The Lady and The Hague: Suu Kyi courts home audience

Myanmar leader set to 'defend the national interest' over handling of Rohingya crisis

People rallying in support of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Sunday, before her departure for the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands to face accusations of genocide.
People rallying in support of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Sunday, before her departure for the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands to face accusations of genocide.PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON • The last time Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to Western Europe, she was feted as the freshly elected civilian ruler of a fledgling democracy who had brought an end to half a century of military dictatorship.

But when the Nobel Peace laureate returns to Western Europe next week, her first trip to the region since a 2017 military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, it will be to face claims of genocide, alongside the army she spent much of her life battling.

Gambia, a tiny, mainly Muslim West African state, backed by the 57-nation Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, lodged a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice last month against Myanmar for genocide, including mass murder and rape.

Myanmar denies the allegations, and Ms Suu Kyi's office said she would fly to The Hague for the first hearings, from Dec 10, to "defend the national interest".

"There is a discrepancy between the opinion of Myanmar and the international community," said Mr Myo Nyunt, senior spokesman for Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. "She has to explain what has really taken place in northern Rakhine."

Her decision to attend took some by surprise. People close to her with strong international connections voiced concerns that it could further tarnish her image abroad, according to two sources.

But at home, the announcement has unleashed a wave of popular support, with the leader who spent 15 years under house arrest for defying the army lauded as once again championing the interests of the people against a common enemy.

Mr Richard Horsey, Myanmar adviser of the International Crisis Group, said that while Ms Suu Kyi's appearance carried much risk for her overseas, "she likely feels she must do all she can to defend the national interest against what most people in Myanmar see as biased and politically motivated charges".

Ms Suu Kyi, often called The Lady, was a heroine to many when she last visited Western Europe and the United States months after taking office in 2016. Her star faded in office amid sluggish reforms at home and protracted ethnic conflicts, and she faced increasingly harsh criticism from the West as the Rohingya crisis unfolded.

 
 

An offensive by security forces and local Buddhists in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they created the world's largest refugee camp.

United Nations investigators have said the exodus was the result of a military campaign executed with "genocidal intent".

The Myanmar authorities have strongly disputed that conclusion, categorising the military operation as a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants that killed 13 members of the security forces.

In September 2017, Ms Suu Kyi said terrorists were behind an "iceberg of misinformation" about the violence.

"Myanmar people do not support people being driven from their homes. But it is different with these Bengalis leaving," Mr Myo Nyunt said, using a term common in Myanmar but rejected by the Rohingya because it implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh who invented an ethnic identity.

Seven soldiers were jailed for 10 years for killing 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din, but granted early release in November last year, after serving less than a year in prison.

 
 

Late last month, the military began a court martial of an unspecified number of soldiers over events in another village, Gu Dar Pyin, the site of an alleged massacre of 10 Rohingya. The military had said the soldiers were "weak in following the rules of engagement".

"As far as we know, there is Inn Din massacre and Gu Dar Pyin," said Mr Myo Nyunt. "That's all... As far as (Ms Suu Kyi) knows, there is no such thing as genocide."

Myanmar is due to vote again next year. But while an opinion poll in July by the People's Alliance for Credible Elections - an independent group of election monitors - showed that Ms Suu Kyi retains tremendous support, her government has faced criticism for failing to end worsening ethnic conflicts in the borderlands or reform the Constitution.

Recent weeks in Myanmar have had the flavour of election season, with pro-Suu Kyi rallies in major cities attended by hundreds of people carrying flags. More rallies are planned for the first day of the hearings at The Hague.

In south-eastern Karen state, the regional authorities have also put up billboards showing a smiling Ms Suu Kyi flanked by soldiers laughing heartily, underlined by the statement: "We stand with you."

"Now there are demonstrations across the whole country. This is an attempt to make her image stronger," said long-time democracy activist and former Suu Kyi ally Ko Ko Gyi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2019, with the headline 'The Lady and The Hague: Suu Kyi courts home audience'. Print Edition | Subscribe