Suffering Rohingyas Catch Up With Suu Kyi

The year is 2025, and at one end of a wood-panelled room at the Hague sit five gowned judges of diverse nationalities. The public gallery is packed, divided from the court by bulletproof glass. A door opens, and a frail, white-haired figure is led in to hear the list of charges against her. Thinner than ever but still defiantly straight-backed, with the famous flower in her hair, she stands at a table previously occupied by such reviled criminals as Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast. She gives no indication of emotion as the indictment is read out, including presiding over deportation, rape, persecution, murder, and genocide allegedly committed by Burmese troops in Rakhine state in 2017. The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, disgraced former leader of Burma, on crimes against humanity has begun.

Until this year, such a scenario, involving a woman who once rivalled Nelson Mandela for global respect and admiration, would have been no more than an idle fantasy. But no longer. There are many political and physical obstacles, as well as legal twists and turns, that would have to be negotiated before Ms Suu Kyi was brought to face any criminal charges. But an astonishing thing has happened and in a period of fewer than eight months. It is now imaginable that the world’s most famous living symbol of human rights, a recipient of the Nobel peace prize and countless honours and tributes, could one day be prosecuted for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.

The latest incremental step took place on Monday when the ICC’s chief prosecutor formally asked for a ruling on whether it has jurisdiction over the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Burma into Bangladesh. Burma is not a signatory of the treaty which brought the court into being, but Bangladesh is. “This is not an abstract question but a concrete one,” said Fatou Bensouda, “affecting whether the court may exercise jurisdiction . . . to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute.” Many of those speaking out most vociferously against her now are human rights organisations that were formerly her most passionate supporters. The mania for “the Lady”, as she is known, peaked in 2012 after her release a few years earlier from house arrest under Burma’s cruel military dictatorship. World leaders and celebrities, from Barack Obama to Bono, queued to be photographed with Ms Suu Kyi. When the junta unexpectedly began to loosen its grip on power, she became first an elected MP, the leader of Burma’s first democratically elected government. But lurking in the background was the matter of the Rohingya. The stateless minority had been persecuted for decades but as the rest of Burma grew freer and more democratic, the worse their plight became. A spate of ethnic cleansing in 2012 was followed by more violent persecution in 2016, and then the overwhelming events of last year when small-scale attacks by Rohingya militants became the pretext for a campaign of arson and ethnic cleansing, which displaced some 700,000 and entailed the rape and murder of unknown numbers of people.

For a while, Ms Suu Kyi had the benefit of the doubt. Her many supporters pointed out that under the constitution bequeathed to Burma by its former junta, power over the security forces that were persecuting the Rohingya rested with the armed forces commander, rather than Ms Suu Kyi. But she did have unparalleled moral authority, and heroic history of refusing to compromise on matters of principle, no matter what the personal cost. In her public utterances, Ms Suu Kyi did not fail to condemn the persecutors of the Rohingya; she “commended” their “great courage”. Many foreign diplomats, politicians, and supporters have talked to her, in person or by telephone, and almost all have exhibited a reluctance to criticise her publicly, condemning those directly responsible for the violence, rather than their political leader. But none appears to have elicited the faintest acknowledgement that she could do more. An old friend, the veteran US politician and diplomat, Bill Richardson, resigned from an investigatory committee on the problem after raising with Ms Suu Kyi the arrest of two Reuters journalists who had been investigating the massacres. “Her face was quivering, and if she had been a little closer to me, she might have hit me, she was so furious,” Mr Richardson said.

Even if the ICC asserts its right to investigate and prosecute the crimes against the Rohingya, many things will protect Ms Suu Kyi. Since sanctions imposed on the junta were dropped, foreign companies have begun investing in the largely untapped Burmese market. Western governments, including Britain, appear to have concluded that, however terrible the fate of the Rohingya, a return to the direct military rule would be worse, and that Ms Suu Kyi is the person best able to reduce that risk. But more powerful than that is the overwhelming support, and adoration, of the majority of Burmese. Far from undermining Ms Suu Kyi, the reproaches of the outside world have united the country in its sense of being maliciously misunderstood. If the prosecutors from the ICC ever did come after their leader, 50 million people would rise in her defence. For all its grotesqueness, the moral failure of Aung San Suu Kyi is only the symptom; the sickness lies within Burma itself.

Credit: Richard Lloyd Parry for The Times, 11 April 2018.