At least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were murdered in Myanmar last September, according to the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières. Since a military crackdown on August 25, around 650,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. These refugees now live in squalid, cramped camps in the poorest country in Asia.
Last Wednesday, Dublin City Council voted to rescind the Freedom of the City which was awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2000. The Burmese leader, once a symbol of democracy in a country where the military ruled, is now the leader of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
There has been global disgust at her complicity in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. In interviews — most notably with the BBC’s Fergal Keane — she has professed ignorance of what is going on.
The rescinding of the freedom honour is unprecedented. Aung San Suu Kyi’s award went up for grabs when Bob Geldof said last month that he was handing back his freedom award because he didn’t want to share the honour with her.
“I do not wish to be associated in any way with an individual currently engaged in the mass ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people of north-west Burma,” he said.
Geldof contacted the city manager on Sunday, November 12, and made a dramatic entrance to City Hall the following morning, scroll in hand, cameras flashing, microphones hovering. His actions made news across the world. Many people who knew of Geldof now heard for the first time about what was being done in Myanmar.
The Lord Mayor, Sinn Féin’s Mícheál Mac Donncha, was put out by it all. He noted that he had expressed concerns for the Rohingya.
“Regarding Mr Geldof, himself, I find it ironic that he makes this gesture while proudly retaining his title as Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, given the shameful record of British imperialism across the globe,” said Mac Donncha.
Having dragged the Brits into the current ethnic cleansing in Asia, the Lord Mayor then got another dig in at the Brit-loving celebrity.
“Mr Geldof last year grossly insulted the men and women of the 1916 Rising in the centenary year when he compared them to so-called Islamic State, causing offence to Dubliners and Irish people generally,” he said.
Geldof did stray from the national narrative in the centenary year to offer a different perspective on 1916. In the eyes of those who paint the past in cartoon brushstrokes, he committed sacrilege. This is particularly the case for anybody who likes to claim lineage between the Rebels of 1916 and the organised crime gang that was the Provisional IRA in the latter half of the 20th century.
On Wednesday, after Dublin City Council rescinded Aung San Suu Kyi’s award, it proceeded to do the same for Geldof’s to comply with the singer’s request. Geldof had made it clear when handing back the award that he would gladly hang onto it if Aung San Suu Kyi’s was rescinded. By last Wednesday, though, the city fathers had had enough of his antics and the embarrassment he had caused them.
Médecins Sans Frontières said this week that the estimate of 6,700 murders is conservative and was arrived at following extensive surveys in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“What we uncovered was staggering, both in terms of the numbers of people who reported a family member died as result of violence and the horrific ways in which they said they were killed or severely injured,” said the group’s director, Sidney Wong.
Gunshot wounds were the cause of death in 69% of cases. Another 9% were reportedly burned alive inside their homes, while 5% died from beatings. For children under five, nearly 60% died after being shot.
Geldof uses his celebrity as a battering ram. He tends to be brash and bombastic. He usually ignores the status and even feelings of those who have sparked his ire.
Back in the early 1980s, this attitude towards radio bosses in the US probably cost the Boomtown Rats a shot at the bigtime stateside.
The same approach informed his organisation of Live Aid and Band Aid, seminal events in raising consciousness about the plight of the world’s most wretched. He has harangued those who (nominally) run the global economy about writing off third-world debt. Over the last 15 years or so, he has played bad cop to Bono’s good cop in interactions with presidents, prime ministers, and even the Russian thug Vladamir Putin.
He can, on occasion, make a fool of himself. During the Brexit campaign in June 2016, he took to the Thames in a celebrity-laden stunt for the Remain side. Nigel Farage got wind of it and joined the battle on the river, portraying Geldof and his mates as personifying the “elite” whom Farage claimed to be the EU’s agents.
The TV pictures showed Geldof giving Farage two fingers across the waves. The whole incident played straight into the then Ukip leader’s hands.
That’s Geldof. Take him or leave him, but nobody can deny that he has made a serious difference.
On Thursday, on RTÉ’s Liveline, there was a kerfuffle over the decision to strip Geldof of his award.
The Lord Mayor came on the phone. “He [Geldof] flew in and handed back his scroll,” said Mac Donncha. “He didn’t go about it the correct way.”
Mac Donncha said he wasn’t in favour of reinstating the singer, whose attitude he described as “cavalier”.
Independent councillor Mannix Flynn said the whole thing was a “Sinn Féin stitch-up”, which Mac Donncha denied. Geldof, in a statement to Liveline, echoed Flynn’s opinion, adding that he was “disgusted” at the decision to take back his award.
To be fair to the Shinners, who hold the greatest number of seats on the council, they weren’t alone in nursing bruised egos. A motion to wait three months before rescinding Geldof’s honour, to see whether he still wanted to go ahead with it, was defeated.
While those in the refugee camps in Bangladesh have escaped a violent death, the spectre of disease and hunger hover on a daily basis. Aid workers say they have never seen conditions as bad as this. Around half of the refugees are children, many of whom are separated from their parents. Meanwhile, the world looks on, voicing concern and anger that is most likely transient.
Geldof made a small gesture with his stunt last month. He certainly raised consciousness about a humanitarian disaster from which the western world prefers to look away. He was never going to do anything that was polite and procedurally correct, but so what?
He will hardly lose sleep over how Dublin City Council has conducted itself in this affair. But the pettiness and small-minded actions of the councillors diminishes the elected forum on which they sit. It’s highly unlikely that, in this regard, they are representative of the city and certainly not of the country.