I recently had the opportunity to view a docudrama called The Lady — a “re-enactment” of the political re-awakening and rise to leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament for the opposition party in Burma.* I had heard her story before, of course, but it didn’t hit home until I saw this film just how worthy she was of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was finally able to accept in person, 21 years after it was first awarded. And, immediately upon the heels of that thought was the stark contrast with one of the most recent winners of the prize, U.S. President Barak Obama. 


Suu Kyi had settled in the United Kingdom after attending Oxford, marrying a British citizen and giving birth to two sons.  Yes, she came from a political/activist family. Her father, Aung San, was lauded as the founder of modern-day Burma after he negotiated its independence from Great Britain. (He was assassinated by rivals shortly after.) Her mother served as Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal. However, Suu Kyi had a made a separate life for herself, mostly removed from the intensity — and yes, even danger — of Burmese politics. That is, until she returned to her home country to care for her ailing mother in 1988. What was originally intended to be just a visit, however, became a permanent separation from her husband and sons. When asked, as her father’s daughter, to help save her troubled native country in its fight to the death for democracy, she could not say no. 

As the most visible public face and spokesperson for the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi followed in the footsteps of Gandhi, both figuratively and literally — frequently continuing to travel into the far reaches of the country and speak out even as the junta’s guns were pointed directly at her. In 1996, for instance, the the motorcade in which she was traveling was attacked by about 200 men wielding chains, batons, stones and other weapons. The rear window of the car carrying Suu Kyi was smashed. Yet she continued speaking out, and as a result, was held in house arrest for at total of 15 years, before the military leadership finally responded to years of pressure and began a gradual process of liberalization. 

But perhaps the most painful price she paid for her devotion to non-violent resistance was the cruel choice was forced to make between her family and the Burmese people who had come to rely on her for their salvation. The last visit her husband, Michael Aris, was able to make to Burma was for Christmas 1995. From that year on, Aris was refused further entry visas, and Suu Kyi was either imprisoned or faced with the certainty that if she left the country, she would not be allowed to return. When Aris died from prostate cancer on his 53rd birthday in 1999, Suu Kyi was not with him. 

I do not know what decision I would make under similar circumstances. I cannot even imagine being forced to make such an all-or-nothing between two deeply held passions.  Suu Kyi — with her husband’s support — made the ultimate sacrifice for the people she had come to represent. 

Now..contrast Suu Kyi’s record to that of Barak Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. When the award was first established upon the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896, the instructions he left stated that recipients should be those who can be credited for the “best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Put more simply, winners should be those who bestow the “greatest benefit for mankind” in the arena of diplomacy. 

When it was announced that he was that year’s recipient of the award, Obama was still relatively untested in the United States’ highest office. His presidency began less than two weeks before the Feb. 1, 2009, nomination deadline for the prize. The judges — a five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament —explained at the time that they based their decision merely on his promise of disarmament and diplomacy, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush. They told the Associated Press that their choice was an early vote of confidence intended to build global support for the policies of Obama’s young administration.

Setting aside the wisdom of awarding a prize based on a promise rather than demonstrated performance, let’s take a look at whether that vote of confidence was warranted, or has had the hoped-for effect. 

On June 24, former President Jimmy Carter — widely recognized today as a fair, moral international observer, wrote a New York Times opinion piece called “America’s Shameful Record on Human Rights.” In it, he says: “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” He goes on to single out the Obama administration’s expansion of targeted killings, adding: “Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended.”

Consider a few facts:

  • Drone strikes were first used by the U.S. military in 2004, but President George W. Bush was sparing with them. In five years, he authorized only 44 attacks. In contrast, by the time Obama was into his third year in office, he had personally approved more than five times that number.

  • Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva this month that President Obama’s attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards. Heyns suggested some of the attacks ordered by Obama may even constitute “war crimes.”

  • Obama has preserved the option for, and use of, rendition flights (in which detainees are flown to other countries where torture is common), secret military tribunals and indefinite detention without trial. Though he jettisoned Bush-era interrogation techniques that could be credibly called torture, he escalated an assassination program that ensured few interrogations would need to take place. 

    When the American cleric and Islamist propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen last year with another American, Samir Khan (who was not on the ‘kill-list’), 
    secret legal memo was drafted to justify the attack by ruling that the due-process requirement in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution could be satisfied by internal White House deliberations alone. 

