Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday said the genocide case against her country for its treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority is based on an "incomplete and misleading" grasp of the situation and should be rejected by the U.N.'s highest court, drawing derision from rights experts.
In a 30-minute speech on the second day of a three-day hearing at the International Court of Justice, the Nobel laureate and one-time democracy icon rejected allegations in a lawsuit brought by Gambia last month accusing Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during its 2017 expulsion of Rohingyas to Bangladesh.
"Gambia has placed an incomplete and misleading picture of the factual situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar," she said.
Defending of the actions of the Myanmar military that had kept her under house arrest for 15 years, the 74-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi said the army’s "clearance operation" in western Rakhine State launched in August 2017 was a response to Rohingya militant attacks against dozens of police stations.
The term “clearance operation” had been distorted and misunderstood to mean ethnic cleansing, while it instead means clearing the insurgents from the area, she asserted.
On Tuesday lawyers for Gambia, a mostly Muslim West African country, recounted to the panel of 17 judges at the ICJ in The Hague the indiscriminate killings, mass rapes, torture and village burnings that Myanmar military-led forces inflicted upon Rohingya communities as part of the “clearance operations” beginning in August 2017.
They cited information from the report of a U.N.-mandated fact-finding commission that concluded the attacks on the Rohingya were carried out with "genocidal intent" and warned that the estimated 600,000 Rohingya currently living in Myanmar face a “serious risk of genocide.”
Thousands of Rohingya perished as a result of the 2017 violence, and more than 740,000 others fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh where they live in massive displacement camps.
Aung San Suu Kyi, in remarks condemned as absurd by the human rights community, maintained the denial that has been Myanmar’s stock response since the exodus of the Rohingya into Bangladesh brought the forced expulsions to international attention.
"Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers that are accused of wrongdoing?" she said, referring to two cases in which Myanmar investigated atrocities by soldiers.
Myanmar has stonewalled for two years in the face of multiple U.N. reports, witness testimony and satellite imagery have underscored the brutality of the campaign.
'This is dishonest and shameful'
Last year, Myanmar's military announced it had sentenced seven soldiers involved in a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din in September 2017 to 10 years in jail. But they spent less than a year in the prison before getting early release.
“Myanmar’s justice system is dealing with abuses against the Rohingya and abusers will be held accountable. This is dishonest and shameful as she knows from painful personal experience the military has always acted with #impunity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a series of tweets during the proceedings.
“In her presentation, she never named Rohingya as victims,” Adams said of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Denying a group its identity is evidence of specific intent. This is nothing new. In 2016, she told the U.S. not to use the word,” he wrote.
Aung San Suu Kyi also highlighted government efforts to provide assistance for education for ethnic minorities in Rakhine State in what was seen as an attempt to refute the genocide allegations.
“Absurd #AungSanSuuKyi defense argument number 4: we are nice to some Muslims and even give them scholarships so how could we have committed genocide against the #Rohingya?,” tweeted Adams in response.
Myanmar lawyer William Schabas also drew fire from rights experts with his argument that the reported number of 10,000 deaths in Rakhine did not meet a threshold for genocide, seen as the whole or partial destruction of a specific ethnic group.
“Schabas argues against the allegation of #Rohingya #genocide by saying the ‘total number of victims’ was not provided by the applicant. This is extraordinary given that his client, #Myanmar, systematically prevented accurate casualty recording and denied monitors access,” tweeted Matthew Smith, chief executive of the NGO Fortify Rights.
Zin Linn, an activist from the New Society Youth Group, said Aung San Suu Kyi’s explanation did not effectively refute the accusations in Gambia’s case.
“There were many instances where ethnic minority groups in Myanmar including Rohingya Muslims have suffered atrocities which amount to genocide,” Zin Linn told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service.
“There are also incidents of burning whole villages during the clearance operations,” she said.
“She didn’t effectively explain why the military needed to commit these actions. She excused what happened as a counter-insurgency operation that caused some civilian causalities because they couldn’t distinguish between the insurgent and civilian. But this is not true,” said Zin Linn.
'Bring justice to Myanmar'
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe defended Aung San Suu Kyi’s testimony, saying that she cannot effectively prosecute offenders under a constitution that gives the military immense power.
“I think they should not pressure Myanmar for high-standard legal actions because constitutional reform in the country is still underway,” he told RFA.
Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi who rallied outside the ICJ in the Netherlands defended her performance.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was unaware of all the military operations. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is completely innocent. Now, this lawsuit is against her and the whole country. It makes us look guilty,” said Khin Maung Aye, a Myanmar Air Force veteran and activist.
“This lawsuit is intended to damage the image of Myanmar based on unfair laws and practices. This is totally unfair,” said Win Naing, an organizer for the ruling National League for Democracy.
“Since this is the critical moment, every ethnic group in the country needs to be united and protect the country,” he said.
Activists and individuals from ethnic minorities that have borne the brunt of military atrocities in Myanmar, however, supported the ICJ case against the country.
“The reason we are here is there is no justice in Myanmar. We are here to support the ICJ to bring justice to Myanmar,” said Wanna Thiri, a Karen Buddhist monk based in Norway.
“If the ICJ succeeds in ruling against Myanmar, it will be better for all ethnic groups, including Burmese, in Myanmar. That’s why we are here,” he told RFA outside the ICJ.
Gambia's request for "provisional measures" pressing Myanmar to protect the Rohingya population until the case is heard in full is the focus of this week's hearing, which on Thursday will feature arguments from both sides.
Reported by RFA, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.