Thein Sein: Nobel Laureate?

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Thein Sein: Nobel Laureate?

Burma’s President is rumored to be a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. If history is a guide, its not as crazy as it may sound.

One of the best known facts about Burmais that it is home to Nobel Laureate and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the prize in 1991 and was finally able to give her Nobel lecture during a trip to Norway in June. But recent reports suggest that the Southeast Asian nation could soon get another Nobel Peace Prize.

Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Oslo Peace Research Institute and a close watcher of the Nobel Prize process, placed Burma’s President Thein Sein on his shortlist of five Nobel Peace Prize recipients ahead of the official announcement expected later this week.

The case for Thein Sein, according to Harpviken, is that he has spearheaded “a gradually evolving peace process” in Burma. Peacemaking is at the core of the Nobel mandate, and the committee has awarded prizes to both mediators and conflict party representatives previously.

Burma is certainly in the midst of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic political and economic transformations in recent memory. Since taking power in March 2011, Thein Sein has unveiled a series of bold political and economic reforms including the release of political prisoners, reconciliation with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and a much-needed economic rebalancing in areas like foreign investment, taxes and exchange rate in the country.

Groundbreaking as these changes are thus far, it may be far too early to declare victory and begin doling out prizes. As others have pointed out, there remain several obstacles to continued reform in Burma, including capacity and expertise problems, the presence of spoilers in the military and beyond, and remaining reconciliation with ethnic groups. Many questions also still remain unresolved. How will the balance between the executive and legislature play out? How might the military respond if insurgencies flare up in the ethnic minority areas, given its broad constitutional power to declare national emergencies? Will the military really accept Aung San Suu Kyi as a presidential candidate in 2015 when that time comes? As a Center for Strategic and International Studies report recently concluded, real change is underway but is hardly irreversible.

While Harpviken acknowledges that giving the prize to Thein Sein would “stir controversy” and ranks him only fifth among his favorites, he nonetheless says the committee has often “insisted the prize is not to be for saints only,” especially if “it makes a difference in processes unfolding, even if that may carry high risk.”

Indeed, the Nobel Committee is no stranger to surprises. In 1973 the committee awarded the peace prize to Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho for their efforts to end the Vietnam conflict (Le Duc Tho declined the prize because in his view peace had not been established in Vietnam). Similarly, the 1994 was shared among Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin for their (yet to be realized) efforts to reach a two-state solution in the Middle East. Or just ask U.S. President Barack Obama, who reported being “very surprised” three years ago when his press secretary Robert Gibbs woke him with news he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, despite having few tangible achievements to show for it. 

Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.