Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent on the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is being systematically oppressed by Buddhist extremists and the Burmese government.
The Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), with which I have been associated for the past few years, is a remarkable event, for several reasons. It has been variously described as ‘Davos for dissidents,’ and ‘Aspen for activists,’ because it brings together people from all over the world who are fighting the good fight for democracy and human rights – invariably at great personal risk. These amazing people gather in the Norwegian capital to tell stories about their struggle, which are always inspiring, and which sometimes reduces the audience to tears.
The official high point of the OFF is the annual awarding of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, but for me the real satisfaction comes from being part of private conversations, in which the activists share advice and best practices with each other. It’s fascinating to observe how the techniques and tactics that you develop in the fight against the tyrants in Cuba, for instance, can come in handy for people struggling against tyrants in North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
This year’s speakers included exiled Bangladeshi secular publisher Ahmedur Rashid “Tutul” Choudhury, the deposed Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir, and Burmese Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu… and that’s just to name those from India’s neighbourhood. The Havel Prize went to the Venezuelan satirical website El Chiguire Bipolar, Zimbabwean playwright Silvano Mudzvova, and Bahraini poet Ayat Alqormozi.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing at this year’s OFF actually got almost no attention at all. During his speech, Thor Halvorssen, the Forum’s founder, noted how “profoundly heartbreaking” it was that Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent on the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is being systematically oppressed by Buddhist extremists and the Burmese government. Why is a line in a speech important? Because Suu Kyi was among the first recipients of the Havel Prize, one of many she got when she was a human-rights icon, and yet this was the first time I had heard direct criticism from someone who had previously honoured her.
Halvorssen’s words were on my mind when, later that evening, I walked to the Nobel Peace Centre on the Oslo harbour. This lovely, light-yellow building is a museum to the Peace Laureates and their work. (The Nobel Peace prize is awarded at the imposing town hall across the square; all the other Nobels are given in Stockholm, Sweden.) Suu Kyi has been honoured at the museum since she won the prize, in 1991.
What, I wondered, would be the reaction if the Nobel committee followed Halvorssen’s example and criticised Suu Kyi? What if they went further, and rescinded the prize, and demanded the return of the prize money? (Suu Kyi received 6 million Swedish krona, which would be worth nearly $1 million today.)
It would make sense, I think, to go further still: the committee should conduct, every five years, an audit of the work and words of all living laureates. Those found to have fallen conspicuously short of the Nobel ideals, and their own standards, should be denounced, as publicly as they had once been celebrated. Perhaps a room could be set aside in the museum, a Hall of Shame for cashiered laureates, to serve as cautionary tales for future awardees. In fact, before they received their prize at the town hall, every future awardee could be required to spend time in the Hall of Shame, just so they know the consequences of betraying their principles.
Okay, so maybe that last idea was a bit much. But a prize that can be rescinded would certainly carry greater value, and it would also give the committee the chance to correct some of the more risible mistakes it has made in recent years. Glancing down the list of living laureates (it’s hard to shame someone already dead), I can think of five others who should be required to turn in their medals: European Union (2012), Barack Obama (2009), Mohammed El Baradei (2005), Kofi Anan (2001), Henry Kissinger (1973). The EU has disgraced itself with its treatment of refugees; Obama’s sins of omission have cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Syria; El Baradei betrayed Egypt’s democracy by backing the military coup; Kofi Anan must answer for his failure to act in Rwanda, and for the oil-for-food scandal in the UN; and Kissinger should arguably be in jail for his role in war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh and Chile.
Back to Aung San Suu Kyi. There have been several appeals to the better angels of her nature, as well as attempts to use ignominy as the key to unlock her conscience. Late last year, Nobel laureates Malala Yousufzai and Desmond Tutu were among those who signed a letter addressed to the UN Security Council, criticising her for failing to act against the violence, and warned that Burma was showing the “hallmarks of recent past tragedies — Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.” All these attempts have failed. Perhaps she’s so far gone that even the withdrawal of the Nobel would leave her unmoved. But it would nonetheless send a powerful message to the world, and restore some shine to the most important prize in the world.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times