For the Rohingya, the arc of the moral universe could still bend towards justice

London’s decision to intervene in the ICJ case against the Myanmar junta will give hope to those seeking justice

Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar mark the fifth anniversary of their fleeing from Myanmar. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

There was a time when a court in Myanmar sentencing Aung San Suu Kyi to three years in jail – and this with hard labour, particularly punitive for a 77-year-old woman – would have led to outraged headlines around the world. The courts announced just that last week – she was supposedly guilty of electoral fraud – but sympathy for the country's former leader, who was overthrown in a military coup in February last year, has been largely absent.

Once a symbol of freedom and human rights, Ms Suu Kyi's name has been irreparably tainted by her alleged collusion with what many people view as the Myanmar military's acts of genocide against the Rohingya in the country's west, principally during 2016-17. The defence she tried to make of the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, did her no good when they decided to take over. The latest sentence is on top of the 17 years jail she has been given since the coup for “offences” such as illegally importing walkie talkies.

It would be easy to feel somewhat downcast over Ms Suu Kyi's plight, however flawed she may be, but also come to the conclusion that there is little or nothing to be done. Despite the appalling violence the regime has been inflicting on its own citizens in order to suppress a country that had a tantalising vision of something close to freedom after the first fully free elections in 2015, the world appears to have moved on. There was a military dictatorship before in Myanmar from 1962 to 2011, when a civilian president took over, and now it's back. Sanctions didn't force the generals to act before and there is little sign they will now. In any case, pessimists would say, Ukraine sucks all the oxygen out of the system.

Vicky Bowman at a conference in Yangon, Myanmar, in March 2017. Bloomberg

But in fact, the Myanmar military is one step closer to being held accountable for its actions. It was little noticed, but at the end of last month the UK "intervened" in the International Court of Justice’s case, which was brought by Gambia, backed by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, accusing Myanmar of carrying out genocide against the Rohingya. That coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day on August 25. Without getting into technicalities, an “intervention” in this context is a supportive move that indicates that the relevant state declares an interest in the case, and the British government’s move was widely hailed by human rights organisations.

The ICJ's wheels turn slowly, but inexorably. Based in the Hague, it is the UN’s highest court, and as such enforcement of its judgements can be subject to a veto by one of the permanent members of the Security Council. Some experts argue that to do so in the case of a ruling on genocide would contravene the UN Charter itself. But either way, a ruling against Myanmar would be a major step into turning the regime into a global pariah.

And the determination of those wishing to make clear their culpability will only have been increased by the sentence of one year in jail meted out to Vicky Bowman, the former UK ambassador to Myanmar, supposedly for a minor violation of immigration rules, in a court in Yangon last week. Locking up her Burmese husband Htein Lin, a former political prisoner, on what many consider to be trumped-up charges may not be a huge surprise, but doing so to a former ambassador is pretty much unheard of.

Liz Truss speaks after winning the Conservative Party leadership contest in London on Monday. AP Photo

Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, will be under huge pressure to do something about Ms Bowman's undoubtedly unjust jailing. In fact, Ms Truss may not need much prompting. She was very proud of having been the one foreign secretary who managed to get the British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe out of prison in Tehran and back to Britain, and her enthusiasm for sticking up for Britain and British people and products has been much commented on. Ms Truss has much to deal with at home with the cost-of-living crisis and skyrocketing fuel bills, but once she has settled in, expect her to take up her cudgels on behalf of Ms Bowman. Steadily, international pressure on the regime may increase.

Now all of this may do little for Ms Suu Kyi, and given her alleged complicity in the atrocities committed during the years she led Myanmar’s government, some may not be too bothered by that. But it does show that the misrule and misdeeds of the military have not been forgotten. According to one report, attrition rates in the Tatmadaw suggest that time is not on their side. Nevertheless, it is possible that true justice may never eventually be served. But the prospect of it being done so is increasing. And that is still something.

Published: September 06, 2022, 2:00 PM