By Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK
Aung San Suu Kyi has once again managed to shock people around the world over her approach to the Rohingya crisis, this time by personally leading a team defending Burma at the International Court of Justice against charges of genocide.
The charges have been brought by Gambia, which has taken out a dispute with Burma that they are in breach of their obligations as signatories to the Genocide Convention.
Aung San Suu Kyi could have decided not to defend the case, or just have government officials defend the case. The decision to personally defend the case has surprised some international observers, but it makes sense to her from a domestic perspective.
Aung San Suu Kyi is whipping up nationalism portraying herself as the defender of the reputation of the nation. In response, there have been rallies of thousands of people bearing banners stating ‘We Stand With Aung San Suu Kyi’. She may see the fervour as useful ahead of an election year, but nationalism is dangerous and not easy to control once unleashed. Even in the UK we have seen a Rohingya community leader facing potential threats from some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, who are trying to find out his home address.
Aung San Suu Kyi may also see going to The Hague to defend the military as useful in her strategy to try to persuade the military that she is not a threat, and to woo them into agreeing to democratic reforms. Here she is, coming to the aid of the military, defending them at one of the highest courts in the world. The strategy of charming the military into agreeing to democratic change has completely failed so far, and is unlikely to work now. Instead, the military can sit back and watch as any last shreds of international credibility which Aung San Suu Kyi still has are destroyed. One of their greatest potential threats is being weakened by defending their crimes.
Aung San Suu Kyi has had a long-standing opposition to any form of international justice and tribunals over human rights violations committed by the military. It’s an opposition which is not shared by many senior leaders of the National League for Democracy and ethnic political and civil society, who do see justice as essential. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi dismisses this as seeking revenge.
Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the military, she could not stop the military offensives in 2016 and 2017, but nothing obliges her to defend the military and deny the truth. That’s her choice.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi is responsible for her own policies discriminating against the Rohingya.
From her policies towards the Rohingya and denial of human rights violations against them, it is clear Aung San Suu Kyi holds a strong racist prejudice against the Rohingya. Her policies restricting humanitarian access to Rohingya in Rakhine State is causing immense suffering and is killing babies, children, mothers and the elderly. She denies the Rohingya their right to citizenship, their right to vote in next year’s election, and is implementing what Amnesty International says are policies of Apartheid.
As Aung San Suu Kyi sat through the first day of evidence in Court, listening to the horrific details of human rights violations that were committed against the Rohingya, she looked grim faced. As Burma Campaign UK staff know from personal experience, she does not want to hear about the human rights violations the military are committing, cutting us short when we tried to talk to her about the situation in Kachin State. This may be the first time she has been forced to listen to what’s has been going on in her own country.
Even if she did have moments of private doubt after hearing the overwhelming evidence about what is taking place, her stubbornness, which used to be a strength when she was leading the movement for democracy, and her own prejudice, mean it is unlikely she will change her approach.
Losing this case however, could be an opportunity for Aung San Suu Kyi to turn things around. Most of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stated priorities for Burma, economic development, peace, democratic reform, good international relations, are being undermined by her treatment of the Rohingya. The genocide of the Rohingya is one of the main deterrents to international investment in the country.
Government officials and MPs constantly complain about the international focus on the Rohingya issue, but dismiss it as bias and believing fake news rather than realising it is a problem which needs to be solved, or it will hold back the economic development of the country.
If the International Court of Justice does order Burma to take provisional measures to address the crisis, such as citizenship for the Rohingya, safe return to their villages, rights and compensation, Aung San Suu Kyi has two choices.
She can continue her existing and failing approach. She can dismiss the Court as biased and one-sided as she has UN bodies and others who have called on the government to change its approach. She can ignore the ruling. She can probably count on the fact that if Gambia then takes Burma to the UN Security Council for not abiding by the Court ruling, Russia and China would likely veto any resolution compelling Burma to do so.
Or Aung San Suu Kyi could accept the ruling. She could turn around and say to the people of Burma that she gave it the best shot they could, but they lost, and they have to abide by the rule of law. Her mantra on obeying the rule of law is familiar to everyone in Burma. The ruling would give her some cover to implement what would of course be controversial changes in policy towards the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi would undoubtedly take a reputational hit inside the country. That is partly a bed of her own making as herself, the NLD and her government are just as guilty at stirring up and fostering anti-Rohingya anti-Muslim prejudice as anyone, and of attacking anyone speaking up for Rohingya rights. It might cost her some seats at the election, but it would be very unlikely to cost her the NLD majority. The military backed government and nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement threw everything they had at the NLD playing the nationalist card at the last election, and the NLD still won a huge majority.
If Aung San Suu Kyi moved quickly to restore citizenship to the Rohingya, how long would the controversy last? It would have no material impact on the lives of anyone in the country, except for the Rohingya themselves.
If Aung San Suu Kyi did genuinely start to implement the measures Gambia is asking the Court to support, it would be a major turning point. Not just for the Rohingya, but for the benefit of the entire country. It would be a starting point in restoring Burma’s severely damaged reputation.
Without a dramatic change in approach, the persecution of the Rohingya will be a millstone round the neck of the country, holding it back from its potential. Aung San Suu Kyi is inflicting incredible self-harm on herself and her country by continuing to defend the military and deny the rights of the Rohingya. Burma will go down in history as the country where genocide happened.
Can Aung San Suu Kyi overcome her own prejudice, and accept the ruling of the Court? Will she be willing to pay the political price for doing so? She has often spoken of her admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. He went on hunger strike more often to influence his own supporters than he did against British colonial rule. He was willing to risk their anger for what he thought was right. Aung San Suu Kyi has already shown she has been willing to endure great personal sacrifice for the sake of her country. Can she make one more great sacrifice now, for the sake not just of the Rohingya, but for everyone in the country?