HART Prize for Human Rights 2018| ‘Facing a moral quandary: from Churchill to Suu Kyi’

20 March 2018

With the most number of entries we’ve ever received, the competition was even harder with such exceptional submissions that demonstrated inspiring passion for Human Rights advocacy.

Joint 2nd Prize Senior Essay Winner, Maya Muller collecting her prize
Joint 2nd Prize Senior Essay Winner, Maya Muller collecting her prize


Maya Muller, 20, won 2nd place in our HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category 2018 with her essay titled:

Facing a moral quandary: from Churchill to Suu Kyi

When Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of the French fleet as part of Operation Catapult on the West Algerian coast in 1940, he made a risky decision which would have major repercussions on the future course of French-British diplomatic relations. During the decision-making process, Churchill faced a moral quandary: he was either going to order the death of 1,300 French sailors[1], France being a British ally, or risk the possibility of the French fleet aiding a German invasion.

I use this analogy to suggest the moral and ethical dilemma that state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is facing. By destroying the French fleet, Churchill ordered the death of the French sailors, and at the same time, he prevented the Germans having this military asset for a prospective invasion of Britain, with the real risk of a victorious Hitler in 1940. Similarly, I seek to offer a different angle to Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis.

The National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi came into power after 15 years of house arrest, called for an exciting transition that put Burma on the international stage. Prior to the NLD’s victory, key historical events such as one hundred years of British colonialism, the Japanese occupation (1942-45) and a five-decade long authoritarian regime under military dictator Ne Win (1962-2011), set the tone for future conflicts between the military junta and armed ethnic groups such as the Shan State Army (SSA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). For the past three years, the international community has become increasingly alarmed by gross human rights violations in Western Rakhine which have been taking place since the 1990s but have garnered more attention in recent years with mass graves reported by Reuters[2] and disturbing reports by UNHCR and ONHCR[3]. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 688,000 refugees are estimated to have fled the country to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, fighting continues in other regions, such as continued conflict in Northern Myanmar, between the government and the KIA. Interestingly, scholars such as Mandy Sadan have argued that there are structural similarities between what is happening in Kachin and Rakhine states.[4] According to Sadan, ethnic conflicts are based on deeply-rooted endemic structural issues that can be seen in other parts of the country and have existed for decades.

Jacques Leider, a Burma scholar who focuses on the Rakhine state, looks at the competition of exclusive identities in Rakhine, arguing that the obsessive use of history to claim that one group is right and the other is wrong, has led to the creation of two exclusive narratives competing for historical ground with no space for open dialogue.[5]

What it means to be Buddhist in present day Myanmar, is therefore a question which warrants greater understanding by those commenting on the problems of the region. To develop an understanding of Buddhist identity will help one to become aware of the complex obstacles that face Burma, so as not to risk oversimplifying Buddhist beliefs of the majority Bamar population, given that each Buddhist will have their own interpretation of the teachings.

Moreover, the international community particularly in the West, has shown increasing condemnation against the fact that Nobel Peace prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has not publicly condemned the human rights violations committed by the army towards minority ethnic groups. In a recent article by scholar of Buddhism, Martin Kovan[6], he discusses the Buddhist Noble Eight-fold path and the belief in ‘right speech’, a Buddhist teaching that encourages speech with truthfulness and integrity, as well as speaking the truth against injustice if one has the power to do so. In this article, Kovan suggests that Suu Kyi, knowing she wields no power over the army is in fact acting from a place of selfless integrity, because by failing to practise ‘right speech’, she and the NLD would be deliberately creating a fiction to hide their true aims.

“Her political hands are tied, if not entirely, until and unless the army is on her side, and as soon as she shames it on the domestic and international stage, then she only shoots hard-won democracy, and her own leadership, in the foot.”[7]

Furthermore, Kovan argues that it is simply untenable to believe that Suu Kyi condones mass murder. Instead, as an astute politician, she appears ruthlessly determined to fight for federal constitutionalism, no matter what the cost. Given that the military are de facto in charge, perhaps Suu Kyi is trying to maintain a compromised relationship with them without losing the little trust that they have.

Experts such as Lee Jones have suggested that over the long-term, the military will gradually step back once they trust that a civilian-led government can govern in a way they see fit.[8] He argues that the army see themselves as saviours and protectors whose role is to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity. In 2017, East Timorese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ramos Horta[9] expressed his sympathy towards Suu Kyi, stating that the international community are insensitive to her restrictions as a former politician in exile. Horta suggests that the international community should instead defend the rule of law in the Rakhine state and push to provide other services in the region.

Overall, given the fact that the military still holds 25% of seats in parliament, and that the power she holds is limited, Suu Kyi simply cannot afford to publicly condemn the atrocities happening in Rakhine. As Kovan further writes:

“Daw Suu Kyi has no choice but to walk a morally compromised strait, a nasty crooked mile, between implication in military abuses—in intended genocide no less—and the high-moral judgement on that very quandary which, it has to be said, she shares with no-one else and carries uniquely on her shoulders.”[10]

Like Churchill in 1940, Suu Kyi as state counsellor is ultimately the one who makes the final call over an extremely difficult moral decision.

If Western governments decide to abandon Burma, then Burma will have no choice but to become part of China’s sphere of influence. Alarmingly, India is currently not as invested in Burma as China. Although Indian government officials have talked about the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport highway, their willingness to offer support for the current Rohingya crisis and other ethnic conflicts in Burma is not apparent.

In conclusion, I have discussed Operation Catapult as an analogy for the moral quandary that Suu Kyi currently faces. There should be more space for open dialogue between negotiators, to bring an end to the atrocities and human rights abuses in the Rakhine state and elsewhere in Burma. Despite the elections that have taken place, it is the military who ultimately have the power, and it appears that the key issue is how to manage that.



[1] J.Grehan, 2013. Churchill’s Secret Invasion: Britain’s First Large Scale Combined Offensive 1942. 1st ed. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd. pp.7

[2] Reuters Staff, 2018. Myanmar denies report of new mass graves in Rakhine. [Online]. [Accessed 2 February 2018]. Available from:

[3] OHCR High Commissioner, 2017. Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh. Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016. 1. pp. 3-43.

[4] Sadan, M. (2013) War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire, 1994-2011. 1st ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[5] Ar Mrat Kine. (2014). Speech of Dr Jacques Leider (Myanmar’s So Called Rohingya Question. [Online Video]. 12 March 2014. Available from: [Accessed: 18 February 2018].

[6] M.Kovan. (2017) Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rule of Right Speech. [Accessed 20 February 2018.] Available from:

[7] Kovan. (2017) Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rule of Right Speech.

[8] SOAS University of London. (2016). All change at the top: Myanmar’s new government takes shape. [Online Video]. 15 March 2016. Available from: [Accessed: 13 February 2018].

[9] J.Ramos-Horta & J.Saffin. Ending Myanmar’s Blame Game. (2017)–ramos-horta-and-janelle-saffin-2017-04?barrier=accessreg. [Accessed 25 February 2018].

[10] Kovan. (2017) Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rule of Right Speech.

See the full list of HART Prize for Human Rights 2018 winners and shortlisted entries here

Back to News

Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities