Today, it was announced that Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, beating out other favorites, notably Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist who has grabbed the world's attention through her often fiery speeches. The praise Abiy received, despite being a young 43-year-old coming to power just last year, is a recognition of the great political advances Ethiopia, under his leadership, has achieved in just a year. While the Nobel committee primarily gave Abiy the award for his effort to end the on-and-off military conflict with neighboring Eritrea, his efforts at pushing through greater freedom of expression and economic development at home are no doubt also highly evaluated.
Abiy is not without his critics. Opinion articles have come out to question whether it is premature to give Abiy the Peace Prize, considering that lasting peace with Eritrea is very much still a work in progress, and news of ethnic violence in Ethiopia continues to reach the international media. Indeed, recent political analyses have put forth the view that Abiy's effort to tone down centralized authoritarianism of the country's past will actually lift the lid on Ethiopia's many ethnic and regional conflicts, miring the country in violence that threatens to derail future economic developments.
The analyses of Abiy's Ethiopia as a potential power keg irrespective of its political advances reminds one of another Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has faced significant international backlash. Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from receiving the 1991 Peace Prize while under house arrest by the military government to becoming the State Counselor and de facto head of government of the new democratically elected government since 2016. However, recent years have seen her image become more negative in the international media, as many foreigners perceived that she has largely failed to rein in the military as it continues to go on a genocidal rampage against the Muslim Rohingya.
Despite being separated by thousands of miles, the sociopolitical situation of Myanmar under Suu Kyi and Ethiopia under Abiy have striking similarities. Both harbor a large number of minorities with significant autonomy due to semi-autonomous political structures in both. In both countries, one ethnicity has dominated past governments, leading to resentments from other races, with some taking up arms against the central government. Eritrea, after all, was itself a federal state of Ethiopia before breaking off in a violent, decades-long conflict. The northern reaches of Myanmar have minorities such as the Shan, Wa, and the Rakhine, that have actively taken up arms in bids to create their own independent political entities.
In both countries, a history of centralized military rule coexisted with tense ethnic relations. While each minority is granted its own state and autonomy, heavy-handed military repression made sure people of all races do not openly step out of the line against the centralized rule maintained through fear and violence. Military governments in both countries turned inward, keeping foreign investors out despite having enormous potential, by being located near economically important geographies (the Strait of Djibouti for Ethiopia, right between India and China for Myanmar).
The regret that some foreigners are showing toward giving Suu Kyi the Peace Prize does not account for the complex sociopolitical situation she had to navigate in the last few years. Democratic elections do not mean the influence of the military has disappeared. In fact, to open Myanmar up for foreign investment and reinvent it as a modern capitalist state, Suu Kyi had to compromise with the military, allowing it to maintain repressive peace through hardline responses to any signs of minorities stepping out of the line. Myanmar's ongoing economic development and Rohingya crisis are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin.
Suu Kyi's dilemma is bound to see a doppelganger in Ethiopia. Abiy's promises of greater democratic elections are already opening up demands for more autonomy among the country's many ethnicities. Failure for Abiy to respond positively in line with his progressive image is bound to hurt his international image. But being too lenient toward minority demands risks irking the powerful military-connected elites that ruled the country for decades, sparking backlashes that may create even more Eritrea-like secessions. Like Suu Kyi, Abiy faces the grim specter of having to sacrifice his international image to keep his country together through violence.
It is certainly unfortunate that Suu Kyi is no longer seen as Nobel Prize-worthy by many people outside Myanmar. And it will be just as unfortunate if Abiy goes the same way in the future. But ultimately politicians are bound first by their domestic obligations, doing what they can to achieve the most favorable outcomes at home while being constrained by vested interests, whether they are a powerful, active military or restive, independent minorities. If the Nobel Peace Prize simply represents lofty ideals without concerns for the complexity of domestic politics in multiethnic states like Myanmar and Ethiopia, there is no doubt that some people will be disappointed by their leaders, whether it be Suu Kyi or Abiy.
Image Credit: https://www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/nobel-peace-prize-2019-ethiopian-pm-abiy-ahmed-wins-prestigious-award/1733038/