Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar‘s military against genocide allegations made at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) amid accusations of mass killings, rape and expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
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“The Gambia has placed an incomplete and misleading picture of the factual situation in Rakhine state,” Suu Kyi said at the UN’s top court on Wednesday.
“Surely under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.
“Can there be genocidal intent on the part of the state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers, who are accused of wrongdoing? Although the focus here is on members of the military, I can assure you that appropriate action will be taken on civilian offenders, in line with due process.”
She said the situation in Rakhine state was “complex” as she acknowledged the “suffering” of the Rohingya minority, many of whom have fled to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Myanmar army may have used “disproportionate force”, she said, but that did not prove it was trying to wipe out the minority group.
She repeatedly termed a bloody crackdown in 2017 as an “internal conflict”, saying Myanmar’s military was responding to attacks by Rohingya “militants” and armed local groups, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Once a human rights icon who fought against the powerful military for democracy, Suu Kyi has shocked critics and galvanised supporters at home by travelling to The Hague to head her country’s delegation.
“We [are] witnessing one of history’s shocking moments: Suu Kyi denying and dismissing credible findings of genocide of Rohingyas by Myanmar,” Maung Zarni, a UK-based scholar, activist and member of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority who hails from a military family. “As a Burmese I am so ashamed and outraged at the same time by what I am about to hear – lies and deceptions.”
Suu Kyi listened impassively on Tuesday as lawyers for The Gambia detailed graphic testimony of suffering of Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces, including gang rape, torture and murder.
“It was very important to see her have to sit inches away from people who were describing – in really painfully excruciating detail – all the horrible crimes of the Burmese military that happened on her watch,” Brad Adams, of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.
The ICJ judges are hearing the first phase of the case until Thursday: The 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 Gambia has argued that it is every country’s duty under the 1948 Convention to prevent a genocide from taking place. It has political support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as several Western nations including Canada and the Netherlands.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after the military crackdown in the country’s western Rakhine state in August 2017. Most now live in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar argues that the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine were a justifiable response to acts of “terrorism” by rebels and says its soldiers acted appropriately.
Although a UN fact-finding mission found “the gravest crimes under international law” were committed in Myanmar and called for genocide trials, no court has weighed the evidence.
According to some analysts, the ICJ case represents a landmark.
“The final judgement can take a long time [of up to five years], but for victims and their communities, it’s an incredible moment,” Antonia Mulvey, founder of Legal Action Worldwide and an expert on international human rights, told Al Jazeera.
“This sends a very strong message to the Rohingya that the international community is watching and listening to them.”
Speaking from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the site of the largest Rohingya refugee camp in the world, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker said the trial was “hugely important” for the Rohingya.
Dekker said people at the camp were aware of the trial and were trying to get news of it.
“The internet had been cut for the last couple of months when a large protest took place at the two-year anniversary … but today, for some reason, 3G is back on and people can access the news.”
In another blow to the Myanmar government, the United States stiffened sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and three other senior commanders on Tuesday over the killings.
“The United States will not tolerate torture, kidnapping, sexual violence, murder or brutality against innocent civilians,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
The new sanctions, which coincided with the UN’s International Human Rights Day, freeze any US assets held by those targeted and prohibits Americans from doing business with the named individuals.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for HRW, called it a welcome but overdue step, saying “better late than never”.
“It is unfortunate the decision took so long. The crimes in question were incredibly serious,” he said.