Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for resisting a military government described as a “regime characterized by brutality.”
In a spectacular reversal, Suu Kyi is now at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice defending remnants of that same government against charges of genocide.
In a three-day hearing that began Tuesday, the 74-year-old leader is expected to rebuff charges that Myanmar carried out a systematic campaign of mass murder, rape and terror against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that’s long faced oppression by the majority Buddhist Bamar in the Southeast Asian country.
Suu Kyi’s surprising appearance cements her tarnished reputation within the human rights community and some diplomatic circles, observers say, sparking rounds of soul-searching about how she could have been so misunderstood.
“Watching Aung San Suu Kyi going to The Hague to defend Myanmar’s bloody-minded generals, the open question is why the global community ever thought she had a rights-respecting bone in her body,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The manufacturing of her Nobel-winning persona must count as one of the all-time best ruses in international politics.”
Suu Kyi’s downward slide accelerated when she resisted calls to intervene as Myanmar’s military and security forces launched their deadly campaign against the Rohingya in 2016, driving more than 700,000 of the ethnic minority into refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh, where they live in desperate conditions.
The Myanmar leadership denies that thousands of Rohingya have been killed and says military operations have targeted militants only.
Suu Kyi’s inaction in the face of mounting criticism reflects her deference — and, perhaps, powerlessness — before Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, which still commands authority despite the end of nearly five decades of military rule in 2011.
For Suu Kyi, there’s also a political calculus. As a populist facing reelection next year, her trip to The Hague appeals to growing ethno-nationalist sentiment in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Many Bamar view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and remain unsympathetic to their plight. Suu Kyi’s supporters have held rallies in recent days to cheer her on during her foreign foray. They see the charges of genocide as an international conspiracy despite damning evidence to the contrary detailed by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“Aung San Suu Kyi went to The Hague to defend the indefensible: She has decided that the best way to address accusations of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is to deny that the well-documented crime ever took place,” said Jonah Blank, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s former policy director for Southeast Asia.
“The international community regards Myanmar’s persecution of its Rohingya as a crime against humanity. But for the ethnic Bamar majority in Myanmar, this act remains very popular. Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly more concerned about her domestic supporters than the judgment of history.”
Until now, Myanmar has faced few consequences for its actions. The U.S. State Department placed sanctions on some of the country’s military leaders in July. A separate court, the International Criminal Court, granted prosecutors permission to launch an investigation of crimes against humanity in November. But Suu Kyi has so far averted any formal scrutiny.
The legal confrontation in the Netherlands is made all the more unlikely by the country that instigated the lawsuit: the tiny West African nation of Gambia.
Despite being separated by more than 7,000 miles, the two nations have both ratified the U.N.’s Genocide Convention, providing Gambia the grounds to challenge Myanmar when it filed the suit last month.
Gambia is backed by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The country’s attorney general and justice minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, said he advocated for the lawsuit after he was reminded of the international community’s inadequate response to atrocities in Rwanda in 1994.
(Gambia itself recently concluded a truth commission to come to terms with the brutal dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh, who was driven from power in 2017.)
It was Tambadou who provided the keynote to the hearings Tuesday, Gambia’s day to present evidence. Suu Kyi will speak Wednesday. Both sides will address the court Thursday.
Tambadou spoke of visiting Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, hearing their stories and seeing fear take hold of children. He said the case had implications beyond Myanmar.
“Why is the world standing by and allowing such horrors again in our lifetime?” he said. “Contrary to views of many out there, it is not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here. It is our collective humanity that is being put on trial.”
Suu Kyi, dressed in a black blazer and wearing pearls, sat silently as Gambia’s lead attorney, Andrew Loewenstein, stood arm’s length to her right at a lectern recounting witness accounts of myriad atrocities: infants killed by being thrown into fires and rivers; women sexually mutilated; families burned alive, trapped inside their homes.
If found responsible for genocide, legal experts say, Myanmar may have to pay reparations, enact legislation to prevent a reoccurrence and allow more international oversight. No individuals would face punishment, however, as the International Court of Justice deals only with nation-states. It remains to be seen whether any ruling can be enforced. Despite that, human rights advocates welcome the international pressure raised by the lawsuit.
Among Gambia’s pleas to the tribunal was for an injunction to prevent Myanmar’s military and security forces from inflicting any more harm on the Rohingya. That’s necessary, the African country’s representatives said, because a final ruling on genocide could take years.
Rohingya in Myanmar still face the threat of violence and imprisonment. They remain confined to the western coastal state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.
Though Rohingya have been a presence in Myanmar for centuries, they arrived from Bangladesh en masse during the British colonial era, which lasted from 1824 to 1948. It was Suu Kyi’s father, the famed revolutionary general and politician Aung San, who’s credited with driving the British out of Burma. He was assassinated six months before independence was declared.
Suu Kyi studied at Oxford University and lived in Britain, where she married her husband, before returning to Burma in 1988. There she emerged as a leader of the pro-democracy movement against the military government, which had taken power in 1962. She formed the National League for Democracy party and was under house arrest for more than two decades, inspiring legions of admirers who referred to her as “The Lady.”
Some of her supporters at The Hague on Tuesday stood outside the so-called World Court in the chilly weather carrying a banner that displayed her picture flanked by hearts and the words “We love you” and “We stand with you.”
“We have to support her because this case is going against our nation and our people,” said Daw Aye Aye Thant, 53, a native of Myanmar who lives in the Netherlands.
Blank, now a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., said the most shocking aspect of Suu Kyi’s transformation was the thought there wasn’t one; that all along, she was the kind of leader who would never consider what the Tatmadaw did genocide.
“I think she actually believes what she’s saying,” Blank said. “Those of us who used to be fans of her didn’t truly understand her. She is not the person we hoped that she was. She agrees with the military and sees the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants, who were rightfully expelled.”
Special correspondent Diamond reported from The Hague and Times staff writer Pierson from Singapore.