Burma’s former pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi has denied that her country’s armed forces committed genocide against the Rohingya minority, telling the UN’s top court that the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Muslims was the result of a battle with insurgents.
Suu Kyi calmly refuted allegations that the army had killed civilians, raped women and torched houses in 2017 in what Burma’s accusers describe as a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide that saw more than 700,000 Rohingya flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
She said the allegations stem from “an internal armed conflict started by co-ordinated and comprehensive armed attacks… to which Myanmar’s (Burma’s) defence services responded. Tragically, this armed conflict led to the exodus of several hundred thousand Muslims.”
She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia for championing democracy and rights under Burma’s then-ruling junta.
Suu Kyi told the court that the African nation of Gambia, which brought the legal action against Burma on behalf of the 57-country Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, had provided “an incomplete and misleading factual picture” of what happened in Burma’s northern Rakhine state in August 2017.
Gambia alleges that genocide was committed and is continuing. It has asked the world court to take action to stop the violence, including “all measures within its power to prevent all acts that amount to or contribute to the crime of genocide”.
But Suu Kyi said developments in one of Burma’s poorest regions are “complex and not easy to fathom”. She detailed how the army responded on August 25 2017 to attacks by insurgents trained by Afghan and Pakistan extremists.
While conceding that excessive force might have been used and that one helicopter may have killed “non-combatants”, Suu Kyi said a domestic investigation is looking into what happened and should be allowed to finish its work.
“Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers who are accused of wrongdoing?” she asked the court.
Rohingya representatives and rights groups condemned the evidence from Suu Kyi and Burma’s legal team.
“The world will judge their claim of no genocide with evidence,” said Mohammed Mohibullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. “A thief never admits he is a thief, but justice can be delivered through evidence.”
George Graham, humanitarian advocacy director at Save the Children, said Suu Kyi’s remarks “fly in the face of all the evidence gathered by the UN and the testimony our own teams have heard from countless survivors”.
“Rohingya families have faced patterns of unimaginable horrors in a campaign of