Aung San Suu Kyi has a reality problem

The office of Aung San Suu Kyi — Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar — has just announced that she will travel to The Hague in December to answer a suit brought against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the Rohingya genocide. And apparently this has been decided in agreement with the country’s powerful generals, who control foreign affairs and security and who have carried out the “clearance operations” for which the state of Myanmar stands accused.

This is a baffling but welcome state of affairs. Why would Suu Kyi and the government of Myanmar acknowledge the jurisdiction of the ICJ — thereby implicitly granting the court standing to pass judgment on the Rohingya genocide?

There are two likely explanations. First, the Lady (as she’s known at home) might be genuinely unaware of the full extent of what has been happening with the Rohingya in Rakhine state. According to many sources I’ve spoken with, she has taken to regarding factual reports about the 2016-2017 ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya as malicious conspiracy theories targeted to undermine her country, and perhaps her personally. When confronted with critical accounts, she flies into a fit of anger, saying these are all fabricated allegations.

Perhaps Suu Kyi genuinely believes in the innocence of her cause and of her government. And perhaps she genuinely believes that if she, as a celebrated human rights icon, finally stands before the international community at the ICJ, they will finally recognize the errors of the “misinformation” aimed at her by her “detractors.”

Or it could be that Suu Kyi is taking a leaf from the political playbook of insurgent populists around the world, including her new friend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In the current moment in political history, when it appears that facts do not matter anymore, a brazen lie told loudly and confidently may yet be seen as the supreme act of political strength — especially by one’s political base. And what better platform to grandstand your narrative than an international court that can do little other than passing an impotent judgment?

In either case, the bad news for Suu Kyi is that this trial at the ICJ is a serious affair. The effort, led by Gambia’s Attorney General Abubacarr Marie Tambadou and the Gambian Ministry of Justice, sets a new precedent in international relations: A state is taking another state before the ICJ for a breach of the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Nor can this be dismissed as casual posturing by a random country trying to elevate its international profile. Tambadou, a serious international jurist on questions of genocide, previously served as a special assistant to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The man leading the charge is a serious and established advocate of human rights and international law, and Gambia’s effort is drawing more and more support from the rest of the international community.

Anyone in their right mind, and with access to all the evidence we have in the public domain about what has been happening in Rakhine state with the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military, would expect the prosecution to win this case. This is not to say that the outcome is certain, of course. But if I were a lawyer working for the defendants, I’d certainly counsel them to drop the cavalier attitude.

It is especially striking that the country’s military leaders have given their blessing to Suu Kyi’s planned appearance before the court — especially because it marks an uncharacteristic acknowledgment of international law and the jurisdiction of foreign “interests” from the notoriously isolationist military establishment. It is hard to escape the conclusion that she is being set up as the patsy for the genocide — by the very same people who organized it and carried it out.

The good news is that international law has been activated to respond to a genocide situation. This was not something we could take for granted in a world of deepening authoritarianism, but at least for now this is something we can celebrate. The Rohingya victims and their supporters have a long journey ahead of them. But for now, this story seems to be moving in the right direction.

Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide.”

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