Moment of reckoning
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to appear before the International Court of Justice to defend Myanmar from charges of genocide against Rohingya Muslims is a gambit. It is based on her international stature built over two decades of being a prisoner of conscience, detained by the Myanmar junta, and the knowledge that defending her country can only bolster her nationalistic credentials at home and even strengthen her standing vis a vis the all-powerful military. No serving head of state has appeared before the ICJ. Suu Kyi, who holds the formal designation of State Counsellor to the government, but is de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, possibly believes that her defending her country’s actions against the Rohingya would carry credibility in the court. Her decision to travel to The Hague has triggered an outpouring of support for her among Myanmar’s majority Buddhist communities. Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya actions, for which it is being pulled up before the international court, enjoy much domestic support as the Rohingya are not considered “indigenous” to Myanmar, and do not have citizenship. It is ironic that Suu Kyi, who had only some years ago, rallied international opinion against the army, will now appear in its support. She may have sensed that it might provide her a more equal footing with the country’s most powerful institution, which is also the biggest obstacle to constitutional reform.
It is ironic, too, that while the most powerful countries seemed powerless in the face of Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya community, it was a small country like Gambia, backed by the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation, that has taken it to the ICJ on charges of violating the UN convention of prevention of genocide. Gambia’s lawsuit is based on a 2018 UN report that accused Myanmar of “genocidal intent”, and its Army of murder, rape and a host of other charges. Suu Kyi’s staunch refusal to take the side of the Rohingya has disappointed all those who saw her as an icon of freedom and democracy. Her defence in court is likely to be what it has been elsewhere: That military operations against the Rohingya in the Rakhine were actions against terrorism.
The outflow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar has impacted several of its neighbours, particularly Bangladesh, which now hosts the largest Rohingya refugee camp in the world, as well as Thailand and other countries in south east Asia, where thousands from the communuity have fled to escape persecution. In India, too, the presence of the Rohingya has added to the polarising debate on the religion of refugees. This case at the ICJ is sure to have ramifications beyond the borders of Myanmar.