YANGON, MYANMAR - Myanmar leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi departed on Sunday for the U.N.'s top court in The Hague to defend the country against charges of genocide of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
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.
Crowds are expected to gather again in the afternoon to send off several dozen supporters who will travel to The Hague in the Netherlands and demonstrations are planned throughout the coming week, with hearings set for Dec. 10 to 12.
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 U.N 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 U.N has said was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings and rape.
Despite international condemnation over the campaign, Suu Kyi, whose government has defended the campaign as a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants, remains overwhelmingly popular at home.
On Saturday, thousands rallied in Naypyitaw while senior officials held a prayer ceremony at St Mary's Cathedral in the former capital of Yangon.
Among them was religion minister Thura Aung Ko, who was been vocal in his disdain for the minority and last year said refugees in the camps in Bangladesh were being "brainwashed" into "marching" on Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Suu Kyi spent the eve of her departure meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, with both countries pledging stronger ties, according to Zhao Lijian, deputy director general of the information department at China's foreign ministry.
"Aung San Suu Kyi thanked China for its strong support and help in safeguarding national sovereignty, opposing foreign interference, and promoting economic and social development," he said on Twitter on Sunday.
Pro-Suu Kyi demonstrations have been held in major towns and cities since the news was announced that she would attend the hearings in person.
Billboards with her picture and the words"stand with Suu Kyi" have also been erected around the country, including in historic former capital Bagan, the country's major attraction for tourists who come to see the centuries-old temples.