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Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prizes and the Rohingyas

Scratch the skin of a saint, claimed George Orwell, and you are bound to find a sinner with an extensive resume. Such resumes are evaluated in these modern times by accolades, awards, and summits. The Noble Peace Prize tends to be crowning affirmation that somewhere along the line, you sufficiently fouled up to merit it.

The calls, some even shrill, to have the Nobel Prize taken off Aung San Suu Kyi, are distressed lamentations of misplaced loyalties, even love. The de facto leader of Myanmar is showing what others have in the past: partiality, a harsh streak, and a cold blooded instinct. The saint, in other words, has been scratched, and the unquestioning followers are startled.

When asked to respond to the arrival in Bangladesh of almost 150,000 stateless Muslim Rohingyas since August, the result of violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, the leader sternly rebuked suggestions that there was a problem. After all, the initial violence had been perpetrated by assaults on an army base and police posts by Rohingya insurgents since October.

The problem she sought to address was that others were faking the record to advance the interests of terrorists, supplying the world with “a huge iceberg of misinformation”. (How delightful is Trumpland, with its tentacles so global and extensive they have found themselves in the speeches and opinions of a secularly ordained saint).

Faking the fleeing of tens of thousands of persecuted souls would surely be a challenge. The response from Suu Kyi is a salutary reminder that genocides, atrocities and historical cruelties can be often denied with untroubled ease. Her statement in response to the crisis was one of conscious omission: the Rohingyas barely warranted a mention, except as a security challenge.

The statement issued from her office on Facebook claimed that the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” The misinformation campaign, she insisted, was coming from such individuals as the Turkish deputy prime minister, who deleted images of killings on Twitter after discovering they were not, in fact, from Myanmar.

The approach to misinformation taken by the government has been one of silence and containment. National security advisor Thaung Tun has made it clear that China and Russia will be wooed in efforts to frustrate any resolution that might make its way to the UN Security Council. “China is our friend and we have a similar relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue to go forward.”

As for calls of terrorists sowing discord, Suu Kyi may well get her wish. Protests organised in Muslim regional powers are already pressing for the cutting of ties with Myanmar. Turkey is pressing for answers. The Islamist tide, should it duly affect the Rohingyas, will itself become a retaliatory reality.

This sting of crisis and realpolitik was all too much for certain members of the Suu Kyi fan club. It certainly was for veteran Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He, along with others, had looked to her when jailed (house arrest or otherwise) as pristine, the model prisoner, the ideal pro-democracy figure. When held captive, the purity was unquestioned.

Hopes were entrusted, and not counterfeit ones. “To mention her was to invoke patience and resilience in the face of suffering, courage and determination in the unyielding struggle for freedom. She was an inspiration to us all.”

Not so now. Crimes documented by the UN human rights report of February have been ignored. The deliberate destruction of crops, avoided. Humanitarian aid has been obstructed. The military, praised. When violence has been acknowledged, it has only been to blame insurgents who represent, in any case, an interloping people who are denied their ethnicity by the 1982 Citizenship Law.

“I believe,” writes Monbiot, “the Nobel Committee should retain responsibility for the prizes it awards, and withdraw them if its laureates later violate the principles for which they were recognised.”

How often has history shown that the prison is merely the prelude to a recurring nastiness, political calculation, and revenge? Far from enlightening the mind and restoring faith, it destroys optimism and vests the inmate with those survival skills that, when resorted to, can result in carnage and misery. Suu Kyi, in other words, is behaving politically, fearing the loss of her position, aware that behind her is a military that needs to be kept, at least partly, in clover.

Other Nobel Laureates have also added their voices to the roll call of concern, less of condemnation than encouragement. One is Professor Muhammed Yunus. “These are her own people. She says ‘these are not my people, someone else’s people’, I would say she has completely departed from her original role which brought her the Nobel Prize.”

Yunus, however, is more optimistic that the selfish, distancing leader will return to her peaceful credentials. From a dark sleep, she will rise. “I still think she is the same Aung San Suu Kyi that won the Nobel Peace Prize; she will wake up to that person.”

