Denying genocidal intent in military action against Rohingyas, the Myanmar state counsellor claims allegations give incomplete picture
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday rejected accusations of casecommitted against her country's Muslim Rohingya minority as “incomplete and misleading,” and said the case should not be heard by the UrN’s highest court.
The Nobel Peace laureate, speaking during three days of hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), challenged allegations in a lawsuit brought by Gambia last month accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Suu Kyi, once feted in the West as a heroine of democracy, spoke for about 30 minutes at the courtroom in The Hague in defence of the actions of the Myanmar military that for years had kept her under house arrest.
She said a military-led “clearance operation” in western Rakhine state launched in August 2017 was a counterterrorism response to coordinated Rohingya militant attacks against dozens of police stations.ge
“Gambia has placed an incomplete and misleading picture of the factual situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar,” Suu Kyi, wearing traditional Burmese dress and flowers in her hair, told the court.
More than 740,000 Rohingya people fled Myanmar to Bangladesh after the military launched its crackdown, during which UN investigators said 10,000 people may have been killed.
Rights groups said Myanmar State Counsellor Suu Kyi's statement contradicted evidence on the ground and witness accounts.
Her remarks “fly in the face of all the evidence gathered by the UN, and the testimony our own teams have heard from countless survivors,” said George Graham, director of humanitarian advocacy at Save the Children.
Gambia has argued that it is every country’s duty under the convention to prevent genocide from taking place or to punish those responsible.
On Tuesday, 74-year-old Suu Kyi sat impassively through graphic accounts of mass murder and rape as Gambia set out its case.
The Gambian justice minister Abubacarr Tambadou, who opened his country's case, said it would be “extremely disappointing” if Suu Kyi repeated her previous denials of wrongdoing by Myanmar, and urged the court to tell her to “stop tdauhe genocide.”
While Suu Kyi on Wednesday conceded that disproportionate military force may have been used and civilians killed, she said the acts did not constitute genocide. And she argued Myanmar was taking steps to punish soldiers responsible for what it has previously said were isolated cases of wrongdoing.
“Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis," she told the ICJ panel of 17 judges. "Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers that are accused of wrongdoing?”
Last year, Myanmar's military announced seven soldiers involved in a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din in September 2017 had been sentenced to “10 years in prison with hard labour in a remote area.”
They were, however, granted early release after less than a year in the prison.
Late last month, the military said it had begun a court martial of an unspecified number of soldiers over events in another village, Gu Dar Pyin, the site of a second alleged massacre of 10 Rohingyas.
Judges this week are hearing the first phase of the case: Gambia's request for “provisional measures” - the equivalent of a restraining order against Myanmar to protect the Rohingya population until the case is heard in full.
The ICJ has no enforcement powers, but its rulings are final and carry significant international weight.
The legal threshold for a finding of genocide is high. Just three cases have been recognized under international law since World War Two: in Cambodia in the late 1970s; in Rwanda in 1994; and at Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995.
Although a UN fact-finding mission found that “the gravest crimes under international law” had been committed in Myanmar and called for genocide trials, no court has previously weighed evidence.
Suu Kyi said that the World Court, set up in 1946 to rule on disputes between member states, had also not confirmed genocide in cases of mass expulsions of civilians in the 1990s Balkans war.
Myanmar lawyer William Schabas appealed to the court to reject the demand for an injunction and said the court did not have jurisdiction.
He argued the reported number of 10,000 deaths in Rakhine did not meet a threshold for genocide, which requires that a specific ethnic group is destroyed in whole or in part.
‘A great liar’
Demonstrations are being held in Myanmar, Bangladesh and outside the ICJ in the Netherlands, both for and against Suu Kyi.
As expected, the case is being followed closely across Rakhine state's border in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where more than 1.1 million Rohingyas are now crowded into the world's biggest refugee camp.
Yesterday, some refugees shouted “liar, liar, shame!”, as they watched Suu Kyi defend Myanmar's case on television.
"She is a liar. A great liar, shame on her," said Abdur Rahim, 52, while watching the live telecast of her testimony at a community centre in the Kutupalong camp.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi's decision to personally lead her country's case at the court has proved popular at home, where the Rohingya are widely regarded as illegal immigrants.
In Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, where there have been demonstrations in support of Suu Kyi in recent days, several hundred people including monks and government staff watched a live broadcast of the hearings in a park yesterday.
"The lawyers on Myanmar's side are brilliant. Since it's about the truth, the lawyers seem so confident. They are telling the truth," said Khin Nu, 62.
Aung San Suu Kyi was once mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her resistance to Myanmar's brutal junta.
After 15 years under house arrest, she was freed in 2010 and came to power in 2016 following a landslide election win in 2015.
But a military-drafted constitution means she must share power with the army that ruled the Southeast Asian nation for decades; and her defence of the same military that once kept her locked up has since caused international condemnation.
Myanmar meanwhile faces a number of legal challenges over the fate of the Rohingya, including a probe by the International Criminal Court - a separate war crimes tribunal in The Hague - and a lawsuit in Argentina personally mentioning Suu Kyi.