Should Suu Kyi be stripped of her Nobel Prize?

Published on November 4, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Manila Times – November 4, 2016

There is an online campaign calling for the confiscation of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. The petition demands the Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to “confiscate or take back” the prize and argues that it should be awarded to “only those who are serious in keeping the world peace…”

Is such petition uncalled for or has its own merit of serious consideration? This campaign has its root in the 2012 conflict between the Rakhines and Rohingyas, which resulted in the death of over a hundred people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands, mostly the stateless Rohingyas.

The campaign against Suu Kyi gained momentum after the publication of a biography written by Peter Popham, titled “The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for freedom,” which revealed that Suu Kyi lost her temper during a heated interview in October 2013 with BBC Today anchor Mishal Husain, a Muslim of Pakistani descent.

During the interview, the TV anchor reportedly asked Suu Kyi as to why she did not speak out on the hardships faced by the Muslims in Myanmar. Suu Kyi was also reportedly asked to condemn the anti-Muslim sentiment and to those who acted violently against the Muslims that forced thousands of Rohingyas to leave Myanmar. After the interview, Suu Kyi allegedly said, “No one told me I would be interviewed by a Muslim.”

Thousands of people, many of whom are from the Muslim-majority Indonesia, have joined the call for the revocation of the peace prize awarded to Myanmar’s state counselor and its de-facto leader.

Emerson Yuntho, an anti-graft activist who co-initiated the online petition said, “Many people were shocked that such words came from Suu Kyi. It might be just one sentence, but they have deep meanings for every person who loves peace.”

Suu Kyi also faces mounting criticism for her government’s handling of a crisis in the Rakhine state in the aftermath of the coordinated attack on October 9 that killed nine border police personnel.

The government has said that five soldiers and at least 33 insurgents have been killed in clashes with an Islamic group it believes has around 400 members, mostly drawn from the Rohingya community.

The main criticism of Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government is over human rights violations, such as killings, looting and sexual assaults committed by the government soldiers against civilians.

Suu Kyi and her NLD government are also accused of not doing enough to ensure the entry of international aid workers and other humanitarian assistance groups to the Muslim areas.

The government has so far backed the military’s position that the army is conducting carefully targeted operations against Islamist militants it blames for the October attacks. The military has also claimed that access to the area was banned or restricted for security reason.

Suu Kyi has also come under criticism from some people inside the country as well as the international community arguing that she has given more importance to diplomacy works and international travel than solving Myanmar’s pressing domestic problems.

The question is does Suu Kyi’s actions or reticence become serious enough to the point of stripping the Nobel Peace Prize she received more than two decades ago. She was awarded the much-coveted prize in absentia “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

In 1991, Suu Kyi was under house arrest and her political future career was uncertain. She was largely seen as a democratic icon and human rights advocate, rather than a politician.

But since then, a lot of political changes have happened and so does the political reality of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

First and foremost, Suu Kyi is now a politician who wants to lead the country. As the situation demands, Suu Kyi has transformed herself from being an activist to an astute politician.

Second, Suu Kyi ethnically belongs to the Bama or Burman or Myanma group, which forms almost two-thirds of the country’s population. Since she is the leader of the party dominated by the Bama group, it is in her political interest to win the support of the Bama voters.

Such political calculation entails the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient to ignore or remain reticent on some of the issues she previously stood for. More importantly, she is diligently treading on the sensitive question of identity and citizenship issues of the Rohingyas, who are largely considered in Myanmar as Bengalis or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The formation of the nine-member State Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is one notable initiative Aung San Suu Kyi has taken in her attempt to address the problem surrounding the Rohingyas, who the government officially calls ‘the Muslims of Rakhine’.

Certainly, there are reasons that make people critical of Suu Kyi’s approach or her government’s policy toward the country’s Muslim population, but it may be too much to call for the stripping or revocation of the Nobel Peace Prize which she won for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights over two decades ago.

Moreover, the army-drafted constitution gives the military in charge of three crucial ministries – home, border affairs, and defense, which puts the military firmly in control of security matters.

For some, Suu Kyi’s gradual change of priorities is unfortunate but for others it is a matter of a shift from an activist role to that of a pragmatic politician.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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