    Perhaps most disturbing, the Obama administration classifies all military-age males in a strike zone as ‘terrorists’ unless, as the New York Times put it, “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

  • After vowing to lead the most transparent administration in U.S. history, Obama has practiced warfare techniques that shrouded by a level of secrecy that matches that of the Bush White House. Late last year, the Washington Post stated bluntly: “Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory. The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.”

    Investigative columnist Glenn Greenwald raises a similar concern: “
    Over the past several months… I’ve written numerous times about the…glaring contradictions that drive the Obama administration’s game-playing with its secrecy powers. (One is that) at the very same time that they wage an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, they themselves continuously leak national security secrets for political gain. Just over the past month alone, they have done precisely this by leaking key details about Obama’s commanding role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, drone attacks that have killed allegedly key Al Qaeda figures, sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and the selection of targets for Obama “kill list”: all programs that are classified and which the White House has insisted cannot be subjected to judicial review or any form of public scrutiny.”

For a more exhaustive comparison of Obama’s performance vs. Bush in terms of respect for human rights and peace building, take a look at this revealing timeline compiled by ProPublica: “How Obama Compares to Bush on Torture, Surveillance and Detention.”

Of course, I guess one could argue that the Nobel prize is as conflicted today as its founder was. Alfred Nobel was, after all, the inventor of dynamite, which has as many negative uses as positive. What’s more, he was reportedly a great believer in the deterrent power of weapons (which makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw once: “Peace through superior firepower”).

Likewise, many of the past winners have been controversial at best. In 1923, the prize went to Theodore Roosevelt for brokering an end to the Russia-Japan war that some historians now argue he helped spark in the first place. Famous for proclaiming that his policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Roosevelt was a proponent of interventionist policies in Latin America.  The New York Times wryly observed at the time that the Peace Prize had gone “to the most warlike citizen of these United States.”

In 1973, Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho shared the award for negotiating a cease-fire that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—despite Kissinger’s role in the secret bombing of Cambodia. (Tho rejected his award, the only person to do so, saying there was no peace in his country.) And then there was the recipient in 1978 — Menachem Begin (who received it jointly with Anwar Sadat), who once led a terrorist group that blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91. 

Equally as damning is the fact that the man who could be assumed to have won the prize — Mohandas Gandhi (also known as the Mahatma, or “the Great Soul”) was never awarded this honor. He was nominated for the award five times — in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948 — but never won. For a thorough discussion of the politics behind these discussions, visit UCLA’s discussion page on the subject.

There have, however, been more worthy winners than unworthy. Consider just a handful: 

2010: Liu Xiaobo — a Chinese literary critic, writer, professor and human rights activist, who is living out his life in prison as the result of his work. 

2003: Shirin Ebadi — an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who risked her life many times for the women, children and refugees she has represented.

1999: Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

1997: International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL)

1993: Nelson Mandela

1989: The 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso)

1985: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

1984: Desmond Tutu

1983: Lech Walesa

1981: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

1979: Mother Teresa

1977: Amnesty International

1965: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

1964: Martin Luther King Jr.

1960: Albert John Lutuli — an anti-apartheid leader in South Africa and an apostle of nonviolence.

1947: Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee (The Quakers)

1935: Carl von Ossietzky — a German journalist and pacifist who was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.  He could have fled the country, as others had done, but he felt he should stay and fight. He paid with hard labor and torture. The authorities demanded he sign a statement renouncing his principles, but he refused. 

1931: Jane Addams — a pioneer settlement worker, founder of Hull House in Chicago, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and leader in women’s suffrage and world peace

1901: Jean Henry Dunant — founder of the Red Cross

Read that list and consider what they all have in common. None of them authorized bombings or assassinations, or implemented “kill lists.” Obama is not only no Aung San Suu Kyi, he is looking more and more like George W. Bush every day. 


* Note: Perhaps you are as confused as I was about which name to use — Burma (used by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now) or Myanmar (adopted by The New York Times). A little bit of research revealed that Myanmar was the country’s original name, until it was changed to Burma by the British colonial power.  It was changed back again, to Myanmar, by the military junta, in 1989. During the long years of repression, the democracy movement preferred ‘Burma’ (despite its colonialist origins) because it did not accept the legitimacy of the edict from the unelected military regime. Today, if the Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar.’ But when they speak in conversation, they say ‘Burma.’


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