Ms Menchu started work in the cotton fields of Guatemala's Quiche province at the age of nine and learnt to speak Spanish working as a maid. In 1980, after her father, mother and brother were tortured and killed by security forces, she became a champion of Indian resistance to military repression. Even after Guatemala's military handed over to civilian rulers in 1985, the armed forces remained politically powerful and Ms Menchu continued to be viewed with suspicion by the authorities. She has lived in exile in Mexico since 1981.
She returned to Guatemala last week to organise protests against the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in America. 'The people of Guatemala are going to be very happy with the news,' she said when told she had won the prize. 'I only wish that my parents could have been present, because they could have shared the dream of the Guatemalan people.'
The award of the 6.5m kroner ( pounds 714,000) prize at the time of the Columbus anniversary was 'not a coincidence', the Nobel committee said. They had given it to her 'in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation that has been based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples'. The committee said there had been 'large-scale repression of Indian peoples' in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s.
Francis Sejersted, head of the awards committee, said 'we are aware that this is a somewhat controversial prize' and eagerly awaited the reaction to it.
The Guatemalan military had condemned Ms Menchu's nomination. 'To give her the prize would be a political victory for the guerrillas,' said the military spokesman before yesterday's announcement, an allegation countered by the committee. They said Ms Menchu 'grew up in poverty, in a family which has undergone the most brutal suppression and persecution. In her social and political work, she has always borne in mind that the long-term objective of the struggle is peace.'
The Guatemalan government rallied to what must be uncomfortable news. 'We are very proud of this award,' said a spokeswoman at the Guatemalan embassy in London. 'The Guatemalan government always had a policy of seeking improvements in the conditions of Indians,' she added.
Right-wing security forces are blamed for the deaths of some 50,000 Guatemalans, most of them highland Indians, during violent campaigns in the 1980s. Altogether, more than 120,000 people have been killed in the longest and dirtiest little war in Central America, which began in the 1960s and had its roots in the violent overthrow of the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.
Some 42,000 people are estimated to have disappeared in Guatemala, more than in any other Latin American country. Last year saw more than 2,000 murders and disappearances.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content