Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize?

Myanmar's Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends a regular session of the parliament at Myanmar Lower House on Tuesday, A
Myanmar's Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends a regular session of the parliament at Myanmar Lower House on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

The Nobel Peace prize is generally awarded in recognition of achievements; or as inspiration to help mobilize international pressure to support human rights activists in countries where reform is urgently needed. President Obama's Peace prize in 2009 was for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" and for fostering "a new climate" in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world.

Beyond the notable speech in Cairo, President Obama has done little more than to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq and soon, Afghanistan. The Nobel Peace prize has again lost a little of its luster, somewhat tarnished by the award to Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. Le Duc Tho had the integrity to refuse the prize as his North Vietnamese troops were still moving south and peace did not come until 1975.

So with the latest Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, hopefully, the symbol of the Peace Prize becomes more meaningful. Leader of the Democracy movement in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has for many years represented peaceful resistance to oppression. In her acceptance speech she said the award was for "a free, secure and just society" and international acknowledgement that "the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world."

Aware that she had a huge task ahead in Myanmar with the still present iron hand of military oppression, she became the focus of the hopes of the people of Myanmar for democracy and freedom. After all, Nobel Peace Laureates bear with them a responsibility to be international moral brokers for a world in need of leaders, and it is with profound disappointment that Aung San Suu Kyi has not lived up to early expectations. Her silence on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people in the Arakan province in Myanmar is inexplicable in light of her previous moral stands against oppression. At a time when human rights are being so blatantly and cruelly abused, her moral authority is surely of high enough standing that she could risk supporting an unpopular cause.

For it is politics that seems to be dictating her silence and the risk of alienating many of her political allies whose support she needs in the next election.

According to Maung Zami, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, "Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain by opening her mouth on this. She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."

If this is indeed true, then the tragedy of the 800,000 Rohingya people is even greater. The persecuted Rohingya people are outcasts in a Buddhist society and there is a widespread belief, in government and even among some pro-democracy groups, that they are "illegal immigrants from Bangladesh." A 1982 law excluded them from being recognized as an official minority and they have never been granted citizenship. Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the recent upsurge in violence has led to a humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees are fleeing the security forces and the local Buddhists and seeking refuge over the border in Bangladesh.

The government of Bangladesh however, is refusing these stateless refugees access to humanitarian aid. As reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there is widespread famine in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. In spite of reports from Human Rights Watch, United Nations and prominent aid organizations, the Rohingya people continue to suffer terribly on both sides of the border, in Arakan state in Burma and in the Cox's Bazaar area in Bangladesh.

International response has been slow and the perception in the Muslim world is that the West is turning a blind eye. However, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is responding with leadership from Turkey and the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma is calling for an independent international investigation into the crisis. Questions are being asked in the British Parliament and in the US Congress, but no amount of paper and words can bring immediate relief to the Rohingya people. Only action from within Burma can stop the continuing human rights abuses and the ethnic cleansing that is being carried out in the name of the Buddhist state.

Aung San Suu Kyi has the moral authority to call on the generals to stop the human tragedy taking place. The specious argument that these people are not Burmese citizens calls to mind the bumper sticker familiar in the US immigration debate, "No human being is illegal." Whether born in Burma or not, whether they speak a Bangladeshi dialect or not, whether they are Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, the Rohingya people deserve the world's compassion and protection from oppression and persecution.

As in the US where illegal immigration is an issue, the Burmese government must acknowledge that even illegal immigrants have basic human rights. If they are not welcomed and integrated they should be treated in a way that respects human dignity, due process and the rule of law. Burma has come a long way but if the Nobel Peace Prize is to continue to be relevant today, then Aung San Suu Kyi should speak out for all people in her country and work for a genuine peace process with all ethnic minorities, so that Burma/Myanmar can truly become free.

There remains something deeply flawed in the Buddhist nation, with its ancient traditions of peace and non-aggression, if anti-Muslim rhetoric is encouraged as a way of diverting attention from the generals' abuses of power. Perhaps the Nobel Committee should look again at its criteria for awarding the Peace Prize and reconsider its recent decisions. The prize should be awarded for the attainment of peace and freedom, for the real achievement of an end to sectarian violence, not just talking about it, hoping for it and wishing it were true. That will not feed or shelter a destitute and persecuted Rohingya family tonight. They need a champion now, to speak up now on their behalf against all persecution no matter who is the oppressor and who the oppressed. Matthew Smith, a researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it was difficult for ordinary citizens to be objective because there was a widespread belief that all Rohingya are "illegal immigrants from Bangladesh", including at the highest levels of government.

"Young bloggers seeking the truth and attempting to approach the issue objectively should be applauded," he said.

"Sometimes the protection of human rights depends on courageous voices willing to stand up despite great social pressure, and this is one of those times."

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge and served as an International Security Research Fellow at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.