The Silence of Aung San Suu Kyi

Black and white photo of Aung San Suu Kyi. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Nobel Peace Center

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.

She spent 15 years under house arrest, and it took 21 years before she was able to come to Oslo, Norway, and receive her Nobel Prize. She sacrificed a great deal for her ideals.

When she was finally able to resume her political career, hopes for a rapid democratization of Myanmar were very high. For many, Aung San Suu Kyi had become an example of courage and an important symbol in the struggle against oppression, in Myanmar and elsewhere.

The situation for both Aung San Suu Kyi and her country has changed considerably since then. Two processes have been taking place in parallel over the past few years: a peace process and a democratisation process. Both have been confronted with substantial challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi took over actual political control following the 2015 elections, but military rule still poses major constraints on government power.

Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

In 2017, reports of violence by Myanmar’s military forces against civilian Rohingyas sparked worldwide attention and dismay. Ever since, Aung San Suu Kyi has been facing intense scrutiny and criticism over her response to the plight of the Rohingya minority. According to the United Nations, nearly 900,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh. While recognising that Aung San Suu Kyi has limited power over the military, critics underline her responsibility to use her political position and moral authority and publicly distance herself from human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority. 

The investigation launched by the United Nations concluded in September 2018 that the actions of the country’s armed forces undoubtedly amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide. It also called for Myanmar to be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Moreover, the UN report criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s passive role: genocide has been taking place in Myanmar under her watch. 

Public Outcry

As criticism piled up over the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, some went one step further, with a number of organisations withdrawing the honours previously bestowed on her. Citing the betrayal of values she once stood for, Amnesty International revoked the Ambassador of Conscience award from 2009:

"Today, we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights."
- Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Many have called for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked as well. The most urgent and powerful appeals to Aung San Suu Kyi have come from her fellow Nobel laureates: Desmond Tutu condemns Aung San Suu Kyi by saying that 'Silence is too high a price'. Malala tells Aung San Suu Kyi that the 'world is waiting' for her to act over Rohingya violence.

"Suu Kyi received this prize for her peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. She deserved to win it. 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 so."
- Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize for 2003
The Question of Revocation

According to the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation: No appeals may be made against the decision of a prize-awarding body with regard to the award of a prize. Gunnar Stålsett, former member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, explains:

"A peace prize has never been revoked and the committee does not issue condemnations or censure laureates. When the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee."

The role of the Nobel Peace Prize and its impact have been discussed repeatedly since the prize’s inception. There is a general consensus that with such a distinction comes great responsibility. Many consider the Nobel Peace Prize to be much more than a prestigious award, but first and foremost a moral responsibility. Aung San Suu Kyi will be continuously measured against this and her own words: "Please use your liberty to promote ours."