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Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar: should a Nobel Peace Prize be forever?

Ethnic cleansing and genocide are not words the United Nations throws around lightly. But that is how it has described the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Amid allegations of mass killing and the burning of villages by the Myanmar military, some 400,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh.

In September 2017, the UN’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng said the treatment of Rohingyas could constitute ethnic cleansing and may amount to crimes against humanity. ‘In fact it can be the precursor to all the egregious crimes — and I mean genocide,’ he said.

Myanmar has stood condemned by the international community. And that condemnation has been even more strident as the country’s civilian ruler Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her struggle for democracy and human rights. Now Suu Kyi stands accused of at best looking away and at worst allowing ethnic cleansing and genocide.

How has it come to the feted winner of the world’s highest humanitarian honour facing calls to be stripped of the award?

Constrained by the past and political reality?

Deakin University’s Damien Kingsbury, a Professor of International Relations and South-East Asian expert, says Suu Kyi was not looking away but was very much trapped by her circumstance, as well as her personal and national history. While caught by a wave of nationalist sentiment against the Rohingya and Muslims in general, he says Suu Kyi was also trapped by a military that has the power to replace the government at any time for any reason.

'When a Nobel Peace Prize winner betrays that – or appears to betray that – then they call into question the validity of the legacy. I think that’s what people are responding to.'

Damien Kingsbury,
Professor of International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

But Professor Kingsbury said these factors, as well as the fact that the Suu Kyi’s political heritage aligns her with her father, a pronounced Burmese nationalist “can be used as an excuse for allowing the inexcusable.”

“Suu Kyi is in a difficult position in term of condemning the military but she certainly has given them the green light by coming out and making some of the comments about the Rohingyas she has made about them not being legitimate citizens,” he said.

‘’In effect gives a green light to the generals.”

What could Suu Kyi do?

In his comment piece A Nobel Peace Prize winner’s shame, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof contrasts Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest and her emergence as a modern hero of democracy with the ethnic cleansing happening under her watch.

He labels here a ‘chief apologist’ for this ethnic cleansing.

“For shame, Daw Suu. We honored you and fought for your freedom – and now you use that freedom to condone the butchery of your own people?”

But it is worth asking what Suu Kyi could do given her circumstances?

In September last year, Suu Kyi created a commission of experts, chaired by former UN chief Kofi Annan to investigate the Rakhine violence and which warned of another cycle of violence and radicalisation.

Then in early September she said there had been a ‘huge iceberg of misinformation’ before later saying that she felt deeply for the suffering of all the people who have been “caught up in the conflict.”

Professor Kingsbury argues if Suu Kyi was to say nothing that would speak volumes.

“She is implicated because she had and is making Rohingya statements,” he said.

Should Suu Kyi be stripped of her Noble Peace Prize?

Around the world commentators and experts are calling for Suu Kyi to have her Nobel Peace Prize taken away. Professor Kingsbury sympathises but is not among them.

A Peace Prize, he argued, recognises not only an event or a series of events, but holds up the winners as continuing to carry the legacy of their fight for human rights and freedom.

“When a Nobel Peace Prize winner betrays that – or appears to betray that – then they call into question the validity of the legacy. I think that’s what people are responding to,” he said.

With an estimated 380,000 Rohingyas now in Bangladesh, their villages destroyed and a military that expelled them because they believe the Rohingyas are not legitimate citizens unlikely to let them back in, Professor Kingsbury believes the ethnic cleansing is almost complete.

The best hope for action is not Suu Kyi taking a stand, he said but rather the reinstatement of sanctions against Myanmar that were lifted due to progress to reform.

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Professor Damien Kingsbury
Professor Damien Kingsbury

Professor of International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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