NEW DELHI: Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been formally stripped of the Freedom of the City of Oxford award in light of her response to the repression of minority Rohingya muslims in her country.

The Oxford city council voted unanimously to strip Suu Kyi of the award, which had been conferred upon her in 1997. The council added that it did not want to celebrate “those who turn a blind eye to violence”.

The decision comes after Oxford counsellors voted to support a cross-party motion to remove the award, and the decision was formally announced on Monday.

Cllr Mary Clarkson, who proposed the motion, told the BBC: “Oxford has a long tradition of being a diverse and humane city, and our reputation is tarnished by honouring those who turn a blind eye to violence. We hope that today we have added our small voice to others calling for human rights and justice for the Rohingya people.”

The decision to strip Suu Kyi of the award comes as Myanmar’s powerful army chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, told Pope Francis that there is "no religious discrimination" in the country. "Myanmar has no discrimination among the ethnics,” the Chief said as he met the Pope in the former capital Yangon along with other top military generals.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of pursuing a brutal crackdown on the country’s ethnic Rohingya minority in the volatile Rakhine state, with reports of mass violence, assault and rape emerging from the region. Over 700,000 Rohingyas have fled since the crisis began in August this year, forcing the world to issue repeated condemnations as the accusations of human rights violations pile up. Pope Francis has previously decried violence against the Rohingya, calling them his persecuted "brothers and sisters."

Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been the focus of mounting criticism, as her muted response and failure to condemn the violence against the Rohingya have drawn widespread concern. Suu Kyi, who is a nobel laureate and has been projected as a champion of peace and democracy owing to her political opposition to the military junta in Myanmar, has now become the face of repression associated with the crisis.

In 2012, Suu Kyi was celebrated with an honorary doctorate from Oxford, with her 67th birthday party being hosted at St Hugh’s College -- where she studied politics, philosophy and economics between 1964 and 1967. Just a few years later, in September this year, the governing body of St Hugh’s decided to remove a painting of her from its main entrance. In October, undergraduates at St Hugh’s voted to remove Suu Kyi’s name from the title of their junior common room.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Myanmar continues, with Rohingyas still being driven out in large numbers. While the Myanmar government and army maintain that the crackdown is a response to militancy in Rakhine state, the world is now increasingly vocal in describing the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing” -- with USA, UK, Canada and France joining the chorus of UN officials and genocide scholars using the term.

Following U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backing of a previous UN finding that concluded that violence against the Rohingya qualified as “ethnic cleansing,” Myanmar and Bangladesh concluded a deal for the repatriation of 600,000 Rohingya who have fled to shelters and camps in Bangladesh since the crisis broke. The deal -- the specifics of which remain unclear -- is brokered on the back of a 1992-1993 agreement where Myanmar would accept those who could present identity documents issued to the Rohingya by previous governments. Since a majority of Rohingya refugees do not possess such cards, it’s unclear how the repatriation will progress. Additionally, there is concern how the army will respond when the Rohingya are returned to Rakhine.

It’s worth pointing out that this is not the first incident of mass violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine, with the military repeatedly carrying out a sustained crackdown over decades. As usual, the root of the crises is overlooked…

The Rohingya remain a “stateless” people, with Myanmar refusing to grant them the right to citizenship. In fact, the term Rohingya itself is a contentious issue in Myanmar, as the official stance of authorities remains that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh -- this despite the fact that most Rohingya families have been settled in Myanmar for decades.

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar, created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.

It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.

Every few years, the army steps up its assault on the Rohingya, with the crisis in August 2017 following in the heels of similar crackdowns in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1998 and 1992, amongst several other brutal years. Each time, hundreds of Rohingya villages and settlements are destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats.

The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees. India, recently, has joined this category of countries, with the BJP government issuing a directive to state governments to identify and deport “illegal immigrants” -- a category that includes the Rohingya. This order was given despite the fact that India is home to 40,000 Rohingyas, and that more than half a million Rohingya have been forced to flee their country in the last few months. Additionally, the order is in violation of international law, where the principle of “non refoulement” prohibits countries from returning refugees or asylum seekers persecuted because race, religion, nationality or political or social affiliation or beliefs.

The Indian government has defended its decision in the Supreme Court, evoking “national interest” and making the argument that Rohingyas in India have ties to Pakistan based terror groups and the Islamic State. There is no substantial proof for this charge, with not even one Rohingya refugee being categorically tied to a terror operative or having any links to terror groups.

Interestingly, India has amended its Passport Rules law in 2015, making a “certain class of foreigners” eligible for long term visas to India. This “certain class” includes non Muslim minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christians, “who were compelled to seek shelter in India.”

The Indian government's attitude toward the Rohingya is in stark contrast to the above, with the official rhetoric on Rohingya refugees in the country being linked to misplaced concepts of “national interest.” It’s unfortunate that whilst countries like the United States, UK, Canada and France -- who typically don’t have the best record on refugee rights -- have come out openly in support of the Rohingya, India -- which till now has had a fairly good record on non refoulement -- is doing a volte face and deserting a community that is at its most vulnerable.

(Cover Photo: Brookings Institution)