When Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi collects her Nobel Peace Prize this week, 21 years after winning it, she will send a message that human-rights struggles pay off, said Nobel Committee head Thorbjoern Jagland.
Her acceptance speech in Norway on June 16 “will be one of the most historic events in Nobel Peace Prize history,” Jagland said in an interview today from Strasbourg, France. “It will be a very moving moment for us and also for her, and it will be a very good opportunity for her to convey her message to the whole world.”
Suu Kyi left Myanmar today for her first visit to Europe since 1988. She is due to speak at the annual meeting of the International Labor Organization in Geneva tomorrow. She will then travel to Norway to pick up her prize before heading to Ireland to thank U2 singer Bono for his support, the U.K. and France. In Britain, she will address both houses of Parliament and accept an honorary doctorate at Oxford University, where she once studied.
The Peace Prize was awarded to Suu Kyi in 1991 while she was detained by the military after leading a pro-democracy party to victory during elections in Myanmar, then known as Burma, the previous year. For 24 years, she was either under house arrest or too fearful that if she left the country, the military regime would refuse to let her return. She remained even as her British husband was dying of cancer in England in 1999.
Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy crusade got a huge boost when she won the prize even though she couldn’t accept it, Jagland said.
“The fact that she couldn’t come highlighted her struggle in Burma, and while being isolated, it increased even more,” he said. Isolating Suu Kyi, 66, “didn’t help the junta, it helped her. It also gave her protection. Without the prize it would have been extremely difficult and dangerous for her to stay in the country.”
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who died in 1896, and the first prizes were handed out in 1901. According to Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize should be bestowed on the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Suu Kyi’s case is one of several that illustrate how governments buttress the causes of dissidents when they prevent winners from accepting their prize, Jagland said.
The same happened when Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human-rights activist, won the Peace Prize in 1975 and wasn’t allowed to leave the country to collect it. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that helped to bring down the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe and was Poland’s first democratically elected president after 1989, was unable to accept the prize he won in 1983 because he feared the Polish government wouldn’t let him back into the country.
Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist who was a constant warning voice against the Nazi party, was forbidden from traveling to Oslo to collect the Peace Prize he won in 1935. He died three years later.
“The prize has contributed to highlight the importance of human rights and the situation in these countries,” said Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who is now secretary general of the Council of Europe. “For these human-rights defenders, it’s absolutely worth it.”
Tensions With China
The same holds true for Liu Xiaobo, who won the peace prize in 2010 for his struggle to promote human rights and democracy in China. Liu began serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison in 2009 for plotting to subvert the ruling Communist Party, and the Nobel committee’s decision to award the prize to him sparked a diplomatic spat between Norway and China.
That doesn’t concern Jagland, who said the five-member Nobel Committee that is appointed by Norway’s parliament is immune to political pressure in deciding who wins the prize.
“It is very necessary to keep up attention to what is going on in China,” he said. “There is a similar situation in many other places in the world. It’s absolutely necessary to inform the whole world how things are in many corners of the globe.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer M. Freedman in Geneva at firstname.lastname@example.org
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