Her face once inspired hope in the downtrodden – but as Aung San Suu Kyi’s drawn features appeared on screen, the refugee camp erupted in fury. “Liar! Liar! Shame!” rose up the cries from the squalid, Bangladeshi settlement. Half a world away, the protesters’ compatriots—assembled outside the UN’s highest court in the Hague—echoed the message with vigor.
Suu Kyi: What Genocide?
Myanmar’s leader won’t have heard them, nor the hundreds of her supporters also on the street. With laser-like focus, the one-time champion of democracy systematically denied charges of genocide against the Rohingya people being brought against her nation in the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ). Myanmar’s bloody suppression of its Muslim minority was an internal security matter, she maintained—but few, it seems, are convinced.
Background On Myanmar’s Campaign Against The Rohingya
It was, in 2017, the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Upwards of 700,000 people forced from their homes amid a military campaign of systemic destruction and murder. Most ended up in neighboring Bangladesh’s engorged and under-resourced refugee camps. It was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the UN later concluded—one that had occurred on Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch. Horrified by the apparent act of genocide, which is said to be unfolding still, Gambia has brought World Court charges against the southeast Asian state.
Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Army’s Actions: Lawful Counter-Terror Operation
Electing to represent her nation in person, Suu Kyi is the first national leader to answer a charge of genocide while the crime is allegedly ongoing. Her defence has been unwavering. Yes, hundreds of villages have been destroyed, and yes, disproportionate force may at times have been used, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate conceded, but Suu Kyi has maintained throughout the proceedings that the army’s operation was a lawful counter-terror operation.
Regarding the allegations of systematic sexual violence and rape as a tactic of war, detailed in three agonizing hours of witness testimony, Suu Kyi remained silent. Instead, she used her time to attack the ICJ’s supposed overreach, assailing its judges for meddling in what she claimed is an internal security affair.
Reaction To Suu Kyi’s Defense Against The Charges
Suu Kyi’s spirited defense of the military was well received back home; but for the opposing side, it’s a desperate race against time. Gambia’s legal team are not at this stage seeking official recognition of the genocide, but rather the imposition of “provisional measures” to protect Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya community.
Roughly half a million Rohingya individuals still reside in the country’s westerly Rakhine State. Where once their ancestral villages stood, the court heard that new security bases and government offices have been built. It is a cynical effort to destroy evidence of mass murder, said the Gambian lawyers, who worry the military’s genocidal intentions may actually have strengthened in recent months.
Suu Kyi disputes this charge, claiming that Myanmar’s generals remain firmly under her control. Her government “actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers that are accused of wrongdoing,” she told the court, pointing to the conviction of seven servicemen in 2017. The group had massacred ten Rohingya villagers, a crime exposed by two Reuters reporters. For their reporting of the killing, the journalists languished in jail for more than 16 months, significantly longer than the murderous soldiers, who were released only one year into their 10-year sentences. The affair is indicative of Myanmar’s inability to self-police, critics argue.
“Aung San Suu Kyi says Myanmar is investigating its own crimes… Once atrocities are systematically committed as policy, you lose the credibility to investigate them yourself,” said Mark Kersten of the Wayamo Foundation, an international justice group. “We’d never accept the Nazis investigating the Holocaust, or Milosevic’s Serbs investigating Srebrenica.”
Proving Genocide And Holding Myanmar Responsible
In the cases of the Holocaust and other horrors, genocide’s high benchmark—acting with the “intent to destroy in whole or in part” a community—was proven. With the weight of evidence at their disposal, Gambia’s legal team will be hopeful of a similar verdict against Myanmar. But even if Myanmar is eventually found guilty, the ICJ has no way of enforcing its decisions. Neither the country’s civilian leader nor its military commanders would necessarily be arrested or put on trial.
Foreign sanctions would, however, be a likely consequence—as would severe reputational damage. However, for those suffering in ramshackle Bangladeshi camps or encircled Rakhine homesteads, that means very little. Myanmar’s much-feted leader must be made to call off the dogs, critics say. But whether she will—or even can—is far from clear.