The Nobel Peace Prize Cannot be a Lifetime Pass

Former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi address the UN General Assembly in September this year, she has faced critic
Former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi address the UN General Assembly in September this year, she has faced criticism for failing to stop violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority.

On the day that the great and the good prepare to congratulate Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on his award of the Nobel Peace Prize, it would seem rude to act the party pooper. The recognition for Colombia’s remarkable journey towards peace is well deserved. In raising concerns, the issue of credibility, is not one for the cause being celebrated but rather the method of celebration.

When in 1973 the Nobel committee awarded the prize jointly to Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho and the American Henry Kissinger - a man central to the escalation of the US bombing campaign into neighbouring countries - the humorist Tom Lehrer memorably noted that the decision rendered political satire obsolete.

Last year the former chair of the awarding committee Geir Lundestad expressed his regret of the award to President Obama. The decision was made just months into the president’s first term, apparently entirely on the basis of his rhetoric rather than his actions.

Recent events in South East Asia have also called into question the true commitment to peace of another high-profile Nobel laureate.

For many years, Myanmar’s 1.3 million strong Muslim minority has been the subject of institutional discrimination. During nearly 50 years of military rule, the Rohingya people had been the chosen pariahs of the junta’s pernicious form of religious nationalism. In the 2014 national census, the government refused even to recognise the citizenship of the Rohingya, classing them instead as stateless Bengalis.

Myanmar’s democrats also paid a heavy price under the Generals. Among the country’s dissidents, none had a higher profile than the political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose popularity among Myanmar’s people posed such a threat to the regime that she was placed under house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Suu Kyi’s dignity under persecution saw her become a global cause célèbre, and the focal point of her country’s democratic movement. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Suu Kyi used her lecture to quote extensively from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the date of the awards ceremony falling as it does every year on 10 December, Human Rights Day. She also noted that as she had left Rangoon, communal violence had broken out against the Rohingya.

Her commitment and resilience ultimately saw Suu Kyi prevail. In the elections last year her party won in a complete landslide, taking 86% of seats in the assembly, as she became the de facto head of government. With such a powerful mandate for a champion of human rights, the world might have thought it would see a step change in Myanmar’s treatment of its minorities. This has not, however, been the case.

Instead a surge of violence and forced displacement of Rohingya has taken place on a scale almost unprecedented in over 30 years. In what is in essence a scorched earth policy, the murder and rape of Rohingya has been widespread, combined with the systematic destruction of their homes and property. The situation has deteriorated to the extent that the head of the UN’s local refugee agency has said the ultimate goal is - in that appalling euphemism - nothing less than the “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.

The Rohingya now find themselves in an utterly perverse situation, the victims of horrendous violence at the hands of a devoutly Buddhist majority. It should not have been unreasonable for them to expect that their basic human rights would be respected with the transition from the military junta. Instead after democratic elections and under the leadership of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the country has not halted the discrimination, instead it continues down a path that leads unmistakably toward genocide.

As a woman and activist who spoke of my solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is truly shocking. These are things I thought I would never see - Buddhists enacting such terrible violence against their fellow humans, and me attacking a woman who has campaigned so fiercely for human rights and suffered so gravely for it.

Suu Kyi has a responsibility as a leader, as a democrat, as a human being to do all she can to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya. The years of hatred that the junta built up against the Muslim minority cannot be undone overnight. But Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity and credibility and gives her the strongest platform possible to calm the situation, end the violence and bring the Rohingya back into Myanmar’s society.

Instead she has dismissed global calls to stop the violence and displacement of Rohingya with a quite unbelievable retort, demanding that critics "show me a country without human rights issues.”

The murder and mass expulsion of Rohingya are not “issues”, they are nothing less than crimes against humanity. These callous words are just the kind of response that could quite easily have come from the men who imprisoned her for so long.

When Kissinger was awarded the peace prize, Lehrer said that it was satire that was left obsolete, if the elimination of Myanmar’s Rohingya is overseen by a Nobel laureate, it will be the peace prize itself that is finally rendered meaningless.

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