When Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was hailed as an imprisoned martyr dedicated to bringing democracy and human rights to a country that for decades had withered under a brutal military junta. Now, as Myanmar’s de facto leader, she is set to face her European peers, defending her country in The Hague on the charge of genocide.
On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands will begin hearings on only the third genocide case heard by it since World War II. In it, Myanmar stands accused of carrying out the systematic rape, torture and murder of thousands of Rohingya Muslims that forced more than 740,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh where they now live unwanted and in squalor.
Suu Kyi in her capacity as state counselor will lead a team to defend Myanmar against the accusations largely directed at the same military apparatus that for 14 years kept her under house arrest until her release in 2010. The decision to appear before the court comes despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, while Suu Kyi herself is accused by U.N. investigators of “complicity” in the atrocities.
The trial marks a low point for the reputation of a democracy icon who during her political rise in Myanmar’s 2015 elections was often compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela.
“It’s hard to think of a figure in modern history whose public perception has fallen so sharply,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and former senior director for Southeast Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Filed in November by the small Muslim-majority African nation of Gambia, the case argues Myanmar is in violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide after security forces engaged in widespread “clearance operations” in Rohingya villages that began in earnest in August 2017. Myanmar has been a member of the convention since 1956.
Since then, international organizations have withdrawn a number of accolades from Suu Kyi including the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Elie Weisel award and Edinburgh’s Freedom of the City award. The latest came in November when Amnesty International withdrew its most prestigious human rights award, calling out Suu Kyi by saying, “You no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defense of human rights.”
On Sunday, Suu Kyi was photographed departing for the U.N.’s top court, smiling with a delegation as it left the airport in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyitaw.
“For clarity, the Lady is not the one who committed the alleged crimes,” Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the National League for Democracy, said in a phone interview, referring to Suu Kyi’s popular name. “She didn’t keep silent on this. We do believe in her sincerity about the truth, and she has taken the crucial responsibility to defend her country, which is admirable.”
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun did not respond to multiple phone calls seeking comment.
Suu Kyi still enjoys wide support from the Bamar, or ethnic Burmese, who make up a majority of Myanmar’s 54 million population. On Saturday, thousands of supporters holding placards that read “we stand with our leader” took to the streets of Naypyitaw in defense of the woman they say is protecting Myanmar’s national interest.
“Our only hope is to encourage the Myanmar people’s love for the country,” Htin Lin Oo, one of the event’s organizers, said by phone Friday. “We aim to give some strength for the Lady who will face the trial on behalf of our country.”
Following multiple investigations, the U.N. directly accused Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, of perpetrating the atrocities with “genocidal intent” while the U.S. State Department in July sanctioned four Myanmar military officials including army Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing for “gross human rights violations.” The military has repeatedly dismissed the charges as “false accusations.”
By contrast China, as Myanmar’s top investor, called for closer relations with Myanmar following a meeting between Suu Kyi and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi last Friday.
With elections expected in the second half of next year, experts say the case will hardly impact support for Suu Kyi as the country grapples with bread-and-butter issues like expanding an economy that suffered under decades of isolationist rule.
“What’s important to remember is that the vast majority of people in Myanmar do not believe that thousands of Rohingya civilians were killed or even that 700,000 or more were forced to flee to Bangladesh,” historian Thant Myint-U, author of the book “The Hidden History of Burma,” wrote in an email. “In Myanmar, until the ICJ case came up, the Rohingya issue was far down the list of political priorities.”
While he said the trial “will only catalyze ethno-nationalist feelings” feelings at home, observers including the United Nations note the Burmese do not associate the democratically elected government with crimes carried out by a military. The army has denied Suu Kyi the right to assume the presidency, while also maintaining a stronghold on parliament with a mandatory 25% of all seats and automatic veto rights.
“Aung San Suu Kyi may think she is serving the national interests by going to The Hague, but if all she does is deny or defend the military’s actions, the only interest she will be serving is theirs,” said Nicholas Bequelin, East and Southeast Asia Director for Amnesty International. “She should be standing side by side with victims and survivors in the pursuit of truth and accountability.”
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