In the United Kingdom, an increasingly common response to crimes or immoral behaviour committed by individuals knighted by the Queen is to call for their knighthood to be stripped away. This is not an argument to which I have ever been particularly receptive. It seems both petty and futile; a symbolic move which does nothing to right any wrongs or to punish the accused in any meaningful way. Taking away Philip Green’s knighthood is not going to fix the British Home Store’s (BHS) pensions’ system; stripping Fred Goodwin, former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), of his knighthood did not rectify any of his actions. In fact, both men remain fabulously wealthy.
But the Nobel Peace Prize is different because it represents an idea. An idea of a life devoted to peace and the betterment of humanity. It is viewed as the ultimate moral award. This is despite being founded by a dynamite maker, and several missteps, the most obvious example being Henry Kissinger receiving the prize in 1973 for ending a war that didn’t actually end until 1975.
Yet such examples only make it more important that those who receive the prize for genuine good deeds are continually held to the standards for which they were first recognised. The Nobel Peace Prize is not a knighthood; there is a reason people are agitated about Kissinger, or Menachem Begin, or Yasser Arafat. The Nobel Peace Prize represents a global standard, to those who receive it and the wider world. Which brings us, finally, to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi was awarded the prize, rightfully, for her decades-long work to achieve democracy in Myanmar, during which she spent 15 years under house arrest. There was adulation around the world when she led her party to power in Myanmar’s first free elections in 25 years in 2015. Yet her time in power has increasingly been marked by criticism of her silence about, and complicity in, the violent and despicable treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
At the time of writing, over 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the beginning of a military crackdown on 25 August, most into neighbouring Bangladesh. There they are living in huge refugee camps with no sanitation and little food, in a country which struggles to care for its own people. The army claims that their operations are focused on rooting out terrorists, and has not touched any civilians. While it is worth admitting that, of course, not all of the Rohingya are saints and some of the reports of terrorism are justified, there are not 400,000 terrorists. People do not flee their homes and live in a tent in another country unless staying would risk injury and/or death.
Instead what is happening is what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Villages have been burned to the ground, often with people still inside. Women have been raped. Men have been beaten, often to death. Children have been stabbed or shot. All of the above has been documented by the UN as happening whilst family members are forced to watch, as a form of ‘psychological torture.’ These actions are not motivated by stopping terrorism, but by twisted, racially motivated sadism.
What is more shocking is that the report from which the above information is taken was published by the UN in February, before the present refugee crisis truly began. These war crimes were happening before people began to flee in large numbers. If this was the state of the matter in February, what new horrors are happening right now?
Since the crisis officially began, Suu Kyi has remained largely silent. That silence was broken by a speech on 19 September, in which she denied that clearance operations were going on in Rohingya areas, and stated that all people living there had access to education and healthcare. All such claims are demonstrably false.
Her defenders say quite rightly that her power is limited. Myanmar is not a full democracy; the army retains considerable power, and Suu Kyi has a limited scope to control them. Her precarious position of power requires the army’s support, and hence her silence on the Rohingya’s plight is motivated by wanting to stay in power rather than have the country plunge back in to military dictatorship.
There are a couple of responses to Suu Kyi’s position. One is from fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, who wrote to Suu Kyi to tell her that ‘if the political price of [her] ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is [her] silence, the price is surely too steep.’ But the other response is to say that Suu Kyi has not been silent, rather that she has been facilitating the horrors visited on the Rohingya.
Her government has prevented UN aid, in the form of basic supplies of food, water and medicine, from reaching people in need. When a Rohingya woman came forward with allegations of rape against government soldiers, Suu Kyi’s Facebook page ran a ‘Fake Rape’ campaign. This is on top of denying citiczenship rights to the Rohingya and requesting that the US not refer to the Rohingya by name (the government maintains the Rohingya are actually Bengali interlopers rather than an indigenous ethnic group, and they consequently have limited rights). Before they were killed in large numbers, the Rohingya had no right to freedom of worship, or education, or the right to marry and travel. Suu Kyi is not a passive bystander, constrained by political realities: she is directly complicit.
It is clear then that Suu Kyi does not uphold the standards of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to those who have devoted their lives to peace and justice. Those who turn away from such a life, and cause serious harm to their fellow citizens, should not be allowed to continue to claim the prestige of being a Nobel Laureate. Admittedly, stripping Suu Kyi of her prize will not improve the lives of the Rohingya. They need money and food and shelter, and protection from the Myanmar army’s abuses. But the international community cannot control the Myanmar army, and the criticism of Suu Kyi has so far achieved nothing. Suu Kyi cares about being a Nobel Laureate, and stripping her of her prize is a way for the international community to send her a message that has the potential to be noticed. But most importantly, this move would show the Rohingya that at the very least the international community recognises and condemns the atrocities happening to them.