Why you should care
Nobel Peace Prizes are, apparently, not what they used to be.
If it’s true that no person ever consciously chooses evil — a philosophical saw suggested by Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of the author of Frankenstein — Aung San Suu Kyi’s transformation from perfectly sympathetic former political prisoner to perfectly unsympathetic alleged war criminal is even more baffling.
Baffling enough that on Tuesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations’ highest court, will be considering the charges that Myanmar committed genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya. Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, will be directing a spirited defense against the charges when she hits The Hague.
She will have to address U.N. reports dating as far back as the 2012 Rakhine State riots, and continuing under her watch in 2017, that detail the rape, torture and murder of the Rohingya — a convulsion of violence that’s driven more than 740,000 Rohingya to escape into nearby Bangladesh.
Despite Suu Kyi’s slow walk to any kind of stabilizing rapprochement, the world has taken note.
Her dramatic appearance at The Hague marks a shift into a third phase of Suu Kyi’s public life — as an outspoken defender of the regime. She first won glowing press and a Nobel Peace Prize, burnished by an almost mythical history of family resistance to what had been Burma’s military dictatorship and 15 years under house arrest. Then she took over as Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016, even though she was barred from the presidency by the military with whom she shared power. The post brought very real questions — most of which she sidestepped — about how much of the mayhem was driven by a “rogue military” and whether or not this was sanctioned, tolerated or winked and nodded into continuing by Suu Kyi.
“Power is intoxicating,” says Yu Kaneko, a former Japanese magazine publisher now traveling in Southeast Asia on a fellowship studying cultural movements. “And it is very possible that a desire to keep it has caused her to curry favor with political constituencies there for whom this is a low priority.” Of course, this is something that Kaneko can say, as he’s not in Myanmar, where press freedoms have also been curtailed under the guise of violating the Official Secrets Act.
Suu Kyi herself equivocates in ways that are eerily familiar for people paying attention. In a public speech, she explained the violence as a product of “allegations and counter-allegations,” and suggested that there was violence on both sides.
While true, the statement doesn’t come close to acknowledging that whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it will always be worse for the pitcher. A variety of academic studies show that last year, more than 24,000 Rohingya were killed by both locals and members of the military; more than 18,000 were raped; 116,000 were beaten; and, in an added touch of the macabre, 36,000 were thrown into fires.
Moreover, the Tula Toli massacre in early 2017 and the Inn Din massacre in late 2018 have shown the perpetrators were Buddhist vigilantes, locals and the military. Suu Kyi, who has gone on record stating that she didn’t feel that Rohingya were citizens, also succinctly summed up a response to critics at a 2016 press conference by going full Marie Antoinette: “Show me a country without human rights issues.”
Pushed on this weeks later during a tour of Tokyo, Suu Kyi doubled down in a public statement that “we have been very careful not to blame anyone until we have complete evidence about who has been responsible.” Cold comfort to the Rohingya, who recently saw a government investigation into military abuses peter out with the finding that the accusations were “groundless.”
Yet despite Suu Kyi’s slow walk to any kind of stabilizing rapprochement, the world has taken note. Gambia, petitioned by the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, brought this set of allegations of genocide to the ICJ. And these are on top of fact-finding missions launched by both the U.N. and Amnesty International.
“The reality is, she’s thrown in with the generals, she’s part and parcel of the atrocities against the Rohingya, and nothing’s going to change that,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson recently told NPR.
And it’s not lost on the cynics and inside observers that Suu Kyi is being given space on a big stage to run some agitprop at the U.N.’s highest court when next year is an election year in Myanmar and she is maybe/kinda/sorta trying to gin up domestic support.
“It’s Dictator 101,” Kaneko concludes.
So while Suu Kyi’s base cheers in Myanmar in anticipation of her grand stand in The Hague, Bangladesh is trying to repatriate the large refugee population of Rohingya, who are aggressively resistant. “Bangladesh authorities and the local community are understandably frustrated that there is no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement. “But they should direct their ire at the Myanmar army and government, which caused the problem, instead of taking it out on refugees.”
It’s a struggle not likely to be soothed or solved in Netherlands anytime soon.