Oslo, Norway | AFP | Praised to the skies and bearing great hopes, they went on to disappoint the world: as the case of Aung San Suu Kyi shows, Nobel Peace Prize winners have not always lived up to expectations.
The Norwegian Nobel committee’s announcement every October is usually followed by some protest and occasionally a heated debate. Rare are the laureates who are unanimously embraced.
Aung San Suu Kyi was one of those.
Honoured in 1991 for her pro-democracy resistance to Myanmar’s junta, the wispy “Lady of Rangoon” was long hailed as a saint.
But now, as Myanmar’s figurehead leader, she has been broadly criticised for failing to protect the Muslim Rohingya minority from what some world leaders are calling “ethnic cleansing”.
“I’m disappointed,” said Geir Lundestad, the influential Nobel committee secretary from 1990 to 2014.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was an extremely popular and deserving laureate, heroic under the circumstances, but I can’t condone her behaviour toward the Rohingyas,” he told AFP.
Suu Kyi’s supporters and many observers say she lacks the authority to rein in the military, which ran the country for 50 years and only recently ceded limited powers to her civilian government.
Nevertheless, almost 430,000 people have signed an online petition calling for her Nobel to be withdrawn, and several other well-respected Peace Prize laureates — Desmond Tutu, Malala and the Dalai Lama — have urged her to take action to end the violence.
“It’s dramatic,” admitted Nobel historian Asle Sveen.
“For a person who fought so hard for democracy and was so popular for so long to find herself in such a situation, it’s unusual.”
Unusual, but not completely unprecedented.
While Suu Kyi may be in a league of her own, other Nobel stars have also seen their lustre fade over time.
– Flagrant faux pas –
For starters, there’s former US president Barack Obama — “the most similar case”, according to Sveen.
His 2009 Peace Prize, awarded just nine months after he took office, was met by many with incredulity but at the time, he was still at the peak of his popularity.
Eight years later, there are still calls for his prize to be withdrawn, especially on social media, because of his failure to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his intensive use of drone strikes.
“It was impossible for anyone to meet those expectations. They were totally unrealistic,” Lundestad said recently.
“I don’t think the committee expected Obama to totally revolutionise international politics: it’s not about transforming everything, it’s about making steps in the right direction.”