Suu Kyi rightfully received the Nobel Peace Prize of 1991, but her silence over human rights violations against the Rohingya betrays her past ideals

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to Myanmar’s democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

The Nobel Committee statement read, “In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize ... to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honor this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.”

Suu Kyi could neither receive her Nobel Peace Prize in person nor deliver her speech. The military government which came to power on 2 March 1962, after a successful coup d’état, put her under house arrest. She spent much of her time between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest for her opposition to the government’s human rights abuses and restrictions on personal freedoms.

Suu Kyi only delivered her Nobel lecture on 16 June 2012 — 21 years after receiving the Prize. “[For] me,” she said at the time, “receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders.”

Suu Kyi’s efforts had been commendable, given Myanmar’s troubled political history. Myanmar gained its independence from British rule in 1948. The fragile state structures and nascent democratic institutions built by Myanmar’s founders struggled to guarantee peaceful coexistence among the bewildering ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in the country.

Domestic issues, ethnic violence, growing insurgency movements, corruption and mismanagement within the government, all led the Army — which considers itself the founder and sole protector of Myanmar — to seize rule in 1962. But the military regime did not abate the problems; its brutal practices only exacerbated the situation in Myanmar, escalating ethnic conflicts and violence, especially against the Rohingya Muslims, who number over a million people.

Rohingya Muslims, who form majority in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar, have been the most vulnerable minority in the country. Mainly rural and poor, the Rohingyas are denied even the most basic rights, including the right to citizenship. Over the past two decades, they have also been at the receiving end of violence from the Myanmar military and extremist Buddhist groups.

Many international organizations, including the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have reported on the military’s involvement in extrajudicial killings, torture, destruction of property owned by Rohingya Muslims, and sexual violence against Rohingya women. These dastardly acts and policies attracted international censure and sanctions against the military government.

In this context, Suu Kyi's non-violent struggle against the military government made her an iconic figure. The Nobel website described her as Myanmar’s “modern symbol of freedom”. She represented “hope” for the people of Myanmar and the peaceful unity of the country with its long persecuted minorities, including the ethnic Rohingya. She had said in her Nobel lecture that “Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union.” She had also stated that she stands “ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation.” Her ultimate aim, she said, was “to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless.”

Thus, she rightfully received the Nobel Peace Prize of 1991, serving as a model to the whole world and to the principles of the prestigious prize. International pressure, combined with years of efforts by the United Nations, forced the military government to release Suu Kyi unconditionally on 13 November 2010. Suu Kyi described her release as “a new dawn for the country.” However, the military government barred her from running for President on the ground that her children “owe allegiance to a foreign power,” because they were British citizens.

Nonetheless, ahead of the 2015 general elections, Suu Kyi said that if her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), wins the election, she would be “above the president”. The NLD did win Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years, receiving 135 seats out of 224 in the Upper House, and 255 seats out of 440 in the Lower House.

Suu Kyi then became the State Counselor, a more leveraged position than the presidency, the latter being merely nominal owing to the military’s continued grip on the government. However, under Suu Kyi, the human rights record of the Myanmar government has only deteriorated further, and the violent persecution of some ethnic minorities – including the Rohingyas – still persists.  

The UN’s report on the Rohingyas, dated 3 February 2017, details violations carried out by the Myanmar government – including the destruction of the property owned by the Rohingyas, ethnic killings, widespread torture, sexual violence against women and massive displacement (both internal and cross-border). The report stated that approximately 90,000 Rohingya Muslims are estimated to have suffered internal or cross-border displacement since 9 October 2016.

The military recently razed dozens of Rohingya villages, causing massive destruction, death and displacement. This followed attacks by Rohingya militants – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – on 30 security posts in northern Rakhine. But the government has been too quick to blame the Rohingyas for religious extremism and foreign support, and brushes off all the killing and destruction in civilian zones as a case of the Rohingyas setting fire to their own homes.  Eyewitness accounts, however, have blamed the military and ethnic Rakhine militias for the massive destruction and killing of civilians, including children.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein has warned the world about Myanmar’s continued pattern of violation against the Rohingyas, and further added that the government should stop asserting that the Rohingyas are setting fire to their own houses. He said, “We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians.” The UNHCHR also stated in the same report that over 270,000 people have fled into Bangladesh in less than three weeks, and they are only allowed back if they have proof of nationality, which the Myanmar government has denied to the Rohingyas since 1962.

Despite the atrocities and the likelihood of a genocide against ethnic Rohingyas, Suu Kyi seems to have sided with the government in rejecting the UN inquiry into crimes against the Rohingyas and blocking all UN aid to civilians. At best, she has stayed silent over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims under her rule.  

Elie Wiesel, the renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1986 famously stated in his Nobel acceptance speech, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Suu Kyi’s debilitating silence in the face of grave human rights violations, which the UN has categorized as crimes against humanity, degrades the Nobel Peace Prize which she still holds. Her stance on the Rohingya issue betrays the ideals she once stood for, and for which she was honored with the Noble Peace Prize in 1991. Suu Kyi’s continued occupation of the title of a Nobel Peace Laureate betrays the principles of the Nobel Peace Prize and certainly discredits the Nobel Foundation. Therefore, it is time to earnestly consider revoking her title.

This will protect the high standing of the Nobel Peace Prize, set a good precedent for the future, and reinstate the idea that the Nobel Peace Prize is a life-long dedication to the human cause amidst inordinate challenges, as Mandela and others personified in their worldly existence.

Huseyin Tunc is a Research Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University.