Should the Rohingya Crisis Cost Aung San Suu Kyi Her Nobel Peace Prize?

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Once called Myanmar’s ‘Nelson Mandela’, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has caused a shocking u-turn. Her deafening silence as de facto ruler on the military’s persecution of the minority Muslim Rohingyas in the state of Rakhine over the last three years, and her denial of what the UN described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ in the region has now even caused concern over her status as a Nobel Prize Laureate. 

She has faced international criticism, notably from Prime Minister Theresa May and Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai for her deaf tone towards the Myanmar military’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims, a minority particularly prevalent in Rakhine State region of Myanmar. Thus, Suu Kyi faces global calls, including a petition signed by over 400,000 people, for the possible revocation of the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991.

The first and incumbent State Counsellor (de facto head of the civilian government) Aung San Suu Kyi won her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in the (then) Burma. After winning a presidential election in 1988 which the ruling military junta at the time refused to uphold, from 1989 onward she spent 15 years under house arrest. Currently, she’s appointed state counsellor after her party won a landslide election in 2015. Looking at the significant turnaround she has made in Myanmar, whilst maintaining non-violent, moral and democratic standing at the time, it’s vital to not undermine her previous accomplishments while debating revocation of her Nobel status.

Credit: TUBS, Myanmar in Asia (-mini map -rivers), CC BY-SA 3.0 [Wikimedia Commons]
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ‘My dear Aung San Suu Kyi’:

If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. 

Firstly, the Nobel Prize is a prestigious award only given to ‘people who have given their utmost to international brotherhood and sisterhood.’ Critics supporting the revocation of Suu Kyi’s Nobel prize believe such an award requires Nobel laureates, like Suu Kyi, to maintain these peaceful and democratic values til their dying days. From this, it’s apparent that Suu Kyi is directly at odds with the very moral standpoint that won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and secured her legitimacy in Myanmar. When a laureate deviates from their moral duty to the international brother and sisterhood, then for the sake of peace itself the prize should be returned or confiscated by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

On the other hand, due to the current constitutional power-sharing agreement, the military effectively controls many of the state’s levers of power and Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t exercise effective control over them. With this in mind, it should be made a point that the scope of responsibility and control that Suu Kyi has over the Rakhine state is limited. As a result, people argue that for this reason her Nobel Peace Prize cannot be revoked.

Aung San Suu Kyi (1991):

The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.  

In response, critics argue that despite these limitations, as State Counsellor, it is still not impossible for her to impose practical and legal measures and most importantly speak against this three-year genocide. Furthermore, despite such limitations of power Suu Kyi has gone disturbingly far to hide the crisis under the radar. Since the onset of increased international scrutiny, Aung San Suu Kyi has obstructed UN officials from investigating the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine and has even prevented aid agencies from distributing humanitarian aid to people displaced or isolated by the violence. She’s also repeatedly failed to condemn the military genocide against the Rohingyas, claiming recently that there had been ‘no conflicts since 5 September and no clearance operations’ against the Muslim minority. Advocate for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize, columnist George Monbiot, comments: ‘But, as well as a number of practical and legal measures…she possesses one power in abundance: the power to speak out. Rather than deploying it, her response amounts to a mixture of silence, the denial of well-documented evidence, and the obstruction of humanitarian aid.’

Nonetheless, The Nobel Committee has never revoked a prize and won’t in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case either, according to Gunnar Stalsett, a former committee member. ‘A peace prize has never been revoked and the committee does not issue condemnations or censure laureates,’ said Mr. Stalsett, deputy member of the Committee when Suu Kyi received her award. However, Stalsett himself believes a change or exception must be made because ‘we now contemplate an extraordinary situation: a Nobel peace laureate complicit in crimes against humanity’.

Regardless of the Nobel Committee’s stand on revocation, ultimately it’s imperative for all of us and our government officials across the world to bring justice and citizenship recognition to the ‘world’s most prosecuted minority’ in Myanmar. The UN’s February report on the Rohingya Crisis is grotesque and horrifying, with mentions of mass rape, people’s throats slit in front of their family and the persistent extermination of the minority by the country’s military. They’re clearly crimes against humanity and systematic changes in Myanmar must be made to recognise the rights of Rohingya Muslims.

Reforms should also be probably made by the Nobel Committee of their award schemes. As raised by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, Suu Kyi’s case asks fundamental questions about how should we award people of such titles as the Nobel Peace Prize: ‘Maybe we need to change who gets the Nobel Peace Prize and when. People have won this prize and benefited from all this prestige and they’ve gone on to not be peaceful.’.

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Second Year Politics & International Relations student with an opinion no one asked for

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