When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Myanmar.
Unable to leave the lakeside villa in Yangon, Suu Kyi’s late husband and two sons accepted the prize on her behalf in Oslo. The country’s erstwhile military junta had confined her following her return home in 1988 after completion of her studies abroad, to lead the opposition against it.
“I stand before you here today to accept on behalf of my mother, Aung San Suu Kyi, this greatest of prizes, the Nobel Prize for Peace,” her then 18-year-old elder son, Alexander Aris, read out. “Because circumstances do not permit my mother to be here in person, I will do my best to convey the sentiments, I believe, she would express.”
On June 16, 2012, Suu Kyi herself stood at Oslo City Hall to accept the peace prize. “When I joined the democracy movement in Burma it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honor,” she said. “The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realise their full potential. The honour lay in our endeavour.”
Five years on, as the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine province spirals out of control, the Nobel laureate is amidst her biggest crisis since her party won power in a landslide in the landmark 2015 elections. Around 150,000 Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority, have fled Myanmar in the last two weeks, trying to escape the crossfire between the military and a brewing insurgency.
For the most part, Suu Kyi, whose official designation is state counselor, has remained either silent or entirely unwilling to provide any public support to the Rohingya. On Sept. 06, she blamed “false information” and a “huge iceberg of misinformation” for worsening the chaos in Rakhine. The international community, including fellow laureate Malala Yousafzai, have chastised the Myanmar leader for her inaction, with some even calling for the Nobel committee to rescind her prize.
The most damning criticism of Suu Kyi may, however, be her own words—delivered during the two Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches (underlined sections are our emphasis):
When the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to me, they were recognising that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world; they were recognising the oneness of humanity. So for me, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.
…it was only during my years of house arrest that I got around to investigating the nature of the six great dukha (sufferings). These are: to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love. I examined each of the six great sufferings, not in a religious context but in the context of our ordinary, everyday lives. If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.
…I thought of prisoners and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, of that great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.
How often during my years under house arrest have I drawn strength from my favourite passages in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
……. disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspirations of the common people,
…… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law . . .
If I am asked why I am fighting for human rights in Burma the above passages will provide the answer. If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma, it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.
Development and humanitarian aid, bi-lateral agreements and investments should be coordinated and calibrated to ensure that these will promote social, political and economic growth that is balanced and sustainable…This should be nurtured and developed to create not just a more prosperous but also a more harmonious, democratic society where our people can live in peace, security and freedom.
Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace…Let us join hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.
1991, via Alexander Aris
Firstly, I know that she would begin by saying that she accepts the Nobel Prize for Peace not in her own name but in the name of all the people of Burma.
I know that if she were free today my mother would, in thanking you, also ask you to pray that the oppressors and the oppressed should throw down their weapons and join together to build a nation founded on humanity in the spirit of peace.
Finally she says, “The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavor to prove that the spirit of man can transcends the flaws of his nature.”