The Lives of Two Nobel Laureates

Published on October 19, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

As the season of the world’s prestigious prize announcements are underway, the circumstances of two renowned Nobel Peace Prize recipients are riveting: the stories of Barack Obama of the United States of America and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.
Many Americans awoke surprise on October 9 when the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2009 peace prize to the 44th president of the United States of America. In fact, the president himself said he was "surprised and deeply humbled" and does not deserve to be in the company of many other transformative figures who have been honored.
By receiving the prize in less than a year in the White House, Obama has become the fourth sitting U.S. president to have been honored by the Nobel Committee. The other three recipients were: Jimmy Carter in 2002, Woodrow Wilson in 1919, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
The Nobel committee said it awarded the prize to Obama for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." He is basically awarded for the goals yet to be achieved.
Though there are pockets of criticisms and reservations on the selection, the Nobel Committee was convinced that it was too good to ignore Obama’s emphasis on disarmament and diplomacy. The committee was reportedly buoyed by Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world, laid out in a speech in Prague in April and at the United Nations in September.
During his visit to Moscow in July, president Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev agreed to work out a new limit on delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads of between 500 and 1,100. The two leaders also agreed to reduce warhead from the current range of 1,700-2,200 to as low as 1,500.
In his historic address to the Muslim world from Cairo in June, Obama tried to reinvigorate the relationship between the United States and the Muslims. He offered a new beginning of relationship based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, and common principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
By deciding to end the unpopular war in Iraq and shifting the U.S. focus on Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has earned greater international support, especially from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.
While the prize may add to his international image, president Obama’s popularity at home is declining in recent months. The October 1-5 Associated Press poll showed that 56 percent of Americans approved his job performance. September 17-20 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only half of all Americans backed his handling of foreign policy. According to Gallup poll, Obama had 83 percent approval rating in January.
At the other end of the world, there is another Nobel Peace Laureate who has spent her life under very different circumstances. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights" in 1991. Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention since July 1989.
During the general election in 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 485 seats contested in the 492-member assembly. The military-backed National Unity Party (formerly known as Burma Socialist Programme Party) secured only 10 seats. Despite the resounding victory, the party was never allowed to form a government.
Obama was privileged to be born in a country where fundamental democratic principles are respected, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 2009 Nobel Laureate could freely organize and ran for a Senate seat, and later vied for presidency. In contrast, the 1991 Laureate was barred from the 1990 general election, and she is likely to remain behind bars until the military junta’s proposed 2010 election is over.
Obama is expected to be in Oslo in person to deliver an acceptance speech in December. In 1991, Suu Kyi’s prize was received by her son Alexander Aris. In his speech, Aris said: “I know that if she were free today my mother would, in thanking you, also ask you to pray that the oppressors and the oppressed should throw down their weapons and join together to build a nation founded on humanity in the spirit of peace.”
Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be a staunch advocate and believer of non-violence who likes to resolve the conflicts in Burma peacefully. In the latest sign of positive development, at her request, Suu Kyi was allowed to meet diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia on October 9 to discuss their views on sanctions on Burma. This issue, for a while, has been Than Shwe’s (junta chief) key condition for entering a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sadly in Burma, there is no independent Gallup poll to gauge the popularity of Suu Kyi. Nevertheless, she remains to be a promising leader who can be widely accepted by the different ethnic groups of the country.
While Obama is building his international image through diplomacy, Suu Kyi in her utmost capacity is working to establish a democratic society in her country.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum ( He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.