From peace prizes to ‘defending genocide’: The rise and fall of Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi before the UN's International Court of Justice in December. Source: Getty

Aung San Suu Kyi was once a beacon for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. Now, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been accused of defending genocide in her own country.

Watch Dateline's Special Investigation into the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Killing Fields

The United Nation’s top court has ordered Myanmar to take urgent steps to prevent the alleged genocide of Rohingya Muslims in the country.

The International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the United Nations, said the majority Buddhist country must "take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts" described by the 1948 Genocide Convention. 

These included "killing members of the group" and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part".

 Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to The Hague in December to personally defend her country at the ICJ against the allegations of widespread rape, arson and the murder of as many as 10,000 Rohingya.

This is the same Aung San Suu Kyi who three decades prior won a Nobel Peace Prize, heralded as an “outstanding example of the power of the powerless.” 

How did Myanmar's leader go from ‘freedom-fighter’ to ‘defending genocide’?

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung, and a prominent political figure Khin Kyi. She went on to study in New Delhi and Oxford University and married an English historian. The now 74-year-old had two sons, born in London, before returning to Myanmar in 1988. Her return coincided with mass demonstrations for democracy, a movement she joined, which soon-after resulted in her arrest. 

Aung San Suu Kyi spent almost 15 years, between 1989 and 2010, under house arrest for attempts to bring democracy to her country and take power from military rule.

Her detention gained worldwide attention and became a symbol for nonviolent resistance.  She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and a number of other human rights accolades. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010.

In 2015, with the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi won the first openly contested election in Myanmar in 25 years.

She became the de-facto leader of the country; the constitution forbids her to be president because she has children who are foreign nationals. 

Meanwhile, tensions had been growing in the north of the country in Rakhine State, which was home to an estimated one million Rohingya Muslims. 


The ethnic minority faced its most significant military crackdowns in the years following Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory.  Allegations of widespread torture, rape and killing that amounted to genocide have driven hundreds of thousands from Myanmar to Bangladesh and other countries. 

Their treatment has been documented by the United Nations, human rights groups, the Bangladesh government and international news media, including Dateline. The government of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi have denied any allegations of genocide.

Although it is acknowledged that Aung San Suu Kyi does not control the still powerful Myanmar military, she has been widely criticised for her inaction.

Her government has also faced criticism for the persecution of journalists, particularly after the detention of two Reuters journalists investigating the killing of ten Rohingya Muslims.  Suu Kyi publicly commented in June 2018 that the journalists "weren't arrested for covering the Rakhine issue", but because they had broken Myanmar's Official Secrets Act.

When defending her government from accusations of genocide at the International Criminal Court of Justice in December, she said the allegations were “incomplete and misleading” and Myanmar defence forces had been responding to “coordinated and targeted” from a Rohingya insurgent group. 

The panel of 17 judges at the ICJ on Thursday voted unanimously to order Myanmar to take "all measures within its power" to prevent genocide, which they said the Rohingya remained at serious risk of. 

The Myanmar government rejected these findings.

The ICJ's orders are binding but it has no power to enforce them.