Aung San Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign for democracy in Burma. At the time, it wasn't clear if she even knew she had won the prize: Suu Kyi had been placed under strict house arrest by the country's military dictatorship, as she would be for a total of 15 years.
A quarter-century later, Burma is a democracy, and Suu Kyi is its de facto leader. However, over the past few weeks, there have been widespread calls for her prize to be revoked because of her silence and alleged complicity over the Burmese government's treatment of the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic minority now fleeing the country.
As of Thursday morning, more than 360,000 people had signed a petition asking for the prize to be withdrawn. George Monbiot, a columnist with the Guardian, urged more to do so. “Why? Because we now contemplate an extraordinary situation: a Nobel peace laureate complicit in crimes against humanity,” Monbiot wrote.
No matter the grim realities of the Rohingya crisis, a withdrawal of Suu Kyi's Nobel Peace Prize is unlikely. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Olav Njolstad, head of the Nobel Institute, said it was not possible for Nobel laureates to be stripped of their prizes after they had been bestowed.
“Neither Alfred Nobel's will nor the statutes of the Nobel Foundation provide for the possibility that a Nobel Prize — whether for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature or peace — can be revoked,” Njolstad said. “Only the efforts made by a laureate before the attribution of a prize are evaluated by the Nobel committee.”
A statement published to the Nobel Prizes' official website made a similar argument, noting that it is not possible to revoke a Nobel Peace Prize because the statutes of the Nobel Foundation specifically prohibit any such considerations.
“This is something we try to follow closely; sometimes with great concern,” the statement said generally of the criticism of winners. “However, as a matter of principle the Norwegian Nobel Committee never comment upon what the Peace Prize Laureates may say and do after they have been awarded the prize.”
The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded most years since 1901 to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The prize has never been revoked since it began.
However, there have been a number of controversial Nobel Peace Prize decisions. In 2015, one former Nobel official expressed regret that President Barack Obama had been awarded the prize at the start of his presidency. There have also been notable omissions: Famously, Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi never won the prize despite being nominated multiple times.
Even so, Suu Kyi's situation is especially problematic. Her pro-democracy movement had earned her widespread respect internationally and led to 15 years of strict house arrest and only limited contact with her family. However, since the military government began to relinquish control in 2011, she has failed to speak out against escalating anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya violence in the western state of Rakhine, some of which is said to have been carried out by her own government forces, and refused to let the United Nations investigate.
Some former supporters say that Suu Kyi is being forced to make compromises because of the precarious political situation in Burma. Others, however, say that she has long exhibited her own authoritarian streak.
Fellow Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, is among those who have criticized Suu Kyu, but she also says that the Nobel Peace Prize cannot be revoked. “Suu Kyi received this prize for her peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. She deserved to win it,” Ebadi told Deutsche Welle. “How the Nobel peace laureates behave after taking the prize has nothing to do with the Nobel committee. It is up to the laureates to honor the award. Aung San Suu Kyi fails to do.”
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