams recently visited Myanmar, saying she was shocked by the conditions she found many living in.

She accused Aung San Suu Kyi of "colluding" with the military over the Rohingya crisis but said there were "bigger fish to fry" than taking her Ulster University degree away.

"I suspect those on the move would be very reluctant to go back, given what's happened," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "They didn't leave their homes lightly and it looked like a scorched earth policy from the government."

"I was there when a lot of this was happening and the criticism against Aung San Suu Kyi is fair, she has to decide what direction she's going to lead the country (in) and she's lost the support of most of the Myanmar states who aren't majority Buddhist.

"Most are made up of ethnic minorities, so she should have been aware there was a great deal of unrest inside the country.

"She's now seen as being in the pocket of the military which is not good for her," Ms McWilliams continued.

Regarding the Ulster University degree, she added: "I think there's bigger fish to fry at this stage. She had the Nobel peace prize, the freedom of Dublin city and probably received around 200 honorary degrees - getting one withdrawn won't hurt her."

Ms McWilliams said more helpful pressure should come from the UK and Irish governments, the European Commission and the UN.

"That's where the Myanmar people were telling me they wanted it raised," she stated.

Last month, Professor Penny Green from Queen Mary University of London was among those calling for Ulster University to remove Ms Suu Kyi's degree.

"I think the criticism against her is more than justified," said Professor Green.

"Everything she has done to date is a defence of Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya.

"Taking away her Ulster University degree plays a small part, but it's an important symbolic gesture."

Yesterday, the Ulster University state that its position on the matter had not changed since first being asked about it last month.

At the time a spokesperson commented: "The university does reserve the right to withdraw an honorary degree, however, this would only happen after extensive consideration of the issues."

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