Dec 8th 2019
Aung San Suu Kyi
SHE DID not have to do it. Indeed, when Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she would personally be defending Myanmar against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague this week, it was an enormous shock. Myanmar has steadfastly ignored United Nations reports alleging that since 2017 its army has raped, murdered and tortured Rohingyas, members of a Muslim minority, driving more than 740,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. States party to cases brought before the ICJ must nominate an agent, but this role is usually filled by attorneys-general or ministers of justice.
It is true that Myanmar could not simply shrug off the allegations of genocide brought to the ICJ by Gambia on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a body of 57 countries. Myanmar is a member of the UN and the ICJ is the UN's highest court. Technically, Ms Suu Kyi, “state counsellor” and de facto leader of Myanmar, is going in her capacity as foreign minister. But the world will recall her as the heroine who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 in recognition of her dogged resistance to a military junta, and wonder why she is now lending her prestige and charisma to the generals’ cause.
Part of the reason may lie in Myanmar’s domestic politics. Ms Suu Kyi is focused on winning the general election next November, and may calculate that the ICJ case will be to her political advantage. Mary Callahan, a historian at the University of Washington, suggests that by personally taking on Gambia, she can “seize the mantle of protector of the nation from the opposition”, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
It had intended to campaign as the only party capable of defending the country. But since Ms Suu Kyi announced that she was going to the Hague, the party has “gone dead quiet,” says Ms Callahan. By contrast Ms Suu Kyi's supporters have sprung into action. In the days and weeks since her announcement, thousands of people have attended rallies in Yangon, many carrying banners reading: “We stand with you, Mother Suu”.
However, Ms Callahan and other observers believe that Ms Suu Kyi’s primary motive for going to The Hague is personal. Her life story has always been bound up with her country’s. Her father, Aung San, was a revolutionary hero of the struggle for independence from Britain, celebrated as the founder of the nation and, as Ms Suu Kyi has often pointed out, of its army. She believes she is carrying on the work he began, of building the nation—and protecting it. So Ms Callahan speculates that, when she learned that Gambia was filing charges against Myanmar, “she probably didn't give it a second thought: she is the personification of the country and she would be the one to defend it.” A diplomat in Yangon thinks she may have made the decision to go without first consulting her legal team: “A lot of what she does is based on gut instinct.”
But if Ms Suu Kyi also cares about rehabilitating her standing in the West, she will need to tread carefully. How she accounts for the behaviour of the army will be closely scrutinised. Her defenders believe she may apportion blame to some rogue soldiers in an otherwise disciplined army. Others find that unlikely. “There's nothing to suggest from the speeches she’s given or the private conversations I've been debriefed on that she believes the international story of what happened in Rakhine state,” says Ms Callahan.
The diplomat points out that she decided in 2011 that the only way to achieve her long-term political objectives was to work with the armed forces, and that since then she has always been very careful not to criticise them. One analyst believes she may in fact have struck a deal with the army: in return for her defending their soldiers at the ICJ, the generals will acquiesce in constitutional reform. Ms Suu Kyi has long sought to amend the constitution, which prevents her from becoming president and reserves three ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament for military appointees. However, most analysts find such an arrangement between Ms Suu Kyi and the army improbable.
The case will rumble on for years. But the court of public opinion will deliver its verdict more hastily. If Ms Suu Kyi does not condemn the army, or express sympathy for the Rohingyas, during her testimony, it will put paid to the view, still widespread in many Western circles, according to Ms Callahan, that she should not be held responsible for the abuses committed in Rakhine state. Her supporters have clung to the argument that, because the army is a law unto itself, there was very little Ms Suu Kyi could do to protect the Rohingyas. This accords her “plausible deniability”, says Ms Callahan. But, as stubborn and proud as she is brave, it may be that Ms Suu Kyi feels she has nothing to deny, nothing to apologise for and no interest in salvaging her once saint-like global reputation.
Most of the country’s athletes will still be able to compete, sometimes under their national flag
Original Headline: Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar at the ICJ in The Hague
Source: The Economist