Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, caused considerable surprise – and earned contempt internationally – when she went to The Hague to defend her country against a charge of genocide before the International Court of Justice. Nicholas Nugent reports
Seven years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize she had been awarded 21 years earlier. Having just been released from house arrest, she spoke in her acceptance speech of those in her country who were ‘oppressed and isolated’ and of communal violence in the west of the country ‘resulting in arson and murder’. She stood before the world as a beacon of hope for the restoration of human rights in a country long blighted by inter-ethnic violence and military repression.
Last month, Ms Suu Kyi was back in Europe for a very different and seemingly contradictory purpose. This time she stood before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to defend her country, previously known as Burma, from a charge of genocide in connection with a 2017 pogrom against the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state, which led three quarter of a million refugees to flee across the border to Bangladesh. It was as if she herself were in the dock.
In the intervening years, Aung San Suu Kyi had been elected Myanmar’s State Counsellor, a position akin to that of prime minister. She also holds the post of foreign minister. Now she was defending the very army, known as the Tatmadaw, that had held her under house arrest for 15 years, delaying her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.
A United Nations report described as ‘conservative’ an estimate that 10,000 members of the Rohingya community had lost their lives as a result of the army’s ‘systemic oppression of the Rohingya. The report said that ‘Tatmadaw soldiers would attack a village in the early hours… to instil immediate terror, with people woken by intense rapid weapon fire, explosions or the shouts and screams of villagers. Structures were set ablaze, and Tatmadaw soldiers fired their guns indiscriminately into houses and fields, and at villagers’. The UN fact-finding team found ‘sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command… [to] determine their liability for genocide’.
Since the country’s argument was that the Rohingya people are not citizens of Myanmar because they are Muslim, whereas most Myanmar people are Buddhist, the case against the country’s army and state was taken up by the 57-country Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The justice minister of the West African state of Gambia led the charge at the ICJ.
To many it seemed there was no defence since a UN report had already levelled the charge. So it was a surprise when Myanmar’s leader decided to go in person to defend the country and its army. One observer accused her of ‘defending the indefensible’. It was especially ironic that she was speaking for the organ of state–the Tatmadaw–which had held her under house arrest for so long because she threatened their hold on power. Commentators wrote that ‘the Lady’, as she is known in Myanmar, had lost her sense of moral rectitude, describing her as a ‘fallen star’.
Yet it is not hard to understand her motivation. She argued that the army’s 2017 clampdown was a response to attacks on the security force by a militant Rohingya group, saying that if some of the Tatmadaw had used ‘disproportionate force’ it was for the country’s own military justice system rather than the ICJ to punish the guilty. In other words, the massacre and oppression of the Rohingya community was an internal matter and no business of the court.
Aung San Suu Kyi is first and foremost a Burmese nationalist, the daughter of the country’s founding father, Aung San. The Tatmadaw was created by her father before his untimely assassination in 1947, just months before Burma gained its independence. So Burma’s army, far from being her enemy, is part of her flesh and blood. She herself was born around the time the Tatmadaw was ‘born’.
Furthermore, the cause she was supporting – that one must be Buddhist to be a citizen of Myanmar – is a popular one among the country’s majority Bama people. The Muslim Rohingya people that her countrymen disparagingly call ‘Bengali’ have never been accepted as Burmese or Myanmar citizens but are regarded as migrants from across the border in Bangladesh, notwithstanding the fact that several generations were born in Burma or Myanmar. With elections due in November this year, Ms Suu Kyi’s argument enjoys wide support at home, including from militant Buddhist Bama nationalists.
Even so, it puts her in a curious position: that a Nobel peace laureate should be defending and even justifying one of the worst abuses of human rights this century. There must be many who now regret once championing her cause, and who wonder whether her ascent to power in 2016 was truly the dawn of a new age of democracy in a country which has little peace to celebrate.
There may be another reason why Ms Suu Kyi came to the support of her former oppressors. She does not hold untrammelled power. One quarter of seats in the national parliament are held by military appointees and the head of the Tatmadaw appoints the ministers of defence, home affairs and border affairs, all of whom must be serving military officers, giving the army extensive political clout. Ms Suu Kyi shares power with the army and has no direct control over its behaviour.
The losers in this international battle are undoubtedly the Rohingya themselves. The 750,000 who fled in August 2017 joined around 200,000 refugees from earlier waves of oppression. The displaced Rohingya live in enormous refugee camps around the south eastern Bangladesh city of Cox’s Bazar. The Bangladesh government refuses to regard them as refugees for fear that they will settle and never return. It denies then access to education beyond primary level or the right to work or marry outside the camps.
Stateless in Myanmar. this community of nearly a million are now also stateless in Bangladesh, where they face the constant threat of being forcibly returned to Myanmar. The UN strongly opposes attempts to return them there because, as Ms Suu Kyi’s testimony demonstrated, they are unwelcome and the homes and land they once farmed have been razed and reassigned.