Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, will testify in front of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, where she’s set to mount a defense on behalf of her country to charges of genocide against minority Muslim Rohingya.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former longtime political prisoner, was once viewed globally as a champion of democracy and human rights. However, she is accused of standing by as Myanmar’s military carried out a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya beginning in 2016, causing an estimated 700,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The organizers of a 2018 fact-finding mission told the United Nations that 10,000 Rohingya deaths would be a “conservative estimate.”
Despite Myanmar’s transition to civilian leadership, the military still holds significant power. Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in 2015. Her formal title is “state counsellor,” a position she created to skirt a provision in Myanmar’s constitution that bars anyone with foreign children or a foreign spouse from holding the presidency. The constitution also dictates a power-sharing agreement that ensures Myanmar’s armed forces control a quarter of the seats in parliament and three top cabinet posts.
At the Hague this week, Suu Kyi will lead a delegation aimed at countering allegations of genocide against her country’s military. It’s a rare appearance of a national leader before the United Nation’s highest court, but one that analysts say plays well for Suu Kyi in Myanmar, where she faces an election next year and needs to to solidify domestic support.
Thousands gathered in Myanmar on Sunday to cheer Suu Kyi as she prepared to leave for the Netherlands. Throngs of people waved flags and hoisted up colorful Suu Kyi portraits and signs saying “We stand with our leader.”
David Methieson, an independent analyst in Yangon, says for much of Myanmar, the reaction to Suu Kyi’s decision to personally appear at the Hague was one of “shock.”
“I think it was one of ‘good on Mother Suu for sticking up for our country and confronting what many see as these unjust charges,'” Methieson says.
The case against Myanmar was filed by Gambia, backed by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Gambia claims that Myanmar’s military carried out rape, torture and killing in Rohingya communities — a violation of the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
Back in November, a three-judge panel of the ICC concluded that there is “reasonable basis to believe widespread and/or systematic acts of violence may have been committed that could qualify as the crimes against humanity of deportation across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and persecution on grounds of ethnicity and/or religion against the Rohingya population.”
And as NPR’s Jason Beaubien has reported:
In 2017, after an armed Rohingya separatist group attacked a police station, Myanmar soldiers and pro-government militias launched what the U.N. and human rights groups have denounced as a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Thousands were killed.
Myanmar officials say the violence was a security operation targeting terrorists, and the Rohingya refugees are welcome to come home. Myanmar has refused to allow United Nations investigators or international journalists into the country to investigate the alleged massacres. It has jailed two Myanmar reporters who were investigating the killing of Rohingya Muslims for Reuters.
“I think she genuinely believes what happened in 2016, 2017 was not genocide,” author and former diplomat Thant Myint-U tells NPR’s Michael Sullivan. “I think she genuinely feels a great anger at what she sees is an unfair response from the outside world.”
Suu Kyi, he says, “genuinely wants to have literally her day in court and I think she genuinely believes that there can be no one better to represent the country at this time.”
Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, tells NPR that he expects Suu Kyi to make the same defense she’s been making for months now: “Denying that the crime of genocide took place, alleging or pointing, trying to shift attention to crimes that were perpetrated by Rohingya militants. And really trying to paint a picture of a situation in which it is the state dealing with Islamic terrorist threats.”
Matheison, the Yangon-based independent analyst, says that will be a difficult case to make, given extensive documentation by a U.N. fact finding mission and research by groups like Amnesty International.
But Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson says he’s hopeful about the prospect of accountability in Myanmar, as long as accountability for the alleged atrocities reaches Suu Kyi.
“The reality is, she’s thrown in with the generals, she’s part and parcel of the atrocities against the Rohingya and nothing’s going to change that,” he tells NPR. “If she’s going to be leader of the cover-up, certainly there needs to be some action taken against her on that.”