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OPINION

Recipients’ stances sully Nobel distinction

By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: December 15, 2019

In 2012, the world’s most famous imprisoned Nobel laureate gave an acceptance speech more than two decades after winning the prize. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s lonely champion of democracy, had been released from 15 years of house arrest in 2010 as her country’s military regime embarked on reforms and the slow opening up of a former pariah state. “The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realize their full potential,” Suu Kyi told a rapturous crowd by Oslo’s City Hall. “The honor lay in our endeavor. History had given us the opportunity to give our best for a cause in which we believed.”

If that moment represented a kind of apogee for Suu Kyi as a global icon, last week marked a nadir. On Wednesday, Suu Kyi took the stand as Myanmar’s top civilian leader before a hearing on war crimes at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. She is the first national leader to appear directly before the court while genocide in Myanmar is still allegedly unfolding. Close to a million Rohingya Muslims fled a bloody military crackdown in western Myanmar to squalid camps in Bangladesh, where their plight seems to be receding from global view. Rights groups warn of further persecution and pogroms to come.

“The former democracy icon and Nobel laureate had maintained an expressionless demeanor in court the previous day, as the tiny West African nation of Gambia spent hours detailing stories of systematic rape, murder and other brutality targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar,” my colleagues reported.

Then she spoke. Suu Kyi said her country was simply “dealing with an internal armed conflict, started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks” by Islamist militants. She did not utter the word “Rohingya” — a deliberate omission, because authorities in Myanmar refuse to accept even the existence of this minority group, rendering them effectively stateless, and cast its communities as interlopers from Bangladesh. It’s a far cry from the commitment to freedom and democracy that won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Last year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee even had to rebuff calls to strip Suu Kyi of her award for her at least tacit support for ethnic cleansing.

Another cloud of controversy hangs over the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy, which administers the prizes for literature. On Tuesday, the Swedish king formally presented Austrian writer Peter Handke with the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, which includes a check for almost $1 million. But protests surrounded the ceremony. Handke is known for his admiration of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and has written works that downplay the role that Serbian forces played in the massacres of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. No matter the rulings of international courts, he has disputed that the 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was genocide.

As a result, an unprecedented number of governments formally boycotted his ceremony. Two members of an external committee set up to oversee the Swedish Academy quit this month in the aftermath of the furor surrounding Handke’s selection. “The choice of 2019 laureate was not just a choice about a body of work, it has also been interpreted, both inside the academy and outside, as a defense of the stance that literature is above ‘politics,’ ” one of them, journalist Gun-Britt Sundström said to Dagens Nyheter. “That is not my ideology.”

For others, it is. “I can’t think of a more obvious Nobel laureate than him,” best-selling Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard told The New York Times in an email.

Handke himself has angrily rejected criticisms and questions about his views on the Balkan wars, describing them in a news conference last week as “ignorant” and part of a “calligraphy of” excrement.

But that hardly assuages those enraged by the message that his winning the Nobel sends. “When the academy announced its decision on October 10, there was shock and bafflement,” wrote the Intercept’s Peter Maass. “Although the academy has refused to explain itself in any coherent way, it has become clear that its appointed-for-life members either agree with Handke’s political views or don’t believe that the denial of genocide is a sufficiently important matter to stand in the way of receiving a Nobel Prize.”

“There are entire generations that were never able to achieve their full potential because they were expelled from their jobs and driven out of their homes in an ethnic-cleansing campaign led by Milosevic,” Mehmet Kraja, president of the Kosovo Academy of Arts and Sciences, wrote in The Washington Post in October. “Justice was never delivered to them, for there is no justice that can ever remedy such loss. But for Handke, none of this mattered.”

Outside the venue on Tuesday, Adnan Mahmutovic, a protest organizer and professor at Stockholm University, decried Handke’s refusal to accept what the historical consensus and the international legal community already have. “Let us call things by their right names,” Mahmutovic said, according to Maass. “… There is something called a crime against humanity. There is something called genocide.”

That’s a message countless other activists would want Suu Kyi to hear, too.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

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