Other categories of the Nobel Prizes have their own problems. Science laureates have such a peculiar tendency to fall for quackery after winning—from the Curies’ endorsement of psychics to Linus Pauling’s embrace of Vitamin C as a miracle cure—that it’s been deemed “Nobel disease.”
But the Nobel Peace Prize has its own, special valence, different from the awards for science. A Nobel Prize in chemistry anoints one as an eternal great in the field, but it doesn’t beatify the recipient the way a Peace Prize sometimes seems to do. This is particularly troublesome for those laureates whose prizes seem more symbolic than achievement-based, because there is always the danger that the symbols might start taking material actions.
Put another way, a cynic might say that while Aung San Suu Kyi was an inspiring icon of democratic aspirations when she was sidelined, her great mistake was actually acceding to power. Once she became a leader, she had the opportunity to show that she was a real person with real flaws. As Tutu wrote in his letter, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
In retrospect, perhaps her silence on and implicit endorsement of the cleansing of Rohingya should come as less of a surprise. Sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma has raged sporadically for nearly a century. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, while not avowedly a Buddhist or ethnic Burman party, still effectively exists as one. The junta’s decline, and Suu Kyi’s rise, depended heavily on the support of Buddhist monks, as William McGowan wrote in 2012, and various leading members of the NLD have made disparaging statements about Rohingya. “The Rohingya are not our citizens,” a spokesman said in 2012.
It’s hard to find another example of a Nobel Peace laureate endorsing behavior quite so disturbing as what Suu Kyi appears to be endorsing now, but there are other cases of people who, after winning awards, seemed to betray the principles of the prize—though none in such dramatic fashion. Lech Walesa (1993), the Solidarity leader who helped defeat Communism in Poland and later went on to become president, has in recent years drawn unflattering notice for his comments on gay people.
Or take Barack Obama, whose 2009 award appeared to be granted as a symbolic celebration of George W. Bush’s departure from the Oval Office. Obama’s endorsement, in his acceptance speech, of war as a just and proper tool in some situations turned out to be an omen: Though he worked to wind down the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he oversaw the surge in Afghanistan, wars of choice in Libya and Syria, and an expanded drone campaign. Each of these is a defensible choice, but sits uneasily with Alfred Nobel’s description of the peace laureate as “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations [or] for the abolition or reduction of standing armies.”
Those words are also dramatically less applicable to Aung San Suu Kyi today than they were in 1991, when she received the Nobel. As the cleansing of the Rohingya continues, with only vague and inadequate statements from her, Suu Kyi has much to lose: her moral authority, international adulation, and secular sainthood. Two things she can count on not losing, however, are her Nobel diploma and medal.