Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide Accusations

After hearing a roll call of horrors inflicted on Rohingya Muslims, the Nobel laureate explains Myanmar’s case in The Hague.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now shares power with the Myanmar military that once kept her under house arrest, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Wednesday.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now shares power with the Myanmar military that once kept her under house arrest, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Wednesday.Credit...Koen Van Weel/Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau

THE HAGUE — A day after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi listened at the world’s highest court in The Hague to testimony of the horrors inflicted upon the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar — veils ripped off girls before their rapes, babies thrown to their deaths, hundreds of villages turned into kindling — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on Wednesday defended her homeland from accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice.

“Genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis,” she said in day two of public hearings, adding that her country’s own judicial system was investigating any possible crimes and would be reaching its own conclusions.

Presenting what many human rights experts have called some of the worst ethnic pogroms of this century as the result of “cycles of intercommunal violence going back to the 1940s,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi chided outsiders for not having an adequate understanding of Myanmar’s complex ethnic and social makeup.

While saying that it could “not be ruled out” that the Myanmar military may have used “disproportionate force,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi criticized “impatient international actors” and said that “it would not be helpful for the international legal order if the impression takes hold that only resource-rich countries can conduct adequate domestic investigations and prosecutions.”

The world has come to describe the forcible expulsion of more than three quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar since August 2017, which was accompanied by mass executions, arson and rape, as ethnic cleansing. United Nations officials have said the nation’s military generals should be tried for the gravest crimes against humanity.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that a fact-finding group that she had assembled had collected the most comprehensive record of witness testimony. She did not mention that her government has prevented United Nations investigators from northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the violence.

In a landmark lawsuit filed by the West African nation of Gambia on behalf of a group of Islamic countries, Myanmar stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice. Gambia’s case relies on numerous witness and human-rights expert testimony, along with reporting from a United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar.

But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the onetime opposition leader who is now the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, gave a spirited defense of the very same military brass who for years locked her up under house arrest.

The violence that began on Aug. 25, 2017, she said, was catalyzed by coordinated attacks on the police and army posts by a Rohingya Muslim militant organization and amounted to operations used to “clear a locality of insurgents and terrorists.”

“If war crimes have been committed, they will be prosecuted within our military justice system,” she said.

Over the past two years, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently declined to criticize the generals with whom she now shares power, after her party won elections in 2015. She did admit on Wednesday, however, that it could be hard for armed forces to reflect on their own failings.

On Wednesday, hours before Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi began her defense, U Myo Nyunt, the spokesman for her political party, the National League for Democracy, described the excruciating testimony presented to the court the day before as “he said, she said.”

“We have already prepared to rebut these accusations,” Mr. Myo Nyunt said. “The fact-finding mission report is from respected persons from the international community but their report is not complete because of a lack of evidence.”

Members of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office have dismissed as fake news the crimes against the Rohingya that United Nations officials say were committed with genocidal intent. Only two isolated cases have been the subject of legal inquiries within Myanmar.

Diplomats who have tried to bring up the situation in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are from, say Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi routinely cut them off. In some cases, she refused any further one-on-one meetings, two envoys said.

Bill Richardson, a former American ambassador to the United Nations who was asked by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in one of several commissions on Rakhine that she assembled, quit in disgust last year after he said she “exploded” in anger at his criticism. “She might have hit me, she was so furious,” he recalled then.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s muted response to the Rohingya’s plight has earned the condemnation of some of her fellow Nobel Peace laureates, eight of whom sent her an open letter this week accusing her of “actively denying that these atrocities even occurred” and urging that she “be held criminally accountable, along with her army commanders, for crimes committed.”

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is not a defendant at the International Court of Justice, which does not try individuals and instead settles disputes between nations over questions of international law. But her unexpected decision last month to lead Myanmar’s defense, beginning with three days of hearings this week, have placed her in the spotlight.

The great hall of the International Court of Justice, a place of chandeliers and stained glass windows, has been packed with diplomats, activists, lawyers and reporters vying for a glimpse of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. She sat impassively on Tuesday while Justice Minister Abubacarr M. Tambadou of Gambia opened his country’s case by urging the court to tell Myanmar “to stop this genocide of its own people.”

“It is indeed sad for our generation that 75 years after humankind committed itself to the words ‘never again,’ another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes,” he said. “Yet we do nothing to stop it.”

Paul Reichler, an American who is the lead lawyer for Gambia’s legal team, addressed the question of whether Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi bore personal responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Rohingya. Her supporters say she is constrained by the military’s continuing grip on some of the most important levers of power in Myanmar.

But Mr. Reichler showed the court a picture of large billboards that have appeared in Myanmar in recent days, showing her superimposed in front of three smiling generals with the caption: “We stand with you.”

Mr. Myo Nyunt, the National League for Democracy spokesman, said that the billboards did not mean Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the military were united.

“It just means they are in the same cabinet,” he said. “This case is very delicate and we need to handle the problem gently.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is facing elections next year, which many believe was one motivation for her to personally lobby the international court.

“Unfortunately she has totally taken sides, and she is now whipping up nationalism simply to become more popular,” said U Maung Tun Khin, a Rohingya who traveled to The Hague from London to witness the hearings.

Ma Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a youth activist in Myanmar, said the International Court of Justice case had allowed the National League for Democracy to rally support at time when ethnic strife and a struggling economy have dented support for the ruling party.

“We can see that the divided political forces inside Myanmar have united to face a lawsuit from a foreign country that is seen as a common enemy,” Ms. Thinzar Shunlei Yi said.

People in Myanmar, she added, were not willing to “trade the reputation of their leader for the sake of minorities, especially the Rohingya.”

Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted for decades in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, gradually losing rights to education, health care and even citizenship. Half a million Rohingya still live in Rakhine, but they have been herded into internment camps or prevented from leaving their villages, even to farm or collect firewood.

About a million more have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are crowded into the world’s largest refugee camp.

The three days of hearings this week are for Gambia to ask the court to issue a temporary injunction ordering Myanmar to protect those Rohingya who remain in the country. A United Nations rapporteur recently warned that “crimes with genocidal intent” were continuing and intensifying in Rakhine.

Gambia, a small Muslim-majority country, accuses Myanmar of violating the Genocide Convention, which both Gambia and Myanmar have signed. Another case is working its way through another United Nations court, but that effort is hampered by the fact that Myanmar is not party to that court’s convention.

Abdul Malik Mujahid, the American chair of a rights coalition called Burma Task Force U.S.A., traveled to The Hague from Chicago. (Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.) Mr. Mujahid, who is also an imam, said he believed that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence at the court would backfire by giving renewed exposure to the continuing plight of the Rohingya.

“I’m sure she is doing a disservice to her government and her cause by showing up,” he said. “The world will pay attention to her, and also to the facts in a legal case that might otherwise get little attention. She is providing infamous star power to the case.”

Marlise Simons reported from The Hague, and Hannah Beech from Bangkok. Saw Nang contributed reporting from Mandalay, Myanmar.