Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a champion of human rights, has become an enabler of ethnic cleansing, genocide, torture, rape, sexual violence and forced labor, according to a United Nations report.
A 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi has been censured by rights groups for tolerating the brutal persecution of the Rohingya minority in her country; some 700,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes into neighboring Bangladesh.
In Atlanta, Suu Kyi’s face once held pride of place in the iconic mural that grabs the attention of visitors to the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
In a move that symbolizes her fall from grace, an image of Suu Kyi will be removed from that mural in the next few days. “Aung San Suu Kyi was once a symbol of hope,” said the center’s interim CEO Brian Tolleson. “Yet, the UN Report makes it very clear, Aung San Suu Kyi has undergone a tragic transformation into a leader condoning horrific acts and presiding over multiple human rights violations.”
Before her rise to power, Suu Kyi led a successful democratic campaign against the country’s military dictatorship, and was held in house arrest for 15 years by the repressive government. During the 2015 elections her party won a landslide victory, and she was installed as a “State Counsellor,” the equivalent of a prime minister.
Since that time the Rohingya crisis has become a tragedy, and an international embarrassment for Burma, also called Myanmar.
New York artist Paula Scher said changing the mural is the right thing to do. She created the mural under the guidance of the center’s chief creative officer George C. Wolfe, using adhesive-backed layers of vinyl for its different sections.
"I feel compelled to help protect this symbol, removing this image, which now feels counter to the mural's unifying and inspirational intent,” said Scher, in a statement.
The mural is composed of images used in protest posters from around the world. Suu Kyi’s face, seen in the upper left-hand quadrant of the mural, will be removed from the work sometime this week or early next week.
Tolleson said that, to his knowledge, no other historical figure has been ever been removed from an exhibit at the center.
While Suu Kyi has been the subject of international condemnation for several months, the center postponed a decision about the mural until the fact-finding U.N. mission released its report Aug. 24.
The center opened in 2014 to help tell the story of civil rights in Atlanta and human rights around the world. It has been celebrating the 70 days leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was signed on Dec. 10, 1948.
The mural is one of the most distinctive works at the center and is one of the first things that visitors see.
In early December, timed to that anniversary, the center will install the replacement image. Tolleson said he’d like to see a woman chosen as a replacement figure, since women are often uncredited for their efforts on behalf of human rights.
“We’re going to go through a rigorous process of trying to identify whom to replace it with,” he said.
Asked if it will damage the mural to have part of it removed, Tolleson said the true damage is caused by having a villain instead of a hero as the face of the rights center.