Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been officially invited to Canada to accept the award of Honorary Canadian Citizenship. At the urging of NDP leader Jack Layton, Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended the invite last week.
Elected in 1990 as the prime minister of Burma, the ruling military never allowed Suu Kyi to take power. Instead, she spent the next 20 years in and out of house arrest under various fabricated pretexts, becoming a political prisoner that caught the world’s attention.
The symbolic offer of citizenship, which does not actually give recipients any rights or privileges in Canada, was awarded to Suu Kyi in 2007 while she was under house arrest. At the time, Harper expressed hope that the award would send a message to the Burmese junta that Canada supports Suu Kyi’s release and disagrees with the illegal military rule in that country. Sein Win, Suu Kyi’s first cousin, accepted the award on her behalf, emphasizing the need for more widespread sanctions against Burma.
Canada has only ever offered four other people honorary citizenship. This includes Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg in 1985 (posthumously), Nelson Mandela in 2001, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in 2006 and the Aga Khan, 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, in 2009. With so few offers of citizenship, being chosen clearly sends a strong message.
However, inviting Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, to come to Canada is something that is very unlikely to happen, for numerous reasons.
At age 65 and indefinitely released from house arrest this past November, Suu Kyi’s priorities lie in bringing democracy to Burma. Her years of imprisonment have only served to increase her following among the Burmese populace, and she is still committed to solidifying the National League for Democracy’s legitimate presence in Burma. There is much work to be done, and with more mobility, though still limited, she can accomplish much more. Coming to Canada to accept symbolic citizenship would interfere with her organizing work.
In a statement released by Suu Kyi following the invite, she thanked Canada for its commitment to the democracy movement in Burma and looks “forward very much to the day that conditions in Burma will allow me to be free to visit Canada myself and thank the Canadian people in person.”
It is most significant to recognize that it is not safe for Suu Kyi to leave Burma. With a military regime in power that can and does arbitrarily impose rules and laws, there is no guarantee that if Suu Kyi left the country, she would be allowed to return. This is a risk that she has demonstrated she is unwilling to take, to the point of being separated from her family living in the U.K..
In essence, Harper’s invite really is a symbolic invitation for a symbolic award that affirms Canada’s support for Suu Kyi’s work — the restoration of the democratic process in Burma and the end of military tyranny. There is much more that Canada can do, but by once again bringing the situation in Burma to national attention, this is certainly more powerful than silence.
Noreen Mae Ritsema is the Features Editor at the Manitoban.