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”.
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 sectarian 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, opened her defence with a 25-minute speech which placed primary responsibility for the violence on a terrorist uprising.
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.
“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 have been particularly severe. ARSA has received weapons and explosives-training from Afghan and Pakistani militants.”
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 began in October 2016 when ARSA attacked 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. Myanmar’s army had been forced to respond with “counter-insurgency operations”, she said.
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.
It alleges there has been “extrajudicial killings … sexual violence, burning of homes and destruction of livestock … calculated to bring about a destruction of the Rohingya group in whole or in part”.
But Aung San Suu Kyi told the court: “We are dealing with an internal armed conflict, started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
“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 [in the 1990s] 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 said the principle of international law is that it should complement domestic justice. If war crimes or human rights violations had been committed, she said, they would be dealt with by Myanmar’s justice system, adding that in one case soldiers had already 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 the issue of 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 of 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”.
Christopher Staker, a London-based barrister at 39 Essex Chambers also appearing for Myanmar, alleged Gambia was not the true driving force behind the claim but the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of which Gambia is only one member.
Phoebe Okowa, 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 to return 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.”
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.