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The noble and the Nobel

Updated September 13, 2017

“SUFFERING degrades and embitters and enrages.” The words were spoken by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012 in a speech delivered in Norway. Things have changed, it seems, and so has Suu Kyi. As newspapers around the world have decried, Suu Kyi along with the rest of Myanmar’s government are now presiding over a massacre of Burmese Rohingya Muslims.

On Monday, the UN secretary for human rights called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Suu Kyi and her ministry, however, stayed quiet. If they did speak it was to push the propaganda that the Rohingya, almost 400,000 of whom are now fleeing to save their lives, were burning their own homes.

Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates, including our own Malala Yousafzai, have questioned the silence. Surely, being honoured with a peace prize is meant to impute a certain moral standard, some moral duty to speak when others are undergoing the suffering that, in Suu Kyi’s words, degrades and embitters and enrages. Surely, the heartrending accounts of children being killed, of fleeing peasants being shot, of everyone running, of villages burning, can, regardless of political posturing, have some effect on the human soul.

Then again, one is forced to consider that this is no ordinary human soul; it is a woman who endured with great patience and fortitude years of house arrest, who refused to capitulate to the junta that imprisoned her. Even when her husband was dying abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi did not leave Myanmar. She stayed. Now others are being forced to leave and she is silent.

Even when her husband was dying abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi did not leave Myanmar. She stayed. Now others are being forced to leave and she is silent.

Great suffering, it is assumed, imposes a degree of nobility of character and in this case also leads to an actual Nobel Prize. The first slice of this assumption, the one that relates to nobility of character, may require a bit of rethinking. The incredible obstinacy that is required to continue to make a grand political statement and endure hardship in a way that imposes moral shame on the oppressor also requires a sort of hardness that can drown out the pleas of parents or spouses or even children.

The principle comes first for those who make a statement of fortitude, and sticking to it requires no small sum of ruthlessness, no regular allotment of egotism. Suu Kyi, who belongs to the political elite of her country, possessed all of this. Only a woman who believes she is important, imagines her stand, her position, herself as the emblem of her nation. An emblem of suffering then, she is now an emblem of silence, of complicity and of cruelty. The determination with which she refused to capitulate to her oppressors then, is now the material of her refusal to have mercy, to impose the suffering that degrades, embitters and enrages. She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is devoid of nobility of character.

It is a convenient time for her to do so. The world is eager to point fingers at Muslims, particularly in countries where they are minorities. Leaders near and far have devised their own methods of persecution: the American president has tried a number of times to ban them from coming to the US, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to visit every form of exclusion and degradation on them. Like perhaps Suu Kyi herself, Modi is unashamed of his derisive and xenophobic views; he has been first among world leaders to offer ‘help’; assistance, one imagines, in the task of killing off the Rohingya Muslims who do not run away. In either case, the cruel underlying logic is the same and much of the world agrees with it: all Muslims are potential terrorists and hence none can truly or really be victims. All the persecution they undergo is hence deserved, never culpable and always entirely justifiable.

But there is more to it than that. While there are over 400,000 signatures on a petition demanding that Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize be revoked and an impressive assortment of former laureates and leaders have either demanded action or seconded the assertion that the prize is no longer deserved, she will keep her prize. As an article that appeared in the New York Times noted, the Nobel Committee has never in its history revoked a prize and they will not do it now. Their inaction is less a matter of bureaucracy and lack of precedent and far more an indictment of just how shattered the mechanisms of international human rights, be they Nobel prizes or international advocacy, have become.

What worked so well for Suu Kyi — her adoption as the darling of the West, the frail and luminous woman whose stand was so courageous — and made her so famous, no longer works. With unjust wars being waged everywhere, human rights abuses proliferating thanks to the world’s most powerful, and rights and tolerance — even the possibility of peace — discarded under the guise of fighting terrorism, no international consensus on anything exists.

With all hands dirty, rich countries watching and turning away as innocents die trying to reach their shores, with poor countries shrugging and looking away as mobs burn villages and lynch minorities, no one is good and so everyone is quiet.

The Nobel Prize, the awarding or even the revoking of it, cannot cure that. The massacre of the Rohingya will not stop. The Nobel laureate who pretended to speak for justice will not intervene on their behalf, nor will she stop the massacre. Having drunk long and deep from the intoxicating cup of power, Aung San Suu Kyi no longer cares what the enfeebled international community now thinks of her; quite possibly, she knows they can do nothing, and so the killing continues, the villages burn and hundreds of thousands run.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional laws and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2017