YANGON -- Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's clout as a domestic unifying force appears to be reinforced after the de facto leader defended the country against genocide charges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
While the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has played the part of a strong leader ahead of the country's general election in November 2020, voices accusing her of defending a culpable national military are growing stronger in the U.S. and Europe.
After Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar's capital of Naypyitaw on Dec. 14, citizens and others, including national lawmakers, stood along the road from the airport to welcome her back, holding up posters that read "We stand with Daw (Ms.) Aung San Suu Kyi." The car carrying Suu Kyi moved slowly, and she opened a window to wave to the crowd.
On Dec. 18, Suu Kyi delivered a speech to citizens through state-owned television, which was broadcast several times through the following day. She affirmed to the people that the nation had "built its defense firmly on a foundation of honesty and respect for the rule of law." In her concluding remarks she said, "In solidarity, we will overcome all the challenges that we may have to meet."
In August 2017, Myanmar's security forces launched a crackdown in Rohingya villages near the border with Bangladesh in response to attacks on police facilities by armed Rohingya militants. Thousands of Rohingyas were killed, while more than 700,000 fled across the border, according to a United Nations fact-finding team.
Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar are seen as "uninvited immigrants" because of religious, linguistic and other differences. Many people in Myanmar complain that the international community's genocide accusation against their country is unfair.
On Dec. 10 when the hearings began in The Hague, thousands of citizens gathered in the square before the city hall in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, to rally in support of Suu Kyi. Similar rallies were also held in other major cities.
Suu Kyi attended the hearings to take the heat of international criticisms herself ahead of the 2020 general election, a close aide to her said.
State-run newspapers carried reports on support for Suu Kyi from minority groups, which usually oppose the government, day after day.
The genocide allegation was brought to the ICJ by Gambia. At the U.N.'s top court, the West African country called for the recognition of genocide, citing that many people had been killed "only because they were born different; born of a different race and to a different religion."
Suu Kyi denied the allegation. "It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used in some cases by defense forces," she said, but added that "genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis."
A focal point after the three-day hearing is whether the ICJ will accept Gambia's call for "provisional measures" to prevent more harm, which, if authorized, will be ordered within three-to-four weeks. The predominantly Muslim African country stressed the need for the measures to protect Rohingyas remaining in Myanmar and called for the court to order the Southeast Asian nation to accept the entry of a U.N. investigation team on the case, which has been rejected by Suu Kyi.
The U.S. and European countries are greatly disappointed by Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for leading pro-democracy movements in Myanmar under military rule.
Suu Kyi stressed during the hearings that the military court in Myanmar punishes service members who have committed acts in violation of the International Humanitarian Law. But there has been only one case of punishment, and soldiers found guilty were released by the military several months later.
The U.N. is unlikely to adopt a compelling resolution against Myanmar as China opposes such a move on the back of its veto power at the U.N. Security Council. As a result, moves to pursue Myanmar's responsibility under other international laws are expanding.
In November, the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction to prosecute leaders for war crimes, approved a probe into Myanmar's alleged crimes against the Rohingya. The U.N. Human Rights Council, furthermore, has set up the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar which has been given a mandate to collect and store evidence of Myanmar's persecution against Rohingya Muslims to prepare for future prosecution.
But it is premature to conclude that the world is united to accuse Myanmar. "China will increase its influence on the Southeast Asian country if the international community imposes economic sanctions on it, as has happened in the past," said Yoshihiro Nakanishi, associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies of Koto University. The U.S. and European countries therefore "are more likely to make balanced judgments," he said.
Japan maintains a stance in favor of solutions to the Rohingya problem under Myanmar's leadership. Although the U.S. and European countries are toughening sanctions on Myanmar military leaders, they remain cautious about economic sanctions out of concern about possible effects on ordinary citizens.