The Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar’s government against accusations of genocide at the international court of justice, calling the allegations an “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state”.
Addressing a bench of 17 judges from around the world, the 74-year-old leader dismissed reports of state violence against Rohingya Muslims and blamed the conflict on an uprising by separatist insurgents.
An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since late 2016, escaping military clearance operations that a UN fact-finding mission described as “brutal”. It warned that Myanmar was failing to prevent genocide.
Once internationally feted as a human rights champion, Aung San Suu Kyi is leading Myanmar’s delegation to the court in The Hague. The state counsellor, in effect the country’s prime minister, delivered an overview of Myanmar’s response to what she described as a terrorist uprising inside its borders.
The attacks were initiated by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Aung San Suu Kyi told the court as she displayed detailed maps of Rakhine state showing, she claimed, where the first assaults began in late 2016. Myanamar’s security forces responded to that violence, she said.
“The situation in Rakhine state is complex and not easy to fathom,” she said. “The troubles in Rakhine state … go back into past centuries and and have been particularly severe. ARSA seeks independence for Rakhine, finding inspiration from the [ancient] Arakan kingdom.”
Her speech to the UN’s highest tribunal came on the second day of an emergency legal hearing convened to consider whether protective “provisional measures” should be imposed to prevent further killings and destruction in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi said an initial phase of violence had begun in October 2016 when ARSA carried out attacks on police stations near the border with Bangladesh. “This led to the deaths of nine police officers and more than 100 civilians as well as the theft of 68 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition.”
She said a second wave of ARSA assaults launched in August 2017 aimed to seize the township of Maungdaw, telling the court Myanmar’s army had been forced to respond with “counter-insurgency operations”.
The charge that Myanmar’s military carried out mass murder, rape and destruction of Rohingya Muslim communities has been brought by the Gambia, a west African state that belongs to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
“We are dealing with an internal armed conflict, started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, to which Myanmar’s defence services responded,” she told the court.
“Tragically, this armed conflict led to the exodus of several hundred thousand Muslims from the three northernmost townships of Rakhine into Bangladesh – just as the armed conflict in Croatia with which the court had to deal led to the massive exodus of first ethnic Croats and later ethnic Serbs.”
Under the rules of the ICJ, member states can initiate actions against fellow member states over disputes alleging breaches of international law – in this case, the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
Aung San Suu Kyi disputed the genocide convention as a basis for the case and asserted in court that the principle of international law is that it should compliment domestic justice. She said if war crimes or human rights violations had been committed they would be dealt with by Myanmar’s justice system, adding that in one case soldiers had been punished for the execution of civilians.
“There will be no tolerance of human rights violations in Rakhine or elsewhere in Myanmar,” she said.“No stone has been left unturned to make domestic accountability work … We are dealing with an internal conflict started by ARSA to which Myanmar responds.”
One of the lawyers representing Myanmar, Prof William Schabas of Middlesex University, said the Gambia had not addressed an intent to conduct genocide or stated the number of victims.
He said a figure of 10,000 used by some commentators was an “exaggeration” but even if true, the suggestion that 10,000 deaths out of a total of more than one million Rohingya residents could not constitute an attempt to “completely destroy this [ethnic] group”.
Phoebe Okawa, professor of international rights at Queen Mary University in London who is also representing Myanmar, told the court that the fact that the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was meeting with Myanmar to prepare for return of Rohingya people meant that they could not be facing a risk of genocide.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters were out in force in front of the ICJ at dawn holdingplacards saying “We stand with you”. Swe Aye, who lives in the Netherlands, said: “Our leader is the only person who can solve this big issue for our country. This is an accusation against our whole country, not just the military. They should [concentrate on] the perpetrators.”
Than Htoo said she had flown in from Myanmar. “I don’t believe the genocide claims,” she said. “We want to tell the world the truth.”
Aung San Suu Kyi conceded that her country had made some mistakes. “Myanmar could have done more to emphasise our shared heritage and deeper layers of unity between the different peoples of our country,” she said. In one counter-terrorism operation, gunfire from a helicopter may have hit civilians.
“It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the defence services in some cases in disregard of international humanitarian law, or that they did not distinguish clearly enough between ARSA fighters and civilians,” she told the court. “There may also have been failures to prevent civilians from looting or destroying property after fighting or in abandoned villages. But these are determinations to be made in the due course of the criminal justice process.”
The contrast between Aung San Suu Kyi winning the 1991 Nobel peace prize and her present position as chief denier that any ethnic violence has been perpetrated against the Rohingya has astonished international human rights organisations. Last year, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum revoked her Elie Wiesel award.
Critics claim Aung San Suu Kyi made the surprising decision to appear at the court to contest the well-documented claims because her defiance plays well to her domestic, Buddhist-majority audience and electorate. No state has ever been found guilty of genocide.