When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led Myanmar’s delegation at public hearings before the 17-member bench in the Great Hall at the International Court of Justice on Dec. 10, she was at the center of international media attention. “Impassively” became the word of the day as, under their watchful eyes, she listened to the Gambian team argue its case that Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya; the international media frenzy had begun.
That frenzy reached its peak the next day, a few hours after she defended the country against the charges before the court.
The Gambia accused Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention over military clearance operations in northern Rakhine State, which caused more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee the Southeast Asian country for Bangladesh. The African country asked the ICJ to order “provisional measures” to prevent more violations.
In her nearly 25-minute oral argument, Myanmar’s de facto leader didn’t dispute that amid the armed conflict in Rakhine there may have been violations of human rights and infringements of universally accepted norms of justice and the rule of law during the military response to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks on security outposts. But she announced firmly that those crimes didn’t amount to genocide and that those involved in war crimes would be tried by local military courts.
“Only if domestic accountability fails, may international justice come into play,” she said.
It was no surprise to see international media crying out with headlines like “Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Genocide Claims”—it’s understandable that they would focus on this to grab readers’ attention, and it’s true that she denied genocide in her argument.
However, reading the news coverage of the hearings—from my random picks of the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian and The Associated Press—left me with an uneasy feeling. It’s disappointing to see that nearly all of their coverage poorly reflected the intention of her testimony. It’s worrisome, because this negative portrayal in globally renowned media could fuel international misconceptions, further damaging Myanmar’s already tarnished reputation.
Most of the reports condemned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a failed human rights icon for not condemning the military for their atrocities against the Rohingya. The Economist named her “an apologist for military brutality, an oppressor of ethnic minorities and an abettor of genocide.” The WSJ wrote that she expresses “faith in the men in uniform who long ruled with an iron fist and whom she once fiercely fought. She accused those seeking international action of undermining local efforts to ensure people who she said may have used excessive force in some cases are prosecuted.” The Financial Times jumped on the bandwagon, asserting that she had failed to live up to her own Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2012, and had played down crimes committed by the military.
Nearly all of them said it was unnecessary for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to personally testify before the court. They insisted that her trip to The Hague was “an effort to tap domestic support in her Buddhist-majority country ahead of elections due next year”, echoing some opponents at home. Even though the intention of her appearance may be controversial, it’s amusing to see The New York Times’ claim that “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.” The Associated Press was no exception: “By taking on the mantle of protector of the nation, and even defending the military against international criticism, Suu Kyi can win over Myanmar nationalists, putting her party in a stronger position for next year’s general election.” Of course, it is out of the question that anyone who stands up for their country, especially in a time of difficulty, would earn local support!
It’s incredibly naïve to say that protecting the generals is a vote-winner. Everyone who follows Myanmar news knows how unpopular the military has been in the country—how does protecting those who are unpopular boost your popularity? The idea that defending the generals would win over “nationalists” is a big joke as well. The nationalists are the most persecuted force under the NLD government for their far-right Buddhist ideology, and they hate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for what they view has her oppression of them. They are loyal to the military. Why would they vote for the NLD, rather than the army-affiliated and nationalism-tainted parties that have registered for the upcoming election? Any gratitude they might feel would take a back seat—especially for them—when it comes to politics.
Apart from their poor understanding of local politics, the international media cited above also failed to practice “fairness” in their reporting of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s argument. While they all highlighted her denial of genocide; her defense of the generals and local court martial proceedings relating to human rights violations against the Rohingya; and more importantly, her rejection of the untimely application of international justice in the case, they all omitted the statement of Myanmar’s de facto leader to the court that, “Only if domestic accountability fails, may international justice come into play.” The absence of this statement from their stories could lead international readers to the conclusion that Myanmar blindly rejects international justice. While it acceptable to insist that those responsible for the atrocities be held accountable, it is unfair and misleading to portray the country as neglecting its obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law, one of the fundamental objectives of the United Nations Charter.
The accuracy of their reporting on the public hearings in The Hague is also questionable. Enter The Guardian. The credibility of the British newspaper’s report might have been salvaged if its reporter had done some “basic fact checking” before writing that his two Rohingya sources, “Khatun, 50, and Ali, 46, voted for Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010….” If it really had happened, she should thank them for their support. Sadly, her party boycotted the general election held by the then military government nine years ago. The Guardian and other international media reporters should take what they hear with a few grains of salt.
Closer to home, for the Myanmar military, now is the time to show the world that it respects every aspect of human rights, not just on religious and racial grounds, but by bringing justice to those who suffered in Rakhine State. Importantly, the untimely pardon of the perpetrators of the Inn Din killings has cast serious doubt on the credibility of the military trials among the international community. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told the court that, “Many of us in Myanmar were unhappy with this pardon.” Of course, it is likely one of the main factors that resulted in Myanmar being brought before the World Court, and brought shame to the nation. So, to the military: Please prove that the ongoing trial and future legal proceedings result in the prosecution of those who are guilty, without fear or favor, and regardless of rank, and that there will be no more violations in Rakhine or elsewhere in Myanmar.
Above all, it should be kept in mind that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t dispute the fact that the military may have committed human rights violations against the Rohingya, and asserted that those found guilty will be prosecuted, as there is an ongoing court martial and there will be more to come in the near future. She assured the court that “there will be no tolerance of human rights violations in Rakhine, or elsewhere in Myanmar.” The international community should wait to see the outcomes of the trials and then decide. Hasty measures imposed from outside at the moment will not benefit Myanmar, which is undergoing a fragile national reconciliation, including with the military. This is especially true in Rakhine, as the area today is still reeling from communal violence between Rakhine and Rohingya. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi clearly mentioned this in her speech during the last day of hearings. For those who didn’t see it in the coverage of the above-mentioned international media, here it is in her own words: “Steps that generate suspicion, sow doubts, or create resentment between communities who have just begun to build a fragile foundation of trust could undermine reconciliation.”
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