NATIONAL leaders get criticised all the time for not doing the right thing.
But when it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi and the backlash she now faces for her reaction to the recent Rohingya crisis, the backlash has an added dimension to it: She’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
More than thousands have fled their homes in Burma’s Rakhine State after an attack by a few Rohingya insurgents late August prompted the country’s military to retaliate by burning their homes and opening fire. Many are wounded and in dire conditions, as they set on an exodus to neighbouring Bangladesh – a situation the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warn is a risk of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Suu Kyi was supposed to fix this when she became the country’s de facto leader after the country’s 2015 general elections. Yet, the crisis has escalated into what is being called the ‘deadliest bout of violence’ to hit the persecuted minority in decades.
As pressure from states, rights bodies and even a fellow Nobel laureate on Twitter builds against Suu Kyi to halt the violence, so are calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. There’s even a petition filed to confiscate her prize on Change.org -at the time of writing, supported by 361,344 people.
A Nobel peace laureate complicit in crimes against humanity: for how long can this be sustained? https://t.co/Jm7HNlt580
— GeorgeMonbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) September 6, 2017
But what’s the deal with her Peace Prize anyway? Are these calls justified? To help you make sense of this, here are three things you should know:
1. Why it was awarded in the first place
The Nobel committee conferred the honour on her in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” and to draw the world’s attention to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.
“In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize … to Aung San Suu Kyi,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it wished “to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”.
They then added that Suu Kyi was “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression”.
Suu Kyi had been placed on house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from her arrest in July 1989 after her movement to restore democracy to the country was deemed too popular by the military junta. She did not see her husband and sons for years. Her struggle was one of patience and resilience despite the costs to her and her family in the name of freedom. She was a hero then, and rightly so.
2. Not the first time people are calling for her award to be revoked
Doubts over Suu Kyi’s award have been made as early as May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya refugees began arriving in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. This sent the region into a humanitarian crisis as nations scrambled to decide who shall let them take refuge while thousands lay stranded on rickety boats with their lives at risk. Hundreds died.
Suu Kyi did not condemn or fully acknowledge this. Penny Green, a law professor at the University of London wrote in an op-ed in The Independent that her silence makes her complicit, saying the opposition leader then could have challenged “the vile racism and Islamophobia which characterises Burmese political and social discourse”.
Journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote in Al Jazeera: “Shouldn’t we expect more from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?”
— Mohammad Anwar (@MAnwarMQM) September 5, 2017
Suu Kyi isn’t the first laureate to stir controversy either. Awards to former US President, Barack Obama (2009) and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973) were deemed a mockery of the prize. As did the joint award to Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But Hasan made an important distinction between them and Suu Kyi:
“Rabin, Arafat, Obama … ultimately, of course, they’re all politicians. Suu Kyi was supposed to be something else, something more; a moral icon, a human rights champion, a latter-day Gandhi.”
Anwar Sha, president of Burmese Rohingya Community, who held protests in Sydney, Australia this week told Asian Correspondent: “She could do more”.
3. Award will most likely stay
In the 116-year history of the prize, no prize had ever been rescinded. According to Gunnar Stalstett, a former committee member, the committee will not be doing so in Suu Kyi’s case either.
Speaking to New York Times, Stalstett, who was also a deputy member of the committee in the year Suu Kyi received her award, said: “A peace prize has never been revoked and the committee does not issue condemnations or censure laureates”.
It’s not possible to revoke even, as laid out in Section 10 of the statutes of the Nobel Foundation which reads:
“No appeals may be made against the decision of a prize-awarding body with regard to the award of a prize.”
Stalstett said the award is not “a declaration of a saint” and the committee does not hold any responsibility after the award’s been given.
To Maznah Mohamad, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s department of Southeast Asian Studies, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize isn’t the issue. Speaking to Asian Correspondent, Maznah said the media attention on her human rights award was a “distraction” in the midst of more pressing issues.
“I don’t think revoking the prize would be the right way to solve the issue. I think the most immediate issue is to solve the problem.”