Myanmar’s leader personally faces allegations while avoiding the task of changing the country’s trajectory.
She decided to face the lawsuit by herself,” proclaimed National League of Democracy (NLD) spokesman Myo Nyunt about his boss, Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. He was referring to her decision to lead the country’s delegation of lawyers to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on 10-12 December 2019, where Myanmar stands accused of having committed acts of genocide.
The Republic of the Gambia, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and supported by Abubacarr M. Tambadou, a high-profile lawyer with expertise on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, has submitted a lawsuit that invokes the 1948 Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of Genocide. As a party to this convention, which covers “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,’’ Myanmar has been asked for an official reaction. Aung San Suu Kyi decided to travel to The Hague in person as foreign minister. However, she had not been officially invited by the Netherlands, and is thus privately there. While her personal involvement caught many people by surprise, it is in line with her way of doing politics.
She returned to Myanmar (then Burma) from the United Kingdom in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, but when that same year the army violently suppressed a democratic uprising led by students, monks and other civilians, she entered politics and joined the newly established NLD. Between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for a total of 15 years. In isolation, she pursued vipassana meditation, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, and wrote essays, short stories and letters. She was internationally praised for her fight for democracy and against human rights violations and for selflessly enduring all the hardships caused by the army whose founder had been her own father, General Aung San.
While appearing ever more saintly and widely referred to as an “icon of democracy,” she had been outspoken about the fact that she does “not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons.” After she was released from house arrest in 2010 and won the 2015 elections with her NLD, she declared herself to be “above the President,” whose office she was prohibited from assuming due to do an exclusion clause in the country’s constitution.
She then proceeded to create the unprecedented position of “state counsellor” for herself and laid claim to several ministries, among them the ministry of foreign affairs. Since then she has been collaborating with the military, which continues to hold a blocking minority with a guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats.
Atrocities against Muslim Rohingya.
In 2016 - with Aung San Suu Kyi already in power - the Myanmar army launched large-scale operations targeting Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic group of over a million people residing in Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine state. This attack had been the third such “clearance operation,” with similar ones occurring in the mid-1970s and in the 1990s. The atrocities committed by the military each time led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. The humanitarian camps there are now among the largest in the world, although repatriation to Myanmar had been implemented in the 1970s and the 1990s and many refugees continued to migrate further in search of a secure livelihood.
Several international fact-finding commissions, among them the Kofi Annan commission and a UN International Independent Fact-Finding Mission, have investigated the most recent atrocities. Together with the additional work done in the refugee camps by NGOs and human rights groups, we now have a detailed database of what has happened in Rakhine state.
But until today there has been no accountability for these well-documented crimes. In Myanmar, even the ethnonym “Rohingya” is omitted in state documents and in much of the media in an effort to emphasize the “alienness” of this ethnic group, whose indigeneity and belonging to the country are strictly denied. Aung San Suu Kyi herself continues to talk about the military reacting against “terrorism” and of “distortions in the Western media,” who allegedly understand nothing of the country’s internal affairs.
But the horrifying situation of the Rohingya is now well-known across the world, even though Myanmar is facing only limited criticism from its important partners in ASEAN, or China. International outrage now threatens this impunity: beyond the hearing at the ICJ, two lawsuits have been brought forward, one in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and another in Argentina on the basis of “universal jurisdiction.” The latter case has been filed by the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, supported by two Latin American human rights organisations - Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) and the Foundation for Peace and Justice (Fundación Servicio Paz y Justicia). They are represented by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.
Facing the accusations.
The ICJ has now posted a schedule for its hearing which will be live-streamed. That Aung San Suu Kyi has taken it on herself to face the accusations in person lends this event a unique quality. Is she misjudging the gravity of this escalation, now that two international and an Argentinian court have allowed the case for genocide to be made against Myanmar? Or does she, as a commentator in The Diplomat has argued, see “the whole issue as a management and public relations crisis, rather than one that is essentially political in nature”?
In local Myanmar media circles the outpouring of support for Aung San Suu Kyi is continuous, as is the outspoken conviction that she is doing the right thing. Rallies been announced for Yangon and other places inside the country, and also for The Hague. Some Myanmar travel companies have announced special offers that combine ‘law with leisure,’ allowing visitors to stay in The Hague for court sessions while also making time for “tourist hotspots.” At the time of writing, 140 people have signed up to a Facebook event called We Stand With Aung San Suu Kyi in support of the rally. Shared buses for the Myanmar diaspora traveling from Paris and London are being arranged, and local Myanmar are offering flat-sharing arrangements.
The organizers of this rally aim “to honor [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] bravery, integrity and the contributions and effort for Myanmar’s democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” informing “the European countries that Myanmar still has a long way [to go].” Attendees are offered a detailed timeline, as well as a chorus to chant when her car approaches or leaves: “May Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be healthy. Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!” Supporters are also asked to hold up her portrait and national flags, but not NLD banners. The rally is clearly intended to be as personal as possible: at the ICJ, Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar, her body representing the nation.
Such supporters are championing “Mother Suu,” but we cannot say for sure that they are there to protest the allegations against Myanmar: their main concern is “not to degrade the nation and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” They are willing to stand with their ‘Mother,’ whatever she is doing, while she is compelled to stand for her country, apparently no matter what.
When the personal is political.
What counts as ‘political’ in Myanmar is deeply personal. The Facebook page for the rally in The Hague shows Aung San Suu Kyi’s face, as well as the familiar tagline “Freedom from fear,” a common theme in her writing and a phrase that has become iconic in framing her historical role. But what is the fear she is free from?
If it is international condemnation that she doesn’t fear, then this would be a strong echo of the old style of Myanmar politics. For many decades, the generals also paid little mind to international opinion. She cannot hope to sway a global audience in three days at The Hague, so it is not implausible that the focus of her personal engagement is not the world, but her own country. She shoulders the burden, as mothers would, but at the same time avoids the hard task of changing Myanmar’s trajectory.
In her acclaimed “Letters from Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi (at that time under house arrest) describes how she tried to fix the leaking roof of her house, citing a Burmese proverb: “If the roof is not sound the whole house becomes vulnerable to leaks.” But to no avail, since “all the manoeuvres succeeded merely in stemming the torrent temporarily and over the years paint, plaster and woodwork in the paths of the worst leaks steadily deteriorated.”
While some of her construction helpers had wanted to change the entire roof of her house, she persevered: “I held out firmly for reusing the old tiles and supplementing those that had been damaged beyond redemption with other ones…once they had been washed clean the tiles glowed a soft red and looked as good as new.” In the end, she thanked the women among the workers because they “play an essential role in our endeavours to repair the roof of our nation.”
Perhaps there’s a moral to be drawn from this story about what’s due to take place in The Hague: Aung San Suu Kyi is travelling to the ICJ as part of her efforts to keep Myanmar’s ‘house dry.’ But rather than actually ‘repairing the roof’ and addressing the reality of genocide, it’s likely that she will continue to ‘endure the rain’ and keep washing the roof tiles clean.
Judith Beyer is Professor of Anthropology (tenure track) at the University of Konstanz in Germany. She is a specialist in legal and political anthropology and is currently finishing a monograph on the so-called “Burmese Indians” in Myanmar. Find out more at judithbeyer.com and follow her on twitter @JudithBeyer.
Felix Girke is an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz. His current book project focuses on heritage-making in contemporary Myanmar. He has also worked extensively on Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Follow him on twitter @felixgirke.