Myanmar leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi departed on Sunday for the UN's top court in The Hague to defend the country against charges of genocide of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
Ms Suu Kyi was pictured smiling as she walked through the airport in the nation's capital, Naypyitaw, flanked by officials, a day after thousands rallied in the city to support her and a prayer ceremony was held in her name.
Supporters pose for photos with portrait of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi before their departure to The Netherlands. Source: AAP
Demonstrations are planned throughout the coming week, with hearings set for the next few days, and several dozen supporters are also bound for The Hague, in the Netherlands, to cheer Ms Suu Kyi on.
Gambia, a tiny, mainly Muslim West African country, filed a lawsuit in November accusing Buddhist-majority Myanmar of genocide, the most serious international crime, against its Rohingya Muslim minority. During three days of hearings, it will ask the 16-member panel of UN judges at the International Criminal Court of Justice to impose "provisional measures" to protect the Rohingya before the case can be heard in full.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 after a brutal military-led crackdown the UN has said was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings and rape.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017. Source: AAP
Despite international condemnation over the campaign, Ms Suu Kyi, whose government has defended the campaign as a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants, remains overwhelmingly popular at home.
"We stand with you," proclaim billboards across Myanmar, sporting beaming portraits of the Nobel laureate as she prepares to face the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the Rohingya crisis.
Ms Suu Kyi's supporters are printing off T-shirts, organising rallies and even signing up to VIP tours to The Hague to offer their backing.
Political parties and even some rebel armed groups have also fallen over themselves to give their support, in a country where the Rohingya garner little sympathy and are widely regarded as illegal immigrants.
Yet overseas, particularly in the West and in Muslim countries, Ms Suu Kyi's reputation lies in tatters with multiple awards and even an honorary citizenship revoked.
Critics say "The Lady", once lauded alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, has become an apologist for a murderous military intent on wiping out the country's Rohingya Muslims.
The spectacle of Ms Suu Kyi standing up in court on behalf of the nation might play well at home but she risks suffering a fatal blow to what remains of her international reputation.
"If she's only going to use the visit to demonstrate defiance and continue to defend the indefensible, then it only widens the impasse," Yangon-based analyst David Mathieson told AFP.
Politics or principle?
Observers are divided over why Ms Suu Kyi is now throwing herself into the spotlight to defend the military.
Some say shielding the armed forces will bring concessions over reforms to the military-drafted constitution.
"There will be more negotiation and give-and-take between the government and the military," predicted political analyst Maung Maung Soe.
Others suggest it is a political ploy ahead of elections next year, a vote-winner for Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
"The majority of political parties suspect (the NLD) will benefit at the election," Khin Yi from the opposition, military-affiliated USDP party told AFP.
Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: EPA
Even in the face of some voter disillusionment, a landslide NLD victory is widely expected - arguably rendering any gamble unnecessary.
Myanmar historian and writer Thant Myint U dismissed notions the move was simply political, saying Ms Suu Kyi believes no genocide was carried out -- the position taken by most of the country.
"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 make this argument," he said at an event in Bangkok.
"I think she genuinely believes that there can be no one better to represent the country," he added.
Only a trio of rebel armed groups - the MNDAA, TNLA and AA, themselves locked in battle with the military - have dared voice support within Myanmar for the genocide charges.
Rohingya women cry as they shout slogans during a protest rally to commemorate the first anniversary of Myanmar army's crackdown. Source: AAP
Yet even they could not bring themselves to use the loaded word "Rohingya", referring to the persecuted minority in their statement with the pejorative term "Bengali", which suggests they are from Bangladesh.
Aye Lwin from Yangon's Islamic Centre of Myanmar said he thought Ms Suu Kyi was doing the right thing by personally assuming responsibility and going to The Hague, where the full breadth of atrocities committed will be laid bare.
"It's not about winning or losing. It's about revealing the truth and correcting an injustice."