09/07/2017 16:51 EDT | Updated 09/07/2017 16:51 EDT

Aung San Suu Kyi Needs To Stand Up For Persecuted Muslims, Former Envoy Says

Canada awarded Suu Kyi honorary citizenship for her fight against the military dictatorship.

Aung Shine Oo / The Canadian Press
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on her 72nd birthday at the parliament building on June 19, 2017. Canada's former religious envoy says she has squandered her status by not standing up for persecuted Muslims in her country.

OTTAWA — Canada's former religious freedom ambassador says Myanmar's Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the once celebrated Nobel laureate, has squandered her status by not standing up for persecuted Muslims in her country.

Suu Kyi is facing calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be taken away for not speaking out on behalf of the 125,000 ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims that have fled Myanmar's Rakhine province to neighbouring Bangladesh.

"She had tremendous public backing for her leadership and her role in the country, significant international backing and she is squandering that by not taking a strong enough position in defence of her own citizens," Andrew Bennett, now a senior fellow at Washington's Georgetown University, said in an interview Wednesday.

Why Suu Kyi's silence on persecuted Muslims speaks volumes:

Bennett joined the mounting international condemnation of Suu Kyi for not defending the Muslim minority now fleeing her country in droves. Her critics include Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, who called on her to condemn the "tragic and shameful treatment" of her fellow citizens.

Trudeau: Canada 'deeply concerned'

Both Nobel laureates are also honorary Canadian citizens. Canada awarded Suu Kyi honorary citizenship for her peaceful, pro-democracy fight, including 15 years of house arrest, against the military dictatorship of her country, also known as Burma. She led her party to victory in 2015, in what was her country's first open election in a quarter century.

So far, the federal government has yet to criticize Suu Kyi.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Wednesday that "Canada is deeply concerned by the flow of refugees from Myanmar & reports of serious abuse against the Rohingya. Civilians must be protected."

Meanwhile, Canada's foreign ministry, Global Affairs Canada, said it was "very alarmed by the allegations of serious human rights abuses by security forces against the Rohingya population."

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the violence is being perpetrated by the security forces, and that they are not under Suu Kyi's control.

Bernat Armangue
An exhausted Rohingya helps an elderly family member and a child as they arrive at refugee camp in Bangladesh on Sept. 5, 2017.

Bennett dismissed that argument, saying Suu Kyi could easily do more.

"She has the potential to influence, and she's had that for some time since her party has come into power. She's had a dialogue with the military but I don't think she's taken full advantage of that."

Myanmar says the military clampdown is a response to attacks by militant Muslims on security outposts.

'It's not their fault'

That's a view shared by a spokesman for Canada's Burmese community.

Zaw Kyaw, of the Canadian Burma Ethnic Nationalities Organization, said the Myanmar security forces are taking action against armed extremists.

If Canada wants to help it has to be fair and needs to listen to both sides "before making any decision, not based on sensational reports," he said.

It's not an appropriate argument to make that what they're experiencing is their faultAndrew Bennett, former Canadian religious envoy

Bennett dismissed that as a "thin argument" and said he detected "prejudice and suspicions about Muslims" when he visited the predominantly Buddhist nation in 2015 in his previous job as Canada's religious freedom envoy, a position the Liberal government ended.

He said Rohingya Muslims have been the long-standing victims of systemic discrimination, and that they were herded into "concentration camp-like settlements" by the government.

"It's not an appropriate argument to make that what they're experiencing is their fault," said Bennett. "It's not their fault."

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