Will Aung San Suu Kyi face charges of genocide?

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

A leading UN human rights commissioner suggested Aung San Suu Kyi could face charges of genocide. Is this a possible ending to the Rohingya genocide episode?

By Oliver Ward

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein hinted that Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi may face charges of genocide in the future. He said the scale of the operation against the Rohingya Muslims indicated the involvement of senior members of the government.

Even if she was not directly involved, Zeid believes she could be guilty of crimes of omission. If she knew about the ethnic cleansing campaign and did nothing to stop it, she could be culpable.

Aung San Suu Kyi ignored Zeid’s plead to end the military campaign. In February, the UN human rights chief spoke to Suu Kyi on the phone. He said, “I appealed to her to bring these military operations to an end,” he added, “to my great regret it did not seem to happen.”

But Aung San Suu Kyi is not in control of the military

Her power within the military government is limited. But even within her own spheres of influence, she could have done more. She refused to use the term “Rohingya” in public. Stripping the Rohingya people of their name further dehumanises the Rohingya people and further creates the conditions for genocide.

Whenever pressed by journalists, she upholds the Burmese military’s position that the Rohingya are illegally squatting in Myanmar. She also hampered and obstructed UN investigations into Rakhine state. She is part of the problem, not the solution.

Source: HRW, BBC (I), (II), Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Rakhine Commission

Do the attacks constitute genocide

Although Zeid has hinted she will face the charges, the decision is not up to him. First, an international investigation will need to find evidence of genocide. Zeid admitted that this would not be easy to prove. He said, “the thresholds for proof are high”, adding “but it wouldn’t surprise me in the future If a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see”.

There are witness accounts of systematic violence against the Rohingya population. Among the 650,000 Rohingya refugees, stories of murder and the destruction of Rohingya villages are common. Human Rights Watch reported that the Burmese army destroyed Rohingya villages as recently as December 2nd.

However, the army’s defence will be that the military action was a response to the terrorist attacks in August. An armed group of Rohingya killed 12 members of the Burmese military. This would carry more weight if the military had not been training and arming the Rakhine Buddhist population before the attack.

In September 2017, seven judges from the International People’s Tribunal heard testimonials from Rohingya witnesses. They judged that Myanmar was guilty of orchestrating genocide against the Rohingya population.

Will Aung San Suu Kyi face charges?

Legally, Suu Kyi could face charges for her involvement. Myanmar ratified the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) in 1956. Under the resolution, Myanmar must take action to prevent genocide occurring. Suu Kyi has undoubtedly acted in a way that has done nothing to prevent or end the genocide.

But she is not the head of the army. Her office only has control over the foreign ministry. To build a case, an international court would require compelling evidence to indicate she had the opportunity to stop the genocide but did not take it. Without this hard evidence, it is unlikely a court could bring her to trial.

Morally, Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly guilty of facilitating the army’s genocide of the Rohingya population. But moral guilty will not be enough to put her behind bars. Legally, she will likely escape prosecution.