When the International Court of Justice ruled last Thursday (Jan 23) in favour of the petition by The Gambia and ordered Myanmar to protect its Rohingya minority from genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has completely fallen from human rights symbol to another despotic leader.
Suu Kyi’s willingness to defend human rights abuses on the global stage is seen as a move to polish her nationalist credential at home rather than to sway the international court.
For her former admirers, Suu Kyi’s defence only underlined her responsibility for failing to at least speak out on behalf of her country’s Rohingya population.
“With this ICJ ruling, she has suffered a spectacular fall from grace,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. congressman and U.N. ambassador.
“She has gone from a Nobel Prize champion of democracy to just another dictator wanting to maintain her power by defending military repression, genocide, and the banishment of the Rohingya,” added Richardson, less diplomatic in expressing his dismay.
He had accepted Suu Kyi’s invitation to join an advisory board on the Rakhine crisis. But in early 2018, when he suggested to Suu Kyi that two Reuters reporters arrested for exposing abuse by the security forces be released, she reacted furiously. Disillusioned, he quit the board.
“I could see the reformer and former champion of democracy … turning into a power-loving and entrenched leader,” he said. “She was becoming an apologist for the military so she could hold onto her power and get reelected. She simply could not tolerate any dissent, even from her long time friends and supporters like myself.”
Suu Kyi’s brave defiance of military rule, at high personal cost, made her the object of worldwide adulation, taking the helm of Myanmar’s nascent pro-democracy movement in 1988.
She won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for being “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.”
When her nonviolent struggle finally paid off in 2015 with a smashing election victory by her National League for Democracy party, there was optimism that Myanmar had finally turned a corner after decades of military rule.
Former President Barack Obama commended Suu Kyi for “her tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years to promote a more inclusive, peaceful, and democratic” Myanmar.
In 2017, Myanmar security forces launched a counterinsurgency operation in western Rakhine state that, compelling evidence shows, involved mass rape, killings and the burning of entire villages. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, reluctant to return until their basic rights including citizenship are guaranteed.
As the magnitude of the Rohingya tragedy emerged, 1984 Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu felt compelled to appeal to Suu Kyi.
“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. … We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene,” the South African wrote in an open letter.
Political realities play an important role in Suu Kyi’s position. Despite her party’s landslide election victory, the military retains huge influence in government due to clauses it inserted in the constitution.
To exercise real power, her party must mobilize popular and electoral support.
After she led her country’s delegation at the initial hearings last month at the International Court of Justice, she returned to Myanmar to cheering crowds lining the streets.
“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,” wrote Burma Campaign UK, a lobbying group that had been her ally against military rule.
Asked once in a BBC interview about her reputation as a saintly figure, Suu Kyi replied: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no, but on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa either. I have never said that I was. Mahatma Gandhi, actually, was a very astute politician.” (Source: Mainichi Japan)