Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is an eager traveller, and she seems to appreciate a warm welcome. In her role as foreign minister, she regularly flies to Asian capitals, and to places further afield, to ink deals and forge alliances with friendly foreign powers.
But certain countries have fallen off the map for Aung San Suu Kyi – the very same countries, in Europe and North America, that were once her biggest champions. On a trip to Europe in June this year, her engagements were confined to the continent’s pariahs – Hungarian Prime Minister Mr Viktor Orbán and Czech President Mr Miloš Zeman, both xenophobic populists.
Now, however, she’s about to pack her bags for Holland, at the heart of liberal Europe. But Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be visiting The Hague, the city on Holland’s North Sea Coast, in order the relive the honeymoon days of 2016, when her National League for Democracy party ascended to power after a landslide election win. In that year, she undertook something of a victory tour, visiting London and Washington, where she was warmly congratulated.
It was announced last month that Aung San Suu Kyi will lead a delegation to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ top court, to answer a case lodged by a small West African nation – one of several international accountability efforts being pursued against Myanmar’s leaders. The ICJ case, which The Gambia filed on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, alleges that Myanmar is in breach of the Genocide Convention for its treatment of the Rohingya. As Myanmar’s “agent”, there’s a good chance Aung San Suu Kyi will be addressing the Hague-based court herself in hearings that start on December 10.
For many in the international community, this announcement was the final confirmation that Aung San Suu Kyi is part of the problem. Nothing in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution would oblige her to defend the case herself. Moreover, if the move is part of a grand bargain with the military to secure their retirement from politics, then this sends a chilling message that the human rights of more than a million members of a vulnerable minority group are expendable, and can be traded so that others in Myanmar can enjoy more democracy.
However, for many in Myanmar who believe that Rohingya as non-citizens aren’t eligible for protection from the government, Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice represents something very different.
Already, rallies have been held in cities and towns across Myanmar, in which the public has been told that Gambia’s dispute with the Myanmar government is an attack on the citizenry. In the NLD’s own official communication, the party has urged “all citizens” to “unitedly stand by and support the issue related to the interest of the entire nation”.
Since then, Myanmar Facebook has been awash with statements expressing solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi, suggesting that the message has hit home. When members of the public tune in to watch the proceedings of the ICJ, many of them won’t see a belated effort to secure accountability for the worst crimes under international law, but will instead be treated to a David-and-Goliath spectacle. In this morality play, Aung San Suu Kyi is facing up to a rigged international justice racket whose powerful backers have a mysterious animus towards her country.
We are once again reminded of the chasm that exists between Myanmar and much of the world over how the Rohingya crisis is understood. Sadly, Myanmar’s leaders appear content to leave this chasm unbridged.
At a briefing at the President’s Office on November 23, Minister for International Cooperation U Kyaw Tin attributed “growing international pressure” to a “lack of understanding on the complexities of the issue”. This may be the best that Aung San Suu Kyi can offer to the judges after the mountain of evidence compiled by human rights groups and UN investigators pointing to the commission of atrocities by Myanmar’s security forces: “You don’t get it; it’s complicated. It’s not me – it’s you.”
The government can scarcely imagine that such arguments will convince its critics abroad, but it might have concluded that it doesn’t matter either way. Genocide is notoriously hard to prosecute, and the case may well unravel by itself. Instead, the government’s arguments, and the ostensibly bold stand that Aung San Suu Kyi plans to take at The Hague, seem squarely aimed at the Myanmar public. It’s a strategy that will win dividends at home. Next year is, after all, an election year. But it shows a tragic disregard for Myanmar’s international standing.