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Aung San Suu Kyi is playing politics with appearance at Rohingya case

Defending military from charge of genocide wins her power at home

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

On December 10, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto leader of Myanmar, delivered a 20-minute long statement at the International Court of Justice defending Myanmar against accusations of genocide brought by Gambia. Thousands of the country's Rohingya Muslim minority have been killed and at least 750,000 forced to flee from a campaign of violence by Myanmar's military.

The international community's response to her defense of the military has been largely unimpressed, forming a sharp contrast to the vast support and admiration she has harvested domestically, as shown by massive rallies for her. As Myanmar enters the 2020 election season, Aung San Suu Kyi's calculation clearly prioritizes domestic political gains -- but it stands to hurt Myanmar more in the long term.

Observers in and outside Myanmar have argued that she did not have to appear in front of the ICJ personally to defend Myanmar's case. Officially she is the Foreign Minister and the State Counselor, not a lawyer or legal expert.

Many Myanmar experts do not even believe that it is a smart move, because they think there is nothing she could say in the current political climate that could please the international community.

Furthermore, defending the military's behavior during the Rohingya crisis will damage her own reputation, tainting the luster of her Nobel Prize and democratic activism.

It is not obvious whether Suu Kyi understood all these risks when she made her decision. But people understand why she chose to do it. The daughter of the founding father of Myanmar, Suu Kyi has always seen it as her father's legacy and her inherited mission to protect and defend the nation in its time of need.

There is no better time and no graver need for her to stand out than now -- when Myanmar is accused at perhaps the highest supranational legal body with a crime that much of the nation does not think a crime at all.

Her decision to defend Myanmar at The Hague won tremendous and instantaneous popular favor. The resentment and discrimination against the Rohingya population are rampant and almost universal in Myanmar. Across the country, love and support for her poured in.

A burned Rohingya village in Rakhine State, pictured in May 2018: much of the nation does not think that a crime at all.   © Reuters

If there was any suspicion that her party, the National League for Democracy, might lose its popularity in the upcoming elections, her perceived "courageous" move to face the fire alone for the sake of the nation eliminates any skepticism.

Even ethnic armed groups in a stalled peace process with her government, including the rebel United Wa State Army, publicly saluted her act of bravery and dignity. Although her government has not been able to deliver much on the peace process or economic development during its first term, this alone could rescue and remedy its lukewarm performance.

There is another, more important, layer of calculation in her decision to appear in The Hague, and that concerns the government's relationship with the military. Analysts believe that Myanmar's military instigated the Rohingya crisis to defend its position, privilege and authority in the contested civil-military relationship.

By portraying Rohingya Muslims as a threat and driving them out of the country, the military was fulfilling its role as the guardian of the nation and fending off the civilian government's attempt to assert control.

Rohingya refugees wait to be taken to a refugee camp after crossing Naf river at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in November 2017.   © Reuters

Suu Kyi has played her role in the ICJ case to bring the military under control, forcing it to work with her and her party. First, with the military facing mounting charges from the international community, it is forced to take responsibility and account for its atrocities during the Rohingya crisis at home.

Secondly, with Suu Kyi emerging as the defender of the military and the savior of the nation, the military has to recalculate its relationship with her, moderate its actions and potentially reciprocate in other political arenas.

Yet these desired political gains come at a great price. By defending the military, Suu Kyi gravely, if not completely, alienates the international community. Her position might be politically sound, but is morally questionable, if not entirely indefensible. With the scrutiny and outcry from Muslim countries and the human rights community, Myanmar's foreign policy will face mounting international pressure and, potentially, aggravating sanctions.

Countries that previously applauded Myanmar's political transition and were eager for engagement are now deterred by the negative consequences of investing in or associating with it. This means that Myanmar faces the danger of resumed international isolation with few options for friends other than China.

China has been pushing its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program toward a somewhat resistant Myanmar. There is no better opportunity to advance China's agenda than when Myanmar once again becomes the international community's outcast.

History will judge Suu Kyi's decision, whether she is the martyr sacrificing herself for the greater good and better future of her country -- or just another shrewd nationalist politician calculating her political gains. But for now, her choice is clear.

Yun Sun is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

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