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The Nobel Prize - And The Flaws Of Aung San Suu Kyi

15/09/2017 15:57
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

I have just a smidgen of sympathy for the Nobel Peace Prize committee. How were they to know that, 26 years after they awarded their prize to the (then) universally-admired Burmese human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, she would emerge as - how can I put it? - a somewhat flawed political leader?

After all, the general idea is that they award their prizes in rccognition of past achievements, not as a forecast of future performance. (For some inexplicable reason, they decided to make an exception for Barack Obama, who was garlanded in 2009 after less than a year in the White House.)

Soon, they will announce this year's winner - and I imagine they will be crossing their fingers that whoever they choose will turn out to be less, er, flawed than Suu Kyi. (Pope Francis seems to be one of the favourites, so there's plenty of scope, if he wins, for him to say or do something that is bound to upset someone, somewhere.)

That's the trouble, of course, with giving people prizes while they are still alive. Much better, I would have thought, to wait, as the Catholic Church does, for them to be well and truly dead before anointing them as saints.

Are Nobel Peace Prize winners living saints? Probably not, or at least not all of them, given that among their number they count Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who won the prize in 1973, jointly with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam.

Tho refused to accept it, on the not unreasonable grounds that at the time the award was made, war was still raging in Vietnam and neither he nor Dr Kissinger had brought about peace. Kissinger, however, had no such qualms, leading the song-writer and satirist Tom Lehrer to remark that 'political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.'

Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991 'for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights'. Few would have argued then that she was not a worthy winner -- indeed, many spoke of her in the same breath as suth other secular saints as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Not any more. She has refused to condemn the appalling treatment being meted out by the Burmese military to the Rohingya Muslims, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, preferring instead to condemn people she calls 'terrorists' for creating a 'huge iceberg of misinformation'.

Her fellow peace prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have both spoken out against her -- as has the Dalai Lama -- and the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has described what's happening as 'ethnic cleansing'.

As he said during a news conference in New York on Wednesday: 'When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it?'

So what has happened to the valiant campaigner for human rights, who paid such a high price for her refusal to bow to the Burmese military? The short answer is that the idealist campaigner has become the pragmatist politician. The slightly longer answer is that she was never quite as saintly as some of her more ardent admirers wanted to believe.

Perhaps it is a mistake to award the Nobel Peace Prize to politicians (although to be fair, few could have predicted in 1991 that Suu Kyi might one day be sharing power with the generals who had persecuted her for so long). Keep it for the likes of retired politicians who have devoted their post-political lives to building bridges and fostering democratic reforms -- ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace Prize winner 2002) or Martti Ahtisaari (2008) -- or international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who was mortified to read a prematurely-published obituary which labelled him 'the merchant of death', laid down in his will that the peace prize should be awarded to whoever 'shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.'

According to the peace prize committee, the most popular prize-winners ever (I have no idea how they measured popularity) have been Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979), Malala Yousafzai (2014) -- and Aung San Suu Kyi. I suspect that might have changed a bit over the past couple of weeks.

So spare a thought for the five Norwegian luminaries, appointed by the Norwegian parliament and chaired by Berit Reiss-Andersen, a corporate lawyer and part-time writer of crime novels, who will be deciding - or have already decided - on this year's winner.

Perhaps they'll play safe and give the prize to the Red Cross, even if it has won three times already, in 1917, 1944 and 1963. If they do, I can't say I'd blame them.

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