Should Aung San Suu Kyi be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize?

Aung San Suu Kyi is known across the world as a devoted pro-democracy fighter and a beacon of perseverant light against autocracy. However, in recent months, global leaders and media have become particularly concerned about her response towards the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. The UN has called the situation akin to ethnic cleansing, a claim which has been refuted by Aung San Suu Kyi. Baffled by her silence and refusal to condemn the crimes against the Rohingya, numerous people, including many of her fellow Nobel laureates, have appealed for her to speak for the Rohingya and stand up against the violence targeted towards them.  There have even been calls to remove her Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her decades-long stance against military dictatorship in Myanmar.

The purpose of removing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize would be a symbolic one: to communicate the world’s condemnation of crimes against the Rohingya and of her continued silence on the matter, and perhaps to incite a response from her. At the heart of the world’s interest in this crisis should be the welfare of the Rohingya. However, it is highly questionable whether removing the Noble Prize would significantly further this goal. The Nobel Institution has stated that retracting the prestigious prize is not a course of action pursued by its committee. What follows is a brief outline of the main reasons why I do not believe that removing the Nobel Prize would be a beneficial or appropriate course of action.

The Nobel Peace Prize was given to Aung San Suu Kyi as a recognition of her long and arduous fight against military dictatorship, during which she spent years under house-arrest, sacrificing much of her personal life to stand as a symbol for democracy and human rights. The current crisis and accusations of her complicity do not change the fact that she fought for peace and equal rights in a time when few others were able or willing to do so in Myanmar. World leaders recognised this and awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize. Removing her prize would signal that in the face of current events, none of her previous actions matter. Perhaps this would be a strong message that silence or compliance with clear human rights violations will not be tolerated. However, if Nobel Prizes can be retracted with the unfolding of new events, the point of the whole institution is drawn into question. Whether her Nobel Peace Prize is removed or not, Aung San Suu Kyi will always be in the records as having received it; this can never be changed.

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to have many supporters in Myanmar. Any influence that her Nobel Peace Prize has on their support is no doubt negligible. However, when representatives of foreign countries, especially developed countries whose power relationships with less developed countries are almost always skewed seek to pressure Myanmar’s de facto leader by removing an internationally recognised symbol of prestige, bitterness and souring of relations is inevitable. This exposes a whole new dynamic in this debate. Though world-renowned, the Nobel Institution is rooted in Western society, far-removed from the daily lives of many Myanmar citizens. Ultimately, the rhetoric regarding Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize reveals the control exerted by wealthier nations, and could seem like another move by world powers to manipulate Myanmar’s politics. In other words, this becomes another power play, with the risk of spinning more resentment into a web of already complicated dynamics. The possible advantages to the Rohingya are hard to deduce.

There are no doubt those who hold hope in Aung San Suu Kyi, believing that she may be working behind the scenes, caught in a difficult situation where she must appease various different parties to maintain some semblance of stability, and that she may yet change course and speak out. Whatever the situation, stripping her of the Nobel Prize without proper investigation is a hasty response. Surely a Nobel laureate should be granted more consideration. Aung San Suu Kyi is now at the centre of discussions (and blame) in these violent attacks. It is important to acknowledge the entire picture and hold all those involved accountable.

Ultimately, calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize to be removed is reactive and provocative. It will do no favours in creating dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi, other world leaders, and Myanmar’s local population.  If dialogue is not fostered, what immediate purpose could there be to this course of action? The plight of the Rohingya is catastrophic and without excuse. The point here is not to defend Aung San Suu Kyi but to question the purpose and justification for seeking to remove her Nobel Peace Prize. In the short term, I do not believe this would help the Rohingya in any way, despite the fact that international pressure is an important tool for intervening in clear human rights violations. It would be better to seek other channels for exerting this pressure, ones without the implications of this one.

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