A move to strip Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the freedom of the city of Brighton and Hove failed to win enough votes at a special council meeting this afternoon (Thursday 1 February).
Most of the Labour and Green councillors who were present for the debate at Hove Town Hall backed the proposal but fell short of the two thirds majority required to revoke the honour.
Proposing the motion, council leader Warren Morgan said: “It is with great sadness that I am proposing that this council removes the freedom of the city from Aung San Suu Kyi it awarded her in 2011.
“Her failure to speak up against the violence inflicted on the Rohingya Muslims is in conflict with our City of Sanctuary values of human rights and democracy.
“It is in conflict with the spirit in which we awarded her this honour. It is in conflict with the hope that we all placed in her for a better future for her country.
“More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations, of a population of just one million prior to 2016 when this crisis began.
“The UN has called the actions of the Myanmar government ethnic cleansing, genocide, crimes against humanity.
“Extrajudicial killings, gang rape, mass graves, the detention of people as old as 75, as young as 10. Estimates of those killed range from 3,000 to more than 7,000, as more mass graves are uncovered.
“The UN secretary general calls it the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency … a humanitarian nightmare.
“Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent. Silence from someone revered and respected for 30 years for her steadfast and courageous stand against oppression and in defence of human rights. Silence, only broken to call evidence and eyewitness accounts of violence against the Rohingya Muslim people ‘fabrications’.
“Some have continued to argue that she be given the benefit of the doubt in light of the continuing power of the military who kept her under house arrest for so long.
“After three long years of killing, the time for that, for our own silence, has now surely passed.
“We should strip her of this honour today and think very long and very carefully about ever making a similar award to another politician again.”
Green councillor Leo Littman said: “Let’s be honest. It is pretty clear that nothing we do here this afternoon will provide any significant practical benefit to the Rohinga people of Myanmar.
“There isn’t really a great deal we can do to affect their perilous lot.
“Colleagues have outlined the unimaginable atrocities these people have suffered.
“Since we can’t really do anything to help prevent or ameliorate this suffering, should we do nothing?
“No. There is something we can do, which demonstrates our condemnation of the Myanmar government’s appalling treatment of a section of their population on the basis of their ethnicity and religion.
“Seven years ago this council voted unanimously to honour Aung San Suu Kyi as a recognition of her fight for democracy and human rights in her country.
“It saddens me enormously to now feel forced to support a move to remove that freedom but I believe it has to happen because it’s the one thing we can do to emphasise our utter disgust at the fact that she and her government have allowed and even encouraged ethnic cleansing and, when challenged, have consistently refused to even acknowledge that it is happening.
“Aung San Suu Kyi had the chance to extend her noted defence of civil rights to her Rohinga compatriots but has consistently chosen not to do so.
“As a result, we here in Brighton and Hove need to let the world know we do not support this relativistic view of fundamental rights.
“The only way we can do this is to remove her freedom of our City of Sanctuary.”
Conservative opposition leader Tony Janio said: “The United Nations has called on the Burmese authorities to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights, freedom of movement, equal access to basic services and equal access to full citizenship for all individuals.
“But a report issued recently from the House of Commons International Development Committee has raised grave concerns about the plight of returning refugees while decrying the huge human tragedy created by Burma.
“Turning to Aung San Suu Kyi, her office has been condemned by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners for her silence on the crisis and has also drawn widespread international criticism for her initial labelling reports of massacres, rapes, torture and the torching of villages by the military as ‘exaggerated’ and ‘fake’ news.
“But none of us really know what is going on inside the Burmese government and certainly not the pressure that Aung San Suu Kyi faces daily.
“Having both lived and worked in places with authoritarian military governments and as somebody who has had automatic weapons pointed in his face, been chased by civilian ‘vigilantes’ armed with Kalashnikovs and faced journeys through sparsely populated areas by armed guards, even I can’t start to imagine the pressure Aung San Suu Kyi faces as she squares up to the Burmese military on a daily basis.
“If we agree that Aung San Sui Kyi ‘remains far better than the alternatives’ … our removal of the freedom of the city will help in a very small way towards undermining her in Burma.
“If we do this, we would be doing it to soothe our emotion of ‘needing something to be done’.
“If we, however, continue to support Aung San Sui Kyi, we strengthen her hand in negotiations with the Burmese military.
“I will not personally be voting to remove the freedom of the city and the Conservative group have a conscience-guided free vote.”
Twenty-nine councillors voted to revoke the honour, with 18 against and two abstentions.
This fell short of the two-thirds majority required so Aung San Sui Kyi retains the honour of the freedom of Brighton and Hove.