When Liu Xiaobo learnt that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, he burst into tears.  His captors, his own government, also reacted emotionally, but they were simply angry.  In 2009, Liu – a man whose gentle intelligence shines from his face – was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power” (and that is plenty of power).


Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Liu, the gentle intellectual with a core of steel


Liu is not only a human rights activist.  He is a writer, an intellectual, was a visiting scholar with a degree in literature at Columbia University and elsewhere.  Doing what academics do all over the world.   But we all know intellectuals (or people with glasses, under the horrendous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia) are very dangerous.  They have ideas.  And authoritarian regimes are always fearful.  The generals and politburos and dictators have to watch out for these people.  You never know what they might think, say – or worse still, write. The pen is mightier than the sword, etc.  Even the mention of his name is censored. So the Chinese man on the street doesn’t even know he exists.

Oh, and “they” are afraid of his wife, too.  She is now under house arrest in Beijing.

This is the fourth, and longest, of Liu’s incarcerations.  His government imprisoned him at first for relatively short periods, just to teach him a lesson, but he has been very bad.  He has not seen the error of his ways.  So this time it’s much longer.

There were two other Chinese nominees for the prize, by the way.  One, Ding Zilin, 73, a retired professor of philosophy who was a spokeswoman for relatives of the victims of the Tienanmen Square massacre, has reportedly not been heard from for days.  Even old ladies are dangerous, and may disappear.


Chinese dissident Ding Zilin
Perhaps Ding Zilin is hiding?


Of course, this is not the first time that a Nobel Peace Prize winner has been denied, reviled, persecuted (and in the case of Liu, simply locked up).  The Petchary often wonders what it must feel like to be a political prisoner (and what a strange and difficult term that is).  Your thoughts make you dangerous, not your deeds.  This topic must be revisited.

Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.  The previous year, she had won national elections as head of the National League for Democracy – and has been detained, usually under house arrest, for most of the subsequent two decades or so.  Well, Myanmar (Burma) has an “election” coming up on November 7, but of course the NLD is excluded and Suu Kyi is, not surprisingly, under house arrest.  The pleadings of other Nobel Prize winners and democratic leaders have fallen on deaf ears.


Aung Sung Suu Kyi
The elegant Aung San Suu Kyi gazes from the window of her house prison


From time to time, the always smiling Suu Kyi appears at her window or at her garden wall, where her loyal young followers greet her with banners and shouts and cheers.

She has become a beautiful, imprisoned symbol.

Then there is another brave woman, the recipient of the 2003 Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi – the first Iranian to win the prize, and her country’s first female judge.  After four years in that position she was forced to resign, after the Islamic Revolution.  Women were not to be judges any more.  “They made me a clerk in the very court I once presided over,” says Ebadi.  Many years later, she finally obtained her lawyer’s license and now defends the human rights of women and children in the Muslim world.


Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi has an air of calm and seriousness, and sometimes a wry smile


Recently, Ebadi said she hoped Liu’s Peace Prize would lead to his release, because people now knew of his plight.  The Petchary is not so hopeful. Ebadi herself now lives in exile – just like another Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama, who has spent most of his life outside the country he fights for and loves dearly (now, of course, “part of China.”)  And the Iranian authorities actually stole her Nobel medal from a bank safe deposit box, last year.  And then arrested her sister.  Her husband’s passport was taken away, and a fake one returned to him.

And how many political prisoners are there in Iran, one asks?  According to Ebadi, over 800.  Journalists, students (yes, it is dangerous to be a student in Iran, because you might be actually thinking), lawyers, women, Christians, Baha’is.

But has the Nobel Peace Prize become politicized?  Norwegian Fredrik Heffermehl, who has written a book called “The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted,” believes human rights activists are to be admired, but don’t fit in with Alfred Nobel‘s original concept for the prize.  Actually, Nobel’s vision was quite narrow… He wanted his Peace Prize to go to people who were working towards disarmament.  The Swede with the always-impressive mustache was, after all, a manufacturer of arms, and actually patented dynamite.

But peace is a little more complicated than that, these days, Mr. Nobel. Sorry to say, it is still very far from our grasp.


Dr. Martin Luther King and his Nobel Peace Prize
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of peace, with his Nobel Prize

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