Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of a rebellious, pro-democracy and human rights movement in Myanmar, spent over 15 years under tight house arrest by the government. In 1997, the government gave her the option of temporarily leaving the country to visit her dying husband in England, but she feared the government would not allow her to re-enter the country if she left. Her dedication to bringing democracy and reform to Myanmar made her an icon for human rights and earned her international acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. After her house arrest ended in 2010, she began a rapid ascent to power. Now the State Counsellor, a position that makes her the de facto Prime Minister, Suu Kyi’s government is engaging in a systematic campaign to cleanse Myanmar of its ethnic Muslim minority, the Rohingya. Twenty-six years after bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Suu Kyi, the Nobel Committee ought to rescind the honor.
The Rohingya are the descendants of an ethnic group known as the Arakan, which traces its roots in Myanmar back centuries. The Rohingya have their own language and are ethnically separate from Myanmar. Today, the majority reside in the southern state of Rakhine, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Despite Suu Kyi’s promise to bring democracy to Myanmar and the Rohingya’s long-standing history in the country, they are denied equal rights, legal protection, citizenship and the right to vote. Although the Rohingya have faced longstanding prejudice and discrimination, pressure from extreme Buddhist nationalists in recent years has made it politically acceptable to remove the Rohingya. According to Human Rights Watch, an international human rights research and advocacy organization, the government of Myanmar has set fire to hundreds of Rohingya settlements, with an estimated 748 killed and over 500,000 displaced. According to the “New York Times,” that number includes hundreds of orphans. Fleeing civilians are attacked, sexually assaulted, face starvation, dehydration and are murdered. Without a country to call home, the Rohingya are fleeing to nations across the Asia Pacific, causing a burden for poorer nations who do not have the capacity to accommodate the refugees.
In addition, the government of Myanmar had delayed and even prevented humanitarian organizations from distributing food, water, medicine and other necessities to the Rohingya. The most popular destination for the fleeing Rohingya is Bangladesh, where an ineffective government lacks the financial means to care for the outpouring people and provide shelter. Despite this, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made plans to accept around 400,000 refugees and construct massive refugee camps along the border. Despite her hospitality, the Rohingya often face opposition from the citizens of the countries they flee to, where nationalism and xenophobia often lead to violence against the refugees.
Despite these atrocities, Suu Kyi has maintained a firm position against accusations from the international community that she is violating human rights. Her government still refuses to recognize the Rohingya as a seperate ethnic group, instead referring to the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. In March of 2016, after being interviewed by a Muslim reporter for the BBC, Suu Kyi complained that “no one told [her] [she] was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” Her blatant Islamophobia and inability to protect all the citizens of the nation she fought so hard to bring democracy to are reason enough to strip her of her Nobel Peace Prize.
However, the Nobel Committee has a longstanding policy against rescinding awards, protected by the tenth statute of the Nobel Foundation’s charter. While this rule may be a tradition, blanket rules like this are too broad and allow for Nobel award winners to deviate from the behavior that won them the award. The Nobel Peace Prize’s image and prestige is cemented worldwide, guaranteeing its recipient a position of moral authority. The influence and respect that come with the prize are too great to go into the wrong hands. By allowing Suu Kyi to keep the prize, the Norwegian parliament, which chooses the Nobel Committee members, is corrupting the prestige and honor of the award, complicity approving of Suu Kyi’s human rights abuses. While the committee may fail to recognize the prizes’ symbolism, other Nobel Laureates are not.
On Sept. 5, 2016, Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 recipient of the prize, wrote a public letter to the United Nations that harshly condemned Suu Kyi’s treatment of the Rohingya. Joining him in signing the letter was a myriad of human rights activists and public figures, including eleven other Nobel Peace Prize winners, among them Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Nobel laureates have endured great ordeals and demonstrated great courage that led to their Nobel Peace Prizes. Many have risked their lives because they believe in helping people regardless of characteristics like race or religion. Suu Kyi’s treatment of the Rohingya shows that she lacks the same compassion and commitment to helping all people.
While this letter lacks the teeth to force change, the Norwegian members of the Nobel Committee should take note of the sheer number of previous award winners who condemn Suu Kyi’s actions and remember the power and responsibility that their prize carries.