Peace prize tarnished by silence over persecution

Peacemaker or not: Suu Kyi’s reputation on the line

There is the rhythm of poetry in her name, and for a generation Aung San Suu Kyi was the champion of democratic values in southeast Asia. Bravely she stood against a military regime that had controlled Burma since 1962.

Burma is a country in conflict, and even its name is subject of ideological dispute – many refusing to use the military’s preferred name: Myanmar.

Like many countries, Myanmar has a colonial past. The British held sway until the Second World War when the Japanese swept in. The Union of Burma emerged from the ruins of war as an independent country.

The negotiations with Britain were led by Aung San, regarded as the father of Burmese independence, although assassination ensured he did not live to see it. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, was only two when he died. Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford and worked with the Burmese-born Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, for three years.

The military-led one party state presided over the collapse of the Burmese economy. By 1988 outrage overwhelmed fear and the people took to the streets.

Suu Kyi was in the frontline. In the election of 1990 her party – the National League for Democracy – won overwhelmingly. The junta did what juntas do and declared the vote invalid. She was placed under house arrest, and her dignified defiance over the next two decades won admirers around the world.

Her advocacy for human rights has been lionised by many pivotal figures in global politics – Tutu, Mandela, Obama. Universities have showered her with honours, in 2012 she was invited to address both houses of Parliament at Westminster, she has been given the freedom of Dublin, and Bono has anointed her as one of his heroes.

“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity,” she has said. “It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”

For her championship of democracy, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a year after the election that propelled her into the international limelight.

Accepting the prize on her behalf, her son Alexander said: “This prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who, even as I speak, continue to sacrifice their wellbeing, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma. Theirs is the prize and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma’s long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.”

Stirring words, and words fulfilled by the 2015 election when her party took the reigns of power. Constitutionally blocked from the presidency by her foreign marriage, she is now Burma/Myanmar’s State Counsellor – president in all but name – and leader of her nation.

That election was the end of a dream for all those who supported her through her trials. But that dream has become a nightmare for proponents of human rights around the world. A tide of human misery – hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims – has flooded neighbouring Banglashesh.

Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of such human misery was bad enough. Last week she resorted to the weasel words of discredited politicians when she said the world did not know what was happening because of “fake news”. A chilling phrase which is fast becoming the last refuge of the damned.

Condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Desmond Tutu (also a Nobel laureate) said: “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

The Buddhist majority in Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens of their country, they have been systematically persecuted, and the emergence of Rohingya militants has been used by the military, and Buddhist activists, as an excuse to crack down on the beleaguered minority.

Suu Kyi is trapped by the military on one side who remain a potent force in the country, and her own supporters on the other who support the suppression of the Rohingya people.

As John F Kennedy once said, when caught on the horns of a dilemma, one must do what is right.

Suu Kyi must use her position as a voice for peace; she must demonstrate to her people and the world that human rights does not discriminate between peoples. Every day she fails to act she further tarnishes her reputation, and brings the Prize that saw her through years of persecution into disrepute.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 12 2017

Nobel committee right to prize an uncertain peace


Juan Manuel Santos: worthy recipient

When the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced the winner of this year’s award, the recipient was asleep in his bed in Colombia. In a world where we demand instant gratification, the media pressurised his staff for a reaction to the news. They refused to wake him, and just right too.

Days before the announcement, Juan Manuel Santos, architect of peace with the Farc rebels, had been snubbed by his own electorate. The Colombian people narrowly voted against the deal in a referendum, throwing the agreement into doubt.

That twist, in what should have been a story of triumph against the odds, gave added piquancy to the award. There had been speculation that Santos’s chances had been dealt a fatal blow at the ballot box.

But the Nobel committee is known for its willingness to take a punt. Barack Obama was awarded the prize less than a year after taking office. Two terms on, the committee’s optimism that his presidency would be a game changer looks fanciful.

Whatever Obama has done, he has not lived up to Nobel expectations. While his presidency is not without its plusses, he cannot be said to have advanced the cause of global peace much. We are not safer now than we were in 2009, and that is the test.

The US’s indiscriminate use of drones is a scandal. The Middle East is in turmoil with hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost in Syria, while the increasingly fractious relationship with Russia is bringing us back to the worst days of the cold war.

Anyway, back to Colombia and President Santos. Awarding him the prize, the committee said it was in recognition of “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.

The enormity of what has been going on in Colombia can be seen in the stark statistics laid out by the Nobel committee – at least 220,000 Columbians have died in the conflict, and six million people have been displaced.

Given that, it is not surprising Santos’s opponents were able to exploit concerns the rebels were getting away with murder. On a small turnout, the referendum vote was lost on a hair’s breadth

As we have seen in Northern Ireland, it is sometimes necessary for society to collectively hold its nose in the pursuit of something greater. Accepting peace, does not mean people have accepted the war that preceded it.

In recognising Santos, the Nobel committee was sensitive to the feelings of those who suffered. It said: “The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”

It is easy to draw parallels between what is happening in Colombia with the process people in this part of the world have been navigating. Indeed the conflicts are linked.

You will not need a long memory to bring to mind the so-called Colombia three: republicans prosecuted for their role in training members of the Farc rebel army. And participants in the Northern Ireland peace process provided advice to the peacemakers in South America.

But each peace process has its own dynamic. Bogota is not Belfast. The active participation of two global giants – the United States and the European Union – supported and sustained peace talks here. President Santos and Farc leader Timochenko have had no similar cover. That makes their breakthrough all the more remarkable.

What they do have now is the active endorsement of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Santos will still have to look over his shoulder to keep an eye on critics at home. But that shoulder now has the comforting and encouraging arm of the international community around it.

Santos, now trying to build a coalition for peace among rival political factions, has said he will fight for the peace until the last moment he holds office.

It is a sentiment other world leaders would do well to adopt. Obama, Putin, Assad, May, Hollande – even figures such as North Korea’s reprobate president Kim Yong Il – have rightly to look after the interests of the people they lead. But those interests are best protected by peace rather than conflict.

That is the message of the Nobel Prize and President Santos is a worthy recipient. He should look not to Obama for his inspiration however, but to the dogged determination of fellow laureate John Hume.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News