Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived in the Netherlands to defend Myanmar against a genocide charge that lawyers say will forever link the Nobel Prize winner to the brutal military crackdown against the country’s Rohingya minority.
But with an election looming next year, the head of the Myanmar government’s stance is being cheered by millions of supporters at home.
In three days of hearings starting on Tuesday, the International Court of Justice in The Hague will hear a case charging that the atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017-18 constituted genocide.
Aung San Suu Kyi last month took the surprise decision to act as Myanmar’s agent in the case, brought by Gambia and supported by the Netherlands and Canada. This means she will open the arguments and lodge submissions.
The case, which is expected to take years, is expected to be an important test of global justice. Genocide has only been determined by international tribunals in a handful of cases, involving Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and Cambodia in 1975-79.
It will focus on the crackdown on the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority reviled by many in the Buddhist majority, that followed a series of attacks on police, military and civilians by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group.
In doing so it will expose the gulf between how a campaign that killed thousands and exiled more than 700,000 Rohingya is viewed outside Myanmar and at home.
Abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a tarnished human rights icon. But in Myanmar she is seen as a victim of an international smear campaign fomented by Muslim countries.
“The overwhelming majority of Burmese do not believe that what happened was anything like genocide,” said Thant Myint-U, author of The Hidden History of Burma. “Instead, there is a narrative that skirts over past oppression of the Rohingya, portrays ARSA as an Islamist terrorist threat and focuses on ARSA’s attacks on civilians.”
Lawyers say it is an unusual and high-risk strategy for a head of state or government to represent their country in such a case, and thus be indelibly associated with it.
Myanmar analysts have linked Aung San Suu Kyi’s court appearance to next year’s election and a push by her National League for Democracy for reforms to the country’s military-drafted constitution ahead of the vote.
“She wants to make it into a public spectacle,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute think-tank in Yangon. “There is political capital to be made and this time she has to speak out.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance at the ICJ is likely to be met by pro-Rohingya protesters as well as Burmese supporters. On Monday, exiled pro-Rohingya groups launched a “Boycott Myanmar” campaign.
But in Myanmar, billboards have appeared in cities backing the leader and supporters have held rallies, marches and prayer services.
Aung Tin Thein, 64, who was boarding a flight to Amsterdam along with two dozen other Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, said: “She has sacrificed her whole life and her family for her country and her people. Through this small gesture . . . we hope to be an encouragement to her in a time of her distress and anxiety.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has not visited western Europe since 2016, when she still enjoyed international support after Myanmar’s first free election in decades. Since the Rohingya crackdown, she has been stripped of numerous honours and attacked by fellow Nobel laureates.
The laureates accuse her of playing down the atrocities committed by the military, police and civilians against Rohingya, including killings, rapes and mutilations.
Aung San Suu Kyi has chided foreign critics for failing to grasp the complexities of Rakhine, a poor state bordering Bangladesh where government troops are fighting a separate insurgency against Buddhist rebels.
“This case might not have brought much attention to what is going on but her decision to present it herself has reignited the whole issue of what Burma has done,” said Abdul Malik Mujahid, chair of the Burma Task Force, a coalition of pro-Rohingya campaign groups.
“Either she can restore to herself the honour of a Nobel laureate or she can continue to damage her position and her ability to take Burma away from military control.”
Additional reporting by Cape Diamond in Yangon