Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi rejected allegations of genocide against Myanmar in the United Nations’s top court yesterday, despite admitting the army may have used excessive force against Rohingya Muslims.
Suu Kyi denied “misleading and incomplete” claims by The Gambia that a 2017 military operation had attempted to exterminate the Rohingya, in a rare address by a state leader to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Once hailed worldwide as a rights icon for her defiance of the same generals she is now defending, Suu Kyi also warned the Hague-based court that its involvement in the case risked “feeding the flames of extreme polarisation”.
Nearly three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after the Myanmar military launched a huge offensive that it said was in response to attacks by local militants.
“Regrettably, The Gambia has placed before the court a misleading and incomplete factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state,” said Suu Kyi, wearing traditional Burmese dress and flowers in her hair.
Brushing off international criticism, the 74-year-old civilian leader said Buddhist-majority Myanmar was dealing with an “internal armed conflict” and that troubles in the area go back centuries. “Please bear in mind this complex situation and the challenge to sovereignty and security in our country,” she said.
“Surely under the circumstances genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.” Lawyers for Myanmar argued that to prove genocide, international law required concrete proof of the intention to destroy a race of people. ICJ judges have only once before ruled that genocide was committed, in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
UN investigators last year concluded that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya amounted to genocide. The Gambia, a small West African state that is mainly Muslim, claims Myanmar breached the 1948 genocide convention and wants the court to take emergency measures to stop further violence. It has the backing of the 57-nation Organisation for Islamic Cooperation plus Canada and the Netherlands.
The case is being closely watched by the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still in Bangladesh.
“Suu Kyi was our hope. But since she came out of imprisonment, she shattered it. How does she deny Myanmar army’s atrocities?” Mohammad Yunus, Rohingya Imam at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp, told AFP after hearing Suu Kyi speak.