Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded an Honorary Freedom of the City of London on Monday amidst a storm of controversy that saw members of the Corporation’s common council boycott the ceremony and protesters picket Guildhall.
The Nobel laureate was presented with the accolade by former Lord Mayor Sir Alan Yarrow, acting in the absence of current Lord Mayor Dr Andrew Parmley, who was overseas.
The City of London said the award was in recognition of her “non-violent struggle over many years for democracy and her steadfast dedication to create a society where people can live in peace, security and freedom.”
It is the highest honour the City can bestow on an individual, and puts Suu Kyi in the company of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Florence Nightingale, and Princess Diana.
But the decision sparked anger amongst Burmese rights activists who say Suu Kyi does not deserve the award because of her refusal to speak out over allegations of crimes by Myanmar’s security forces against minority Rohingya Muslims.
Suu Kyi has seen her reputation as a defender of human rights fall into disrepute since taking power in April 2016, after her government was accused of “ethnic cleansing” in the Rakhine state.
She has been denounced for failing to acknowledge the claims of murder, rape and torture in the region, which are alleged to have occurred following insurgents’ attacks on border guard posts last October.
A group of around 40 demonstrators gathered outside Guildhall at midday on Monday, waving placards and chanting “Suu Kyi is lying, Rohingyas are dying”.
“She has said by her own admission that she is not a human rights defender, that she is a politician, and if that is true then she has no business accepting this award,” said protester Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy advocate and former research fellow at the London School of Economics.
Some City of London common council members joined the chorus of protesters, refusing to attend the ceremony and calling for Suu Kyi to be stripped of the Freedom of the City title she was awarded in 2011.
Farringdon Within ward councilman Tom Anderson was among those to speak out directly, labelling the decision “a very big mistake by the Corporation”.
“I can understand how it happened… but it is clear there has not been sufficient due diligence done over this process. At some point you have to stand up for what is right; the City is a very diverse place with a large Muslim community and what we do has to reflect that.”
Fellow council member Mary Durcan also refused her invitation to the ceremony, saying: “Although I very much commend her achievements in bringing democracy to Burma, recent events in the Rakhine region, with the abuse of human rights towards the Rohingya Muslims, are, I believe, unacceptable.”
Unlike the Freedom of the City, which anybody can apply for, Honorary Freedoms are nominated and voted upon by the court of common council. If passed, the common council passes a special resolution and the recipient is invited to attend a ceremony to be formally admitted to the Freedom.
It is not known how many voted in favour of the nomination when it was presented at the first meeting of the new court of common council on 27 April, but member for Farringdon Without, Caroline Addy, said the ensuing controversy showed the decision making process needs to be looked at.
“The timing between the nomination and the vote is important… in this case we were asked to vote on the spot, there wasn’t enough time to think about it,” she said.
“I think giving Honorary Freedoms when there is a UN investigation underway is unwise.
“It’s a shame because it is supposed to be a celebration of honour and now it has succumbed to a great deal of controversy… the timing needs to be looked at so we don’t get into a situation like this again.”
The City of London Corporation did not comment on the protests.