When Myanmar’s de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi defends her country against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice at the Hague this week, her appearance will constitute just the latest in a series of events that will spotlight the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar on the international stage. But while international attention will be focused on what the development says about her performance and image, it will be important to keep in mind the broader domestic political dynamics at play in the wider country as well amid Suu Kyi’s appearance as well as into 2020.
The Rohingya crisis has dogged most of Suu Kyi’s tenure as Myanmar’s state counselor since her National League of Democracy (NLD) won a historic election victory in November 2015 – the first open polls held in the Southeast Asian state in a quarter century. With more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh since a 2017 crackdown by Myanmar’s military, allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide have been surfacing against the Myanmar government, which it denies and attributes to fighting militants who attacked security posts. The issue was further spotlighted when Gambia, a Muslim-majority West African Nation and a member of the 57-member Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), lodged a lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ.
Seen from this perspective, Suu Kyi’s appearance this week to defend her country with respect to this ICJ case — a choice that has attracted considerably attention on its own terms as well — will constitute just the latest in a series of events that have cast the Rohingya crisis into the international headlines. Suu Kyi, who arrived in the Netherlands on Monday, will participate in the initial round of hearings this week from December 10 to December 12 in her capacity as the country’s foreign minister.
Unsurprisingly, the focus will be on Suu Kyi’s international image and her performance at the hearings. Substantively, given the weight of evidence that has already surfaced, including in a UN investigation which suggested “genocidal intent,” her appearance itself is unlikely to change the minds of international observers on the merits of Myanmar’s case, and may in fact even further undermine her reputation globally. But symbolically, the image of Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her resistance against Myanmar’s military in 1991, now returning to Europe to defend the government against atrocities it has committed, will be a vivid illustration of how much the international image of her has changed over the past few years. And given that some of her advisers have previously suggested that she has long harbored grievances about how the international perceptions of the Rohingya crisis has played out, her public appearance will be scrutinized on that score as well.
But while the focus on Suu Kyi may be understandable, it is also important to comprehend the wider domestic political dynamics at play in Myanmar as well, and at least three in particular. The first and most obvious dynamic is perceptions about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Despite the focus on Suu Kyi herself, the Rohingya crisis is part of the broader dynamics around majority-minority relations in the country, including the distinction between the Bamar majority and ethnic minorities and divergences in attitudes and the prejudices that still remain with respect to groups such as the Rohingya, which are not considered citizens by the state, often not even called by their name, and continue to experience discrimination by parts of the population. And while there has been international outrage on the allegations of genocide, within Myanmar itself, this scrutiny has only further exacerbated the perception among some that outsiders do not understand ground realities and are unfairly blaming the country.
We can expect to see similar dynamics at play with respect to Suu Kyi’s appearance at the Hague, even though this may be jarring to those who are not aware of how the Rohingya issue has played out in Myanmar in a historical and contemporary sense. The headlines may be focused on the loyalists have already planned protests to coincide with Suu Kyi’s appearance that are similar to the ones we have seen last week, which will help reinforce an image of overwhelming support for the Myanmar government on the Rohingya crisis as well as for Suu Kyi herself personally. But these events will also belie a more complex reality where the voices of ethnic minority groups who have long had grievances against the state, including the Rohingya themselves, may not be heard as loudly but are nonetheless important to keep in mind given the political context of the country.
The second domestic dynamic to keep in mind is the country’s political calendar. Suu Kyi’s appearance comes as the country counts down to elections expected to be held next year. And while the election is still expected to secure a win, the ruling party has nonetheless been plagued by a series of challenges both at home and abroad, including a lack of progress on the economy and the peace process as well as managing the downturn in relations with some key Western countries, partly over the Rohingya issue. While litmus tests such as by-elections may not necessarily be fair assessments of the NLD’s popularity, the loss of seats by the NLD have nonetheless highlighted the fact that it does have some work to do if it is to solidify its win in upcoming polls.
This will be important to keep in mind as we see events unfold with Suu Kyi’s Hague appearance. Even if Suu Kyi’s appearance is substantively in response to the ICJ case filed against Myanmar, the fact that elections are approaching means that we can expect to see her defense of the country being played up as a source of popularity. It will also not be surprising if aspects of Suu Kyi’s performance have a “rally around the flag” feel, reinforcing the fact that she is patriotically defending the country’s honor against outsiders. Indeed, the original statement issued by her office last month via Facebook, which said that Suu Kyi’s appearance was designed to “defend the national interest of Myanmar at the ICJ,” captures the essence of this sentiment, and it is one that has been echoed in some of the rallies we have seen over the past week.
The third dynamic is the state of civilian-military relations in the country. While the spotlight has often been on Suu Kyi with respect to issues such as the Rohingya crisis or the state of the peace process, that obscures the fact that the military still retains significant power in the country even if a civilian government is ruling it. At various points since Suu Kyi took office, there have been suggestions about tensions between her and the country’s top military leadership, including military chief Min Aung Hlaing.
These dynamics will no doubt factor into Suu Kyi’s defense of Myanmar in the ICJ case. In the lead up to her trip to the Hague, there had already been scrutiny on the military’s response to this development, including meetings held over the past few weeks and the extent of their cooperation and the level of support from leading figures – down to whether any members of the military were accompanying her. And while it may seem that Suu Kyi’s defense of the country could help manage some of the tensions she has had with the military over the past few years given its role in the Rohingya crisis, the key question will be how it affects the broader state of civil-military relations heading into elections next year given the wide array of issues on which there continues to be fierce disagreement.
We may hear very little about the nuances of Myanmar’s domestic politics during Suu Kyi’s appearance at The Hague this week, with much of the focus being on her international image and personal performance. But those domestic political dynamics will be important to keep in mind as they will not only color the developments at play over the next few days, but also continue to affect the country long after Suu Kyi’s appearance and into 2020 as well.