On a chilly Wednesday morning in The Hague, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stood before the United Nations’ highest court to defend her country from charges of genocide. It was a powerful reminder of how far the former human rights’ icon has fallen from grace in the eyes of the West.
As Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi made an unusual decision to personally lead the defense at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), answering to allegations that Myanmar tried to exterminate the Rohingya, a majority-Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar’s westernmost state of Rakhine. The U.N. provided extensive documentation of army-led crackdowns in 2017 that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, where most remain in squalid refugee camps.
Myanmar has long denied allegations of atrocities and claims the military targeted Muslim terrorists. In her opening arguments in the courtroom, Suu Kyi struck the same tone. “The applicant has brought a case based on the genocide convention. We are however dealing with an internal armed conflict started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks,” she said in remarks that were streamed online.
She also said “impatient international actors” were attempting to undermine Myanmar’s domestic criminal justice system in their “rush to externalize accountability.”
“The situation in Rakhine is complex,” she said, while insisting that “genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.”
Outside the gates of the ornate Peace Palace where the courts are housed, both supporters and detractors were photographed carrying pictures of Suu Kyi. “We stand with you,” placards on one side read, while others called for an end to genocide.
Suu Kyi is not personally on trial, and in any case the ICJ cannot punish individuals. Nevertheless, the 74-year-old leader’s appearance at The Hague comes after a remarkable recalibration of her global image. Suu Kyi was internationally idolized as a political prisoner, kept under house arrest for 15 years by a military regime hostile to democracy. Now, the woman who stood up to the junta is defending that same military from charges of bloodshed.
“There was a time when Aung San Suu Kyi spoke with moral authority and the world would listen, but that time has long gone,” says Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK.
Just seven years ago, when a recently freed Suu Kyi belatedly accepted her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she spoke of how whenever “suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict.” But as the court heard retellings of witness testimony this week, including an account from a Rohingya woman who said a soldier raped her, stabbed her in the abdomen and killed her 28-day-old baby, Suu Kyi sat quietly in the front row and did not appear to react at all.
The Case to Hold Myanmar Accountable
The momentous, three-day hearings are the first time Myanmar has faced an international court of justice over accusations that Rohingya were systemically gang raped, mutilated and murdered in 2017. The case was launched by the Muslim majority state of the Gambia, in west Africa. It is only the fourth time in the ICJ’s history that its judges have had to consider whether a nation breached the 1948 Genocide Convention. Only one genocide ruling has been made by the court, over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Acting on behalf of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Gambia is seeking an emergency order to prevent further atrocities against the Rohingya. But the country’s claim also accuses Myanmar of genocide in a wider case that is expected to last years.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” said Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, the Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, quoting Edmund Burke as he opened the case. “It’s not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here, it’s our collective humanity.”
From Hero to Pariah
Until Suu Kyi’s appearance at the ICJ, she was widely—and erroneously—perceived as silent on the Rohingya crisis. But this week, instead of staying on the sidelines, she chose to offer the most high-profile defense of her government’s persecution of the Muslim minority, and shattered any illusions that she is just a quiet bystander.
“Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed once and for all her role as the key cover-up conspirator in the [Myanmar military]’s campaign of crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
It’s a stunning reversal in her trajectory as a human rights icon. Long mentioned in the same breath as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Suu Kyi—the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San—spent 15 years under house arrest before being released in 2010. International humanitarian groups decorated her with accolades, Bono wrote a song about her and President Barack Obama lauded her as a “beacon of hope” for “people reaching for justice.”
The 2015 elections that propelled Suu Kyi to her position as State Counsellor (de factor leader) were heralded as the successful culmination of a democratic struggle championed by Washington. But the country’s first civilian administration in over 50 years was quickly subsumed by long-running ethnic conflicts and an explosion of violence in western Rakhine State. And “the Lady,” as she was affectionately known, gained a less flattering collection of epithets, including an “apologist” for ethnic cleansing and a “handmaiden to genocide.”
Following an investigation, a U.N. fact-finding mission concluded in August 2019 that Myanmar’s military carried out “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls” and rape against Rohingya with such severity that it indicated “genocidal intent.” Suu Kyi, who once worked at the United Nations’ headquarters, opposed the investigation.
The U.N.’s special rapporteur on Myanmar accused Suu Kyi of “complicity” in the crimes. Even while photos and videos captured the long exodus of people fleeing their incinerated villages — many bleeding, haphazardly bandaged or carried on makeshift stretchers — the country’s civilian leader insisted she stood firm with the military.
Nevertheless, many officials in Washington and other capitals remained sympathetic to Suu Kyi, who is forced to share power with unelected generals she cannot control. Isolating Suu Kyi’s government would “make a difficult situation a lot worse,” Daniel Russel, a former top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said in 2017.
Since then, the U.S. has sanctioned several military figures. The latest penalties came as hearings at The Hague began Tuesday, and targeted the commander-in-chief and three other army leaders.
Suu Kyi has not been sanctioned, but her portrait no longer hangs at her alma mater Oxford University and Amnesty International last year revoked its highest honor in light of her “shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for.”
While Suu Kyi’s international reputation is tarnished, domestically she is still popular. People in Myanmar “truly believe and love her,” says Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a youth activist. Both Suu Kyi’s trip to the Netherlands and her decision to serve as military defender has earned her plaudits back home, where the Rohingya are considered illegal “Bengali” interlopers and denied citizenship.
Before the ICJ hearings, huge billboards appeared in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon depicting Suu Kyi alongside smiling generals, and hundreds of supporters fanned out in rallies to wish her luck in Europe.
Many in Myanmar believe international derision over the Rohingya exodus is simply a matter of misunderstanding, something that their eloquent civilian leader could correct. Suu Kyi herself has blamed “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”
Championing Myanmar’s narrative right now could also provide a timely boost ahead of 2020 elections when military-aligned nationalists are expected to make a comeback bid.
‘Under Her Watch’
While Suu Kyi defends the alleged perpetrators, the head of the U.N.’s fact-finding mission in Myanmar has warned “there is a serious risk of genocide recurring.” In October, he cited worsening segregation, discrimination and restrictions of movement for the Rohingya and called for the international community to support the push for legal accountability.
In addition to the hearings at the ICJ, a lawsuit targeting Suu Kyi was filed by Argentina, and a probe launched by the International Criminal Court—a separate war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
“It’s high time Rohingya refugee children and their families get their day in court,” Michael McGrath, Save the Children’s director for Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, said in statement.
Before Suu Kyi visited The Hague, a group of seven fellow Nobel peace prize winners called on her to “be held criminally accountable, along with her army commanders, for crimes committed.”
“We also urge her to exercise her personal and moral responsibility towards the Rohingya,” they added, “and acknowledge and condemn the genocide committed under her watch.”
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