In our blog on 10 December, we wrote about why Aung San Suu Kyi may have decided to personally lead the defence against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Now that the first round of hearings is over, what has been the impact of that decision?
In the run-up to the hearings, state media went into overdrive portraying Aung San Suu Kyi as defending the nation against false accusations. The case was portrayed not as a state to state case focussed mainly on crimes by the military, but rather as one against the people of the country and an attempt at damaging the reputation of the country. Private media largely followed the same line, with some even saying it was everyone in the country being accused.
There was a deliberate attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to whip up public support, playing the nationalist card. The anti-Muslim, anti-OIC conspiracy card was also played, with government officials highlighting that The Gambia had the support of the OIC, and implying The Gambia had been bribed by Saudi Arabia to bring the case in return for aid.
Nationalist fervour was whipped up, but also a big focus was put on Aung San Suu Kyi personally as defender of the nation. ‘We stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’ became the main slogan, used in media, on posters, banners and social media. Tens of thousands took part in supporting protests around the country. No arrests seem to have been made, in stark contrast to protests which are critical of government policy.
Internationally there were also ‘We Stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’ events, with hundreds even travelling to The Hague.
Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma to cheering crowds lining the streets. She can take comfort in that support, and in the potential leverage her defence of the military may have in her negotiations with them. Undoubtedly, ahead of an election year, her decision to personally defend the case, making it about her, and using it as an opportunity to whip up nationalism, has boosted her public support ahead of an election year. And of course, as someone deeply prejudiced against the Rohingya, she passionately believes Burma is not guilty of genocide.
What of the downsides? Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the International Court of Justice was the final nail in the coffin of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation. She was subjected to intense criticism in media and from human rights activists. She will have anticipated that, and no longer appears to care. She dismisses those in the west who raise concerns about her record on human rights as fair-weather friends.
She appears not to join the dots between the damage to her reputation, compared to the enormous amount of goodwill when she came to power, and the damage that does to everyone in the country. The international community stood ready to provide an enormous amount of financial, technical and political support to her new administration and their objectives. She had an international profile, reputation and support that would be the envy of other developing nations.
Blinded by her prejudice against the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi blew it. The goodwill has evaporated. Aid and support is still flowing, but nothing like the amount that there would have been had she not taken Burma down this dark path. How many western leaders now want to be pictured with Aung San Suu Kyi, publicly offering her their support? How many companies still look at Burma today as a safe uncontroversial place to invest and do business?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to defend Burma against the charges of genocide are far more damaging to Burma’s international reputation than if she had not fought the charges, framed this as crimes by the military, not the government or the people, and left the military to defend themselves.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the ICJ won’t hurt the military or the billionaire business cronies, but in lost goodwill and international support, jobs and economic growth, it will hurt all those standing with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
There are domestic downsides which Aung San Suu Kyi appears either not to have considered, or is not concerned about.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to lead the defence and make the focus on herself as defender of the nation has contributed to a lot of people in the country not having a full understanding of what is actually going on. Her supporters deny that she is defending the military, despite the vast majority of the evidence being presented so far to make the case that what happened is genocide being related to the actions of the military. It is predominantly the actions of the military on trial, and she is defending them and their actions.
It is not unfair to say that there are a lot of people who will support Aung San Suu Kyi regardless of what she says and does. For them she can do no wrong. Burma Campaign UK saw first-hand Burmese activists who have worked with and supported the Rohingya community in the UK become rabidly anti-Rohingya after Aung San Suu Kyi stated the Rohingya issue was one of immigration and the rule of law.
By making the case about her, Aung San Suu Kyi mobilised her own supporters in a way that has led to direct conflict with domestic and international human rights activists in Burma. The fervour has been such that many organisations and activists in Burma have been afraid to publicly state support for the case, as on top of the risks of arrest or retaliation from the military, it is also seen as an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
Not everyone has been cowed. At one nationalist protest, three brave young activists turned up with a banner stating, ‘I stand against genocide, change my mind’. Those who have spoken up have faced severe criticism on social media, with some posts attacking activists being shared thousands of times. There is concern about future reprisals against those who backed The Gambia in filing the case.
The climate is such that relatives of activists abroad who have been championing Rohingya rights have publicly disowned them.
There has also been a repeat of the kind of tactics we saw from the military in response to times of more intense international pressure, with religious and others organisations making statements supportive of the government line. How much of this is genuine and how much from coercion and fear is not clear, but the echoes are there.
The nationalist fervour whipped up by the government is also creating tension, concern and even fear in Rohingya and Muslims communities in the country. Aung San Suu Kyi warned the court that their decisions could impact reconciliation or even help reignite conflict in Rakhine State, but it is her tactics and actions in whipping up nationalism and fervour the way she has that makes violence more likely. She may not be doing so deliberately, but her actions are fomenting potential violence even as she lays the ground for blaming the Court for it.
Another significant impact of Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to defend the military at the ICJ has been on ethnic activists. For decades Burma’s many ethnic groups have been subject to the same kind of horrific human rights violations as the Rohingya. Many were already disenchanted by Aung San Suu Kyi over her refusal to challenge the military over human rights violations in ethnic states. Her defence of the military at the ICJ has created intense anger.
While some ethnic organisations made statements supporting the government line, most kept silent given the prevailing climate. In exile though, ethnic activists faced no such restrictions and statements of support were made worldwide by coalitions of many ethnic groups in exile.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the ICJ united ethnic people with the Rohingya in a way unimaginable a few years ago. At The Hague, Rohingya, Karen and Kachin who had travelled from all over the world stood side by side. The Karen Community of Canada and Rohingya Human Rights Network Canada even issued a joint statement.
On social media Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters have been severely critical of ethnic activists who have criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for her decision to defend the military. Activists who used to work together against the military are now in conflict with each other, with some of that criticism descending into lies and abuse.
All of this plays into fears among many ethnic activists and political leaders that at the end of the day, with a few exceptions, ethnic Burman political leaders will side with each other rather than stand with ethnic people and for their rights. Exiled activists may be the main ones voicing these concerns but they are echoed by many ethnic activists and political leaders in the country. It is not an exaggeration to say that Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military at the ICJ could have a long-term impact on trust, reconciliation and the peace process.
As Aung San Suu Kyi bathes in the aura of a huge nationwide upsurge of support for herself personally, behind that is a damaging legacy. There has been further damage to the international reputation of herself personally and Burma as a country. After a week of Aung San Suu Kyi denying and defending genocide at the International Court of Justice, potential investors will be deterred. Within the country ethnic and religious tensions have been raised, increasing the likelihood of potential violence. Nationalist fervour is restricting further already restricted freedom of expression. Trust with ethnic groups has been damaged, further complicating the failing peace process.
The cost that Burma is paying for prejudice against the Rohingya and its refusal to admit the human rights violations being committed against the Rohingya is catastrophic.
*Burma Campaign UK is one of the leading Burma campaign organisations in the world. It plays a crucial role in coordinating the international campaign to free Burma.