Once an icon of democracy and human rights, Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood before the International Court of Justice on Wednesday to deny her nation's military committed genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Suu Kyi appeared at the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, in response to a lawsuit filed by Gambia on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, on charges that Myanmar violated the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner told a panel of 15 international judges that her nation has been fighting against insurgents, rather than persecuting 600,000 Rohingya Muslims inside Buddhist-dominated Myanmar or forcing more than 740,000 others to flee under the threat of genocide to the world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
"Regrettably, The Gambia has placed before the court an incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Yet, it is of the utmost importance that the court assess the situation obtaining on the ground in Rakhine dispassionately and accurately," she said.
"The situation in Rakhine is complex and not easy to fathom," said Suu Kyi. "But one thing surely touches all of us equally: the sufferings of the many innocent people whose lives were torn apart as a consequence of the armed conflicts of 2016 and 2017 — in particular, those who have had to flee their homes and are now living in [Bangladesh refugee] camps in Cox's Bazar."
She said Myanmar's conviction of seven soldiers for executing ten Rohingya men in a village in 2017 illustrated her nation's commitment to justice. But those killings were exposed by the intrepid reporting of two Reuters journalists who were jailed for more than 16 months for doing their jobs.
A U.N. fact-finding mission wrapped up two years of investigation in September by urging the world to hold Myanmar’s military responsible for “genocidal acts” against the Muslim Rohingya minority. The panel's independent experts reported that the Rohingya people suffered marginalization, discrimination and brutality at the hands of Myanmar armed forces, called the Tatmadaw.
It said some 600,000 Rohingya inside Myanmar face persecution and live under the threat of genocide, while Myanmar’s 2017 “clearance operations” — mass killings, rapes and burning of villages — cost thousands of lives and caused more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
The panel also reproached Suu Kyi for her laissez-faire approach to the Rohingya crackdown, which humanitarian officials have described as the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
'Stop these senseless killings'
Gambia’s justice minister, Abubacarr Tambadou, urged judges at ICJ's courtroom in The Hague, Netherlands to hold Myanmar accountable. He became involved in the case after visiting Bangladesh’s refugee camps for Rohingya people as part of an OIC delegation.
"We come to you because to the millions of us around the world, the weak, the powerless, the insignificant others, you give us hope that someone out there will listen to us, to our pains and our souls, that someone will give consolation to victims and protect them," he told the court.
"All that The Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity and brutality, that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people," said Tambadou, who spent more than a decade prosecuting cases from Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Suu Kyi’s decision to appear before ICJ's two-day hearing provided a stunning contrast — and further heightened her growing alienation — from the global admiration that won her a Nobel Peace Prize for resisting Myanmar's dictatorship and promoting democracy. Amnesty International last year withdrew the 2009 Ambassador of Conscience Award that it had given to her near the end of the 15 years she spent under house arrest as leader of the Burmese National League for Democracy.
In September, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council to implore Suu Kyi to return to being a champion of democracy and to "open your eyes, listen, feel with your heart, and please use your moral authority, before it is too late.”
Suu Kyi has a long and complicated relationship with the nation's military. Her father, General Aung San, is considered the father of independence in the former British colony of Burma. He formed an independent army, united the nation and signed an independence agreement with Britain in January 1947. He was assassinated six months later, when Suu Kyi was just two years old.
Myanmar, while under the rule of a military junta from 1962 to 2011, was considered to be a pariah state. The former junta changed the nation’s name to Myanmar, but Suu Kyi and many democracy supporters still called it Burma. She won the 1991 Nobel Peace prize for her nonviolent struggle for democracy after leading her National League for Democracy to victory in 1990 elections. But the military junta that led the government refused to recognize the results.
Suu Kyi spent much of the following 20 years under house arrest. After she was freed in November 2010, her party boycotted the national elections. A party close to the ruling junta swept to victory and military leaders turned over control to a nominally civilian government. Her party later won a landslide victory in 2015 and Suu Kyi — barred from becoming president because her late husband and children were foreigners — became the nation's de fact leader as State Counselor, a five-year post equivalent to prime minister.
While her appearance at The Hague helped to galvanize Suu Kyi's nationalist supporters in Myanmar, it caused a backlash among international observers and human rights campaigners.
“So far, the military have evaded justice for their crimes against the Rohingya, while continuing to commit new abuses against other ethnic minorities in the country," said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“If Aung San Suu Kyi is serious about serving the people of Myanmar, she should be standing side by side with victims and survivors in the pursuit of justice, truth and reparation," he said. "She should not be covering up for those suspected of criminal responsibility.”