Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made history again, at the age of 74, by traveling to The Hague to defend the country from genocide charges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Her decision to personally make the journey has surprised many, including her foes—not least the top military leaders with whom she is at loggerheads.
Many foreign analysts who have never been to Myanmar or who have little understanding of the nuances, history and complexities of the country have commented freely on newswires and in newspapers, often making little or no sense. But there can be no doubt that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to go to The Hague is major news.
The irony is that in 2009, Western advocacy groups and women’s groups mostly based along the border and in exile called on the UN Security Council to initiate action to bring Myanmar’s junta leaders, including the then head of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, Senior General Than Shwe, before the International Criminal Court.
One joint statement said, “We call on the UN Security Council to start a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the horrific campaign of terror by the military regime and to refer Senior General Than Shwe and his cronies to the International Criminal Court for all crimes including for the imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in violation of international law.”Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was then a political prisoner of the regime. U Than Shwe is today peacefully retired at his lavish residence in Naypyitaw. Today, the karma of two powerful leaders is also a topic of discussion among Myanmar’s Buddhist citizens.
At home, her move has changed the political calculus. Rallies have been held throughout Myanmar in support of the State Counselor; the public show of solidarity continues to gain momentum, but the events have been calm and peaceful.
Her decision to walk into the line of fire has triggered a resurgence in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity.
One wonders what would happen if it were Myanmar’s top army leaders—who are accused of committing human rights violations and atrocities—who were to travel to The Hague, instead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Of course, that won’t happen, but it is an interesting question to ponder.
Another question is: Can Daw Aung San Suu Kyi defend the country against crimes she didn’t commit?
The State Counselor is a revered figure; once lauded alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, many in the international media say she has become an apologist for the military, but has she really? In fact, at the most recent top-level security briefing in Naypyitaw almost two weeks ago, military leaders were not allowed to say anything; they sat and listened to the ministers’ briefing.
But do any of the media pundits understand that Myanmar’s government and military don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, and that while she is the de facto civilian leader, the State Counselor has little power over military?
For a national leader and Nobel Peace laureate to go to The Hague to defend her nation’s interest is highly unusual; the decision reflects the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t believe genocide took place in her country—and this opinion is widely shared among Myanmar citizens.
In 2017, the Myanmar military used disproportionate force against the Rohingya insurgents. That is a fact. But does Myanmar have a state sponsored policy to commit genocide against the Rohingya population?
The military in Myanmar is known as a human rights violator and it is a matter of record that for decades the armed forces’ soldiers and officers have committed atrocities, extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labor, rape and many other crimes against both the majority Burmans and ethnic minority nationalities. Therefore, one can see that some ethnic groups, including armed groups who are at war with the military, have voiced support for the ICJ case, as they want to see human rights violators face the music. At the same time, some ethnic groups based along the border with Thailand and in exile have also expressed support toward the ICJ.
But what many outside Myanmar fail to understand is that there are many layers to this issue, and the top military leaders still do not get along with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Note that only civilian leaders saw her off at the airport in Naypyitaw, and her government has not taken representatives from the military to The Hague, as requested by the army.
Her government’s main failure, and ongoing problem, was losing control of the narrative of the Rohingya crisis to the West, and to her enemies, who are determined to go after her. Since the crisis erupted, the Ministry of Information has been hopeless, with the messaging from the government on the issue of the Rohingya being on-again, off-again.
Additionally, there has been little reporting on how Bangladesh has failed to cooperate with Myanmar on the issue of the Rohingya and the repatriation process.
While she probably genuinely believes she is the one best qualified to represent the country, her colleagues in the leadership of the National League for Democracy more likely view the ICJ case is a chance to win back some public support; the current government’s performance has received a thumbs down in several areas, including its management of the economy and its efforts to reach out and conclude a peace pact with ethnic rebel groups. The country is scheduled to hold a general election next year.
The Gambia, supported by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is half a world away from Myanmar; what if regional Muslim countries like Indonesia or Malaysia had filed a lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ? That would be a different story.
Defending the country, Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Hau Do Suan said in New York in November, “This is clearly a politically motivated international pressure tactic against Myanmar on the issue of Rakhine State.” He added, “Gambia has nothing to do with Myanmar’s problem. The OIC and Gambia should try to put their backyard in order first, before trying to interfere in the affairs of a faraway country which is trying its best to find a sustainable and peaceful means to solve its own problem.”
Many, including some mid-ranking army officers, say Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made a courageous and momentous decision to travel to The Hague. Many in the country wish her well, but there are those who do not. Those who do may also wish that one day soon Myanmar will have a professional army that will behave according to international norms and respect human dignity and human rights, and stay out of politics.
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