As every schoolchild knows, a Shakespearean tragedy is a story of a seemingly heroic figure whose major character flaw causes the story to end with his (or her) tragic downfall. There is something Shakespearean about the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi at the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend her country, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and its military against accusations of genocide.
It marks a remarkable fall from grace for Suu Kyi, who used to be seen as an icon for global human rights. Now she has chosen to stand up for the same army that kept her under house arrest for years.
We have all seen Act 1 play out, with Suu Ki leading a democracy movement in Myanmar at great personal cost. Act II reveals her transformation into a compliant and docile supporter of the military she opposed for decades.
Act III has just begun with her appearance at the ICJ as an active supporter of the military. Suu Kyi’s UN mission is to defend the indefensible. The case against Myanmar and its military has been brought by The Gambia, a small Muslim-majority West African nation, on behalf of dozens of other Muslim countries.
It is a compelling one. A UN fact-finding mission which investigated the allegations of genocide found such compelling evidence that it said the army must be investigated for genocide against Rohingya Muslims.
According to The Gambia’s submission to the ICJ, the military stands accused of “widespread and systematic clearance operations” against the Rohingya, beginning in October 2016 and developing further in August 2017.
In August of this year, a UN report accused Myanmar soldiers of “routinely and systematically employing rape, gang rape, and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people”.
The ICJ is the top court of the UN but has no way of forcing countries to abide by its rulings. However, a guilty ruling could lead to sanctions, and would cause significant reputational and economic damage to Myanmar.
From the outset, Suu Kyi has shown a grim determination to defend herself, her country and her military against allegations of genocide. As the drama unfolds at the court in The Hague, it is becoming less of a Shakespearean and more of a Greek tragedy. Shakespeare was known to temper his tragic tales with moments of comedy or giddy hilarity. There is no comic relief in the tragedy of Suu Ki.
In 1991, “The Lady”, as she is known, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with the committee chairman calling her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”. But since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016 she has become an outstanding example of power over the powerless. Apart from the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi and her government have also prosecuted journalists and activists using colonial-era laws.
In defending her military and herself, Suu Kyi has lost all moral standing as well as all but destroyed her once towering reputation as a defender of human rights. Whether Shakespearean or Greek, that is an unspeakable tragedy.