Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi left for the Netherlands at the weekend to defend her country against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with loyalists rallying for big sendoffs, while rights activists and ethnic groups questioned her decision to back an army infamous for atrocities.
The African state of Gambia, backed by the 57-nation Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), filed a lawsuit last month against Myanmar for genocide, including mass murder and rape, for the 2017 crackdown by Myanmar’s military that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh.
U.N. investigators say the attacks on the Rohingya were carried out with "genocidal intent" and included murder, rape, torture, false imprisonment, and sexual slavery. Satellite photos published by human rights groups show village after village burned to the ground in Rohingya areas.
A 2018 U.N. report, upon which the Gambia case is based, named military leaders who should be prosecuted for genocide and faulted Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use her moral authority or her position as head of government to halt the atrocities in Rakhine state.
Myanmar denies genocide, saying the army was fighting Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants who attacked border security posts. Both civilian leaders and military brass have rejected U.N. and other international evidence out of hand.
“People are staging these rallies to show support for the State Counselor who has shouldered the responsibilities fallen onto the country and strengthen her endeavor,” said spokesman Myo Nyunt of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) after a series of rallies across Myanmar.
“We believe Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi. In addition, we don’t believe that the military has committed or orchestrated the genocide as it has been charged,” he told the Myanmar service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister service of BenarNews.
Some question the rallies
Aung San Suu Kyi, 74, was a longtime democracy activist who spent 15 years under house arrest by Myanmar’s former ruling military junta and won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle.
Her handling of the Rohingya crisis, however, has hurt her global reputation. Cities in Europe have stripped her of freedom awards, three fellow Nobel peace laureates accused her and the military of committing genocide, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum revoked a prestigious human rights award.
Human rights activist Cheery Zahau said supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi were driven by personal admiration without taking into consideration why she is going to the Dec 10-12 ICJ hearing in The Hague.
“Sometimes, the majority of the people join the cause without understanding what they are doing,” she told RFA, adding that nationalistic rallies would not go down well in Europe.
Hnin Hmwe Hmwe, central executive committee member of the Democratic Party of a New Society, said Myanmar was not being helped by its blanket denial of well-document events in Rakhine.
“We should not keep denying the reality on the ground. Evidence of what happened on the ground is widely circulated on internet. In this situation, we should not deny the truth by defending any persons or any organization,” he said.
'Irresponsible and living in denial'
Veteran journalist Sein Win, agreed and said he thought the mass rallies supporting Aung San Suu Kyi across the country are not helping Myanmar’s defense at the ICJ.
“Their response to the genocide accusations has been flat out rejection. In doing so, they should be responding with evident, facts and figures,” he told RFA.
“If they were to admit some of the wrongdoing, they could do it showing regret. If they keep denying, we will be ashamed. The whole world will be viewing every Myanmar citizen as irresponsible and living in denial,” added Sein Wein.
The Irrawaddy, an online news journal in Myanmar, noted in Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense that no army leaders joined her when she left for the Netherlands Sunday, suggesting that the world should distance “The Lady” from the military.
“The military in Myanmar is known as a human rights violator and it is a matter of record that for decades the armed forces’ soldiers and officers have committed atrocities, extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labor, rape and many other crimes against both the majority Burmans and ethnic minority nationalities,” it said in an editorial Monday.
“But what many outside Myanmar fail to understand is that there are many layers to this issue, and the top military leaders still do not get along with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” it said.
The case she will address in The Hague at the ICJ Wednesday is not a criminal case against individual alleged perpetrators, but a “state-to-state” litigation between U.N. member states under the U.N. Charter, Human Rights Watch said in a primer on the hearing.
A separate court, also based in The Hague, the International Criminal Court, in November authorized an investigation into crimes against humanity over the forced deportation of 740,000 Rohingya.
That case could target individuals rather than the state, and there are more lawsuits in the pipeline, including one filed in November in Argentina that names Aung San Suu Kyi herself, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction.”