Another is Desmond Tutu, who took the route of an open letter: “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep … We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of our people. We pray for you to intervene.”

The Nobel Institute, obviously moved by a sufficient number of calls to comment on the status of the award for the 1991 recipient, deemed the decision immutable. “Neither Alfred Nobel’s will nor the statutes of the Nobel Foundation,” confirmed its head Olav Njølstad, “provide the possibility that a Nobel Prize – whether for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature or peace – can be revoked.”

As for the prize itself, it is long axiomatic that persons who tend to get it have blood on their hands. The terrorist, reborn, is feted by the Nobel Prize Committee. Before ploughshares came swords. Before peace, there was the shedding of blood. But, in some cases, it may well be the reverse: from the ploughshares come the swords, and the Rohingyas are tasting that awful fact.


Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.


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  1. Joseph Carli

    Mother Therese has also been “vivisected” and found wanting…I won’t mention others, for fear of outrage..but of course, we have this penchant for worshiping the “heroic” as a kind of substitute for our own impotent capabilities to bring about change in some far-flung places..yet they rarely seem to go to the common folk…I suppose they…being so devoid of “friends in high places” and being so vulnerable, get dealt with quite swiftly and early in the piece!

    Malcolm X got short shrift in the shadow of the great Martin Luther King…likewise was Steve Biko murdered within a week of his being taken into custody by the South African constabulary while the other great ; Nelson Mandela, who himself encouraged violent resistance from his cell on Robin Island, lasted a decade or so before being released to great fanfare. Not to take anything from Nelson Mandela at all. But some of these “accidents of authority” have a method in their madness about them..perhaps in some cases a kind of “insurance policy” in time of need.

    The mind sweeps back to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacus movement and their fierce opponent Max Weber..who called Rosa Luxomberg a “Jewish monkey”..and declared that the “..first Pole that crosses into the Danzig Corridor should be met with a bullet!”…

  2. Sean Stinson

    I recall reading something recently by the author about the rhyme of history being a strong one. The statement that “Turkey is pressing for answers” is something which should be interrogated in this light. Wasn’t it Turkey which led the humanitarian call to arms on behalf of Libyans, who as it later turned out were under no threat at all? Wasn’t Turkey – a fully fledged NATO member – part of the initial efforts to destabilise Syria’s secular democracy and replace it with a Wahhabist theocracy favourable to Western oil interests? Why does it come as no surprise to see Erdogan now leading the calls for intervention in Myanmar?

    The mind numbing groupthink of liberal punditry never ceases to amaze me. Just think for a minute. What is the geopolitical context behind this latest media psy-op? ASSK has been persecuting Rohingya Muslims as long as she’s been in power. Why suddenly now do gatekeepers like Monbiot express their moral outrage? What has changed? What pieces on the geopolitical chessboard have moved requiring Suu Kyi to be urgently thrown under the bus? Do you think anyone seriously gives two f#cks about the Rohingya? Did anyone give two f#cks about Rwanda?

    Some background and context here:

    America’s Long War: US Tightens the Noose on China

  3. Michael Taylor

    Sean, you mentioned Rwanda, and it reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten about. In 1994 I wrote to Care Australia asking if I could go to Rwanda with them as a care worker. They didn’t need me.

  4. Sean Stinson

    Cynical world isn’t it? Half a million to a million Tutsi exterminated, yet no calls for military intervention. I wonder why?

  5. Kevin Brewer

    And then there is the ongoing genocide in West Papua. 500000 dead in the last 50 years, 50 million ha cleared for palm oil plantations, and the no speak, see and hear monkeys are all over it, especially our government who think Indonesia is our friend, Julie Bishop’s bestie is the Indonesian foreign minister, after all.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Worse still, Kevin, West Papuan resistance organisations – you know, the ones who are fighting those carrying out the genicide – are considered terrorist organisations by our government.

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