THE HAGUE — After listening to accusations of atrocities that took place in her country, Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday categorically rejected charges of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, maintaining her government’s long-standing denial of culpability.
The former democracy icon instead pointed to the role of Muslim militants — she did not utter the word “Rohingya” — in sparking the crisis and said the conflict was a domestic matter for her country to resolve.
Myanmar is “dealing with an internal armed conflict, started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks” by militants, she told the International Court of Justice. “If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s defense services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system, in accordance with Myanmar’s constitution.”
In an extraordinary appearance, Suu Kyi became the first national leader to answer directly before the court while genocide is still alleged to be unfolding. Her appearance also underscored what would be Myanmar’s main thrust of their defense: Gambia does not have sufficient evidence to warrant the charges of genocide, the worst crime under international law, and that the military was simply responding to a security threat.
Suu Kyi, who spent almost 15 years under house arrest before her release in 2010, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Never before has a recipient of the award been called to account for grisly crimes such as rape, murder and burning of babies, and the large-scale clearance of an ethnic group from its lands.
She was under no obligation to come in person to the neo-RenaissancePeace Palace in The Hague, the seat of the court, to defend Myanmar against the charges filed last month by the tiny West African nation of Gambia. Her decision to come put her in the position of defending the military leaders she battled over her long years of house arrest.
The move appeared to reflect a calculation that taking matters into her own hands would boost her politically at home ahead of elections next year. Already, Myanmar officials and thousands of supporters praised her expressionless demeanor at the court Tuesday, as Gambia spent hours detailing stories of systematic rape, murder and brutality.
Suu Kyi on Wednesday took the floor to respond, her signature flowers woven into her hair.Speaking calmlyand deliberately for nearly half an hour as her supporters waved placards bearing her face outside the building, she conceded that military officials may have crossed the line in responding to attacks by Rohingya militants and used “disproportionate force” but said Myanmar’s criminal justice system was addressing these allegations.
“Please bear in mind this complex situation and the challenge to sovereignty and security in our country when you are assessing the intent of those who attempted to deal with the rebellion,” she said. “Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.”
Rohingya activists said they took comfort from the fact that Suu Kyi and other top Myanmar officials were in the court under the watchful eyes of impartial judges.
“We’ve never actually sat across the aisle from the people we’re accusing of committing genocide against us and trying to wipe the entirety of our people off the face of the earth,” said Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya activist attending the hearings as a guest of the Gambian side.
The hearings “legitimized our pain,” she said. “The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi has to sit through all of those allegations. I’m sure no one had ever held them to account to that magnitude.”
Myanmar stands accused of “genocidal acts” that were “intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages, often with inhabitants locked inside burning houses.”
U.N. officials have said Myanmar’s military had genocidal intent when it expelled the Rohingya Muslims from their villages in Rakhine. Myanmar officials deny that it happened, and blame Rohingya “terrorists” for the violence. International observers say thousands of Rohingya have been killed by the military and civilian mobs since the campaign started in late 2016.
This week’s hearings, which are unfolding over three days, have transfixed both sides of the violence.
In refugee camps in Bangladesh, where almost a million ethnic Rohingya were forced to flee during the height of the military campaign, crowds chanted “Gambia, Gambia,” in appreciation of their unlikely advocate.
And in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, hundreds huddled outside city hall to watch the hearings broadcast live on a huge screen with local language translation. Some government supporters bought tickets for a package tour of The Hague to watch the defense in person — an expense well beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.
Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s foreign minister as well as its de facto civilian leader after 2015 elections. She has repeatedly backed the military leadership, which retains huge say in national affairs, and declined to intervene during the height of the violence.
Under her watch, Rohingya in Myanmar have continued to languish, segregated in squalid camps without access to education or citizenship rights. Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Rakhine state are also heavily restricted in their movements. Many among the country’s Buddhist majority believe the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh who immigrated illegally, although they say they are native to Rakhine.
This week’s hearings are not asking the court to rule on whether genocide has taken place, a process that will likely take years. Instead, they are seeking “provisional measures” about whether the court holds jurisdiction and whether the charges are plausible enough that the Myanmar government should be compelled both to preserve evidence and to halt ongoing violence in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya lived before they were forced out or killed. About 600,000 Rohingya are estimated to remain in Rakhine, where they remain at risk.
A decision is not expected immediately, but it should come relatively soon, within weeks or months, observers said.
Tuesday’s hearing, where Gambia and its advisers laid out the evidence, was an emotional moment for those at the stand and the Rohingya in the courtroom.
“Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes, even as I make this statement to you today. Yet we do nothing to stop it,” said Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, his voice at times cracking with emotion. “Every day of inaction means that more people are being killed, more women are being ravaged, and more children are being burned alive. For what crime? Only because they were born different.”
Gambia brought the case on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Tambadou, a former prosecutor at an international court for the Rwandan genocide, said he was motivated to take on the case against Myanmar after visiting Rohingya refugee camps last year. He used an often-ignored provision of international treaties against genocide to bring the charges to the tribunal, which first met in 1946.
In the courtroom, representatives for Gambia quoted witnesses interviewed by U.N. missions about the behavior of Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.
“The Tatmadaw killed children in the courtyard. One witness recounted: ‘The soldiers killed the male members of my family. They shot at them first and then slit their throats. The courtyard was full of blood,’” said Andrew Loewenstein, one of the lawyers working for Gambia.
He said other witnesses said “some children were shot. Other children were thrown onto a fire. A witness described how the soldiers took infants from their mothers’ laps and threw them into the river.”