Rohingya refugees waited to board boats to flee to Bangladesh, on the Myanmar side of the Naf River in September 2017. Credit...Adam Dean for The New York Times
She could have stayed home. Once a champion for human rights, she is now expected to argue at The Hague that the world has been deceived by report after report of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
Nobody is forcing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — she of the Nobel Peace Prize and fragrant flowers in her hair — to stride into the International Court of Justice on Tuesday at The Hague, where she will lead Myanmar’s defense against accusations of genocide.
After all, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent decades battling the same military generals accused of perpetrating mass atrocities against Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims. Just a few years ago, the onetime democracy activist, who serves as Myanmar’s foreign minister and de facto civilian leader, visited the halls of power in Western Europe to preach the virtues of nonviolent resistance against a military dictatorship.
This time, her mission is very different. From Tuesday to Thursday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi will represent Myanmar in public hearings at the International Court of Justice, where the country is being accused of trying to “destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses.”
The three days of public hearings at The Hague, which opened on Tuesday, will not address the merits of the case, which was brought by Gambia on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Instead, the court proceedings are focused on whether the court should issue urgent orders to protect the half a million Rohingya still living in Myanmar. The court could issue such “provisional measures” in a matter of days, long before the international legal system rules on the charge of genocide, a process that could take years.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, dressed in black, sat motionless in the front row on Tuesday, facing 17 judges of the United Nations’ highest court, as lawyers for Gambia began making their case that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still in Myanmar urgently needed protection.
Philippe Sands, a specialist in international law who is a member of Gambia’s legal team, told the judges that the Rohingya remained the targets of “ongoing genocide” and were vulnerable to more atrocities to come.
“You are called upon to act now,” he said.
“This court is the ultimate guardian of the Genocide Convention,” he told the court. “It is on you that the eyes of the world are turned.”
For many outside Myanmar, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s evolution from imprisoned opposition leader to apologist for some of this century’s worst ethnic pogroms is a cautionary tale of how power corrupts.
But her turn as the generals’ protector has only cemented her popularity at home, where her party, the National League for Democracy, faces elections next year.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi always handles problems with love,” said U Saw Phoe Kwar, a well-known reggae singer and peace activist in Myanmar. “Everyone should be united as she faces the problem at The Hague.”
For days, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fans have gathered across Myanmar for rallies of support.
A billboard in Hpa-an, Myanmar, last month showing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi with three grinning military ministers in front of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
To them, the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State in far western Myanmar, a campaign so vicious that United Nations officials have said that it had genocidal intent, simply did not happen.
“Western opinion seems to be against Myanmar in the Rakhine case because the information they get from the international news has led to a misunderstanding,” said U Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy. “They need to know more about the real situation on the ground and the history of the country.”
Mr. Myo Nyunt said no mass atrocities had taken place against the Rohingya, apart from isolated bouts of killings in two villages. Instead, he said that the international community has ignored the deaths of dozens of Hindus in Rakhine State at the hands of what the Myanmar authorities say were Rohingya insurgents.
International human rights groups estimate that thousands of Rohingya have been massacred by the military and mobs of Buddhist villagers since 2017.
“We are trying our best not to harm anyone in the country just because of their religion,” Mr. Myo Nyunt said.
In Myanmar, the international effort to punish those responsible is viewed by many as a plot by oil-rich sheikhs to upend a peaceful Buddhist nation.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters hope that she, with her Oxford University pedigree and crisp English, can clear up any confusion and persuade the judges at the International Court of Justice to reject the case against Myanmar, just as she once rallied foreign resistance to the country’s repressive military junta.
“There is no one better than Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of wisdom and experience,” said U So Bhi Ta, a Buddhist monk in the city of Mandalay.
“I believe that she will bring the real news to overcome the fake news from the Western media,” he added.
Since becoming the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar after the 2015 elections, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided criticizing the generals for an orchestrated campaign of violence that has compelled more than three quarters of a million Rohingya to flee for neighboring Bangladesh since 2017.
She has blamed Muslim “terrorists” and a “huge iceberg of misinformation” for the Rohingya crisis. Her office’s social media feeds have labeled the military’s sexual violence against Rohingya women as “fake rape.”
The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants by most people in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Most have been rendered stateless, even though their homes are in Rakhine.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s surprise announcement last month that she would lead the team of lawyers presenting Myanmar’s case at The Hague unleashed a frenzy of public displays of support back home: billboards urging her luck in Europe, contemporary art exhibits dedicated to her heroism, blessings from Buddhist monks who see her as a defender of a faith besieged by Islam.
Her boost in popularity is well timed for the National League for Democracy, facing its first re-election campaign since its landslide victory four years ago.
Economic overhauls have stalled. Fighting with various ethnic groups has flared in the nation’s borderlands. Representatives of the Shan ethnic group, which is battling Myanmar’s military in the north, released a statement on Monday saying that they “strongly support the international legal cases being brought against Burma’s military leaders, who have authorized atrocities against the country’s ethnic peoples for decades with impunity.”
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to The Hague is definitely related to the 2020 election,” said Khun Gamani, a social researcher. “I think she is desperate to get the Burmese Army’s recognition and deference.”
“This aggressive populism will render sustainable peace and reconciliation inside Myanmar even more impossible,” said Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, an artist and activist whose grandfather was the country’s first president. “It’s all for short-term gain and winning next year’s election, but the impact of what her government is doing now will be felt for generations to come.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters said that she was not necessarily walking in lock step with the nation’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s delicate power-sharing structure means that any contrary move by the pro-democracy camp could push the military further out of the barracks, they said.
“She is not going to The Hague because she is on the same side as the Tatmadaw,” said Mr. Myo Nyunt, the National League for Democracy spokesman. “It’s more like a parent taking responsibility for his or her kid’s problems.”
But critics said that had Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi used her moral eloquence to defend persecuted ethnic minorities, virulent hatred of the Rohingya in Myanmar would not have become as acceptable as it now is.
“The military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s denials are not only crude attempts to cover up atrocities but the ugly rhetoric does harm to survivors,” said Matthew Smith, a co-founder of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group. “It contributes to the destruction as a group. This is all by design.”
Most Rohingya remaining in Myanmar are interned in camps or confined to their villages, without access to basic services. In its court submissions, Gambia said this population faced “grave danger of further genocidal acts.”
Elsewhere, the Rohingya who now live in the largest refugee settlement in the world, a sprawl of mud and shacks in Bangladesh, have been told that their encampments will soon be enclosed by barbed-wire fencing. Internet access has slowed since local telecommunications firms were ordered by the Bangladeshi government not to provide coverage to those without proper papers.
In their flimsy shelters, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh can do little but depend on judicial deliberations a continent away.
“We are quite sure that Aung San Suu Kyi will not tell the truth at the court and will try to protect herself and the military,” said Alam Shah, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh. “We trust the international lawyers and we hope they will not join hands with the perpetrators.”
Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok, and Saw Nang from Mandalay, Myanmar. Marlise Simons contributed reporting from The Hague.
Copyright 2019 The New York Times Company