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Myanmar's De Facto Leader To Appear At The Hague


Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will appear before the International Court of Justice in The Hague this week. She's headed there to defend her country against charges of genocide against the Muslim minority Rohingya. Seven-hundred thousand refugees fled a brutal crackdown by Myanmar's military in 2017. Reporter Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: To hear many analysts tell it, Suu Kyi's surprise decision to lead Myanmar's team at The Hague is simple.

PHIL ROBERTSON: She's playing the nationalist card.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. Matthew Smith is CEO of the Southeast Asia rights group Fortify Rights.

MATTHEW SMITH: I think Aung San Suu Kyi is going to The Hague primarily to garner support at home in Myanmar ahead of elections in 2020. And it appears as though that is at least part of the strategy.

SULLIVAN: So far, it's a strategy that appears to be paying dividends. David Mathieson is an independent analyst in Yangon, reached via Skype.

DAVID MATHIESON: I think the initial reaction was one of shock. Now I think it was one of jubilation. I think it was one of - good on Mother Suu for sticking up for our country and confronting what many see as these unjust charges.


UNIDENTIFIED SUU KYI SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Aung San Suu Kyi. We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi. We stand with...

SULLIVAN: And the outpouring of support has been huge - rallies like this one and a social media blitz pushing the Buddhist nationalist agenda. Tour companies have arranged trips to The Hague for Suu Kyi followers to show their support. But, says author and former diplomat Thant Myint-U, Suu Kyi's trip to The Hague is about more than posturing for an upcoming election.

THANT MYINT-U: I think she genuinely believes what happened in 2016/2017 was not genocide. I think she genuinely feels a great anger at what she sees as an unfair response from the outside world. I think she genuinely wants to have literally her day in court. And I think she genuinely believes that there could be no one better to represent the country at this time.

SULLIVAN: If all of that is true, Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights expects to hear the same arguments from Suu Kyi at The Hague that she's been making for years now.

SMITH: Denying that the crime of genocide took place, alleging or trying to shift attention to crimes that were perpetrated by Rohingya militants and really trying to paint a picture of a situation in which it is the state dealing with Islamic terrorist threats.

SULLIVAN: And that, independent analyst David Mathieson says, will be a hard sell, given the government's stonewalling in the past.

MATHIESON: The fact is she's responding to this one while having wholesale dismissed the U.N. fact-finding mission, the U.N. special rapporteur, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that have done incredibly exhaustive documentation, augmented by satellite photos to prove that something utterly horrific happened. And that's why I think it will ultimately be a farce.

SULLIVAN: Not everyone agrees.

KINGSLEY ABBOTT: There is hope for justice.

SULLIVAN: Kingsley Abbott is a senior legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists, reached via Skype. Just a few years ago, he says, the prospect of accountability for Myanmar looked bleak. But today, he says, there are several cases underway.

ABBOTT: International justice always takes time. But now the situation is quite different than it was two years ago. And things can change; regimes can change. But I think, certainly, people need to buckle in for a long ride where their expectations are tempted but they remain hopeful.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch is hopeful, too, if accountability for the alleged atrocities reaches Suu Kyi.

ROBERTSON: The reality is that she has thrown in with the generals. She is part and parcel of the cover-up of the atrocities against the Rohingya. And nothing's going to change that. If she is going to be the leader of the cover-up, there's certainly some action that has to be taken against her on that.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARMAWIN'S "BUSHIDO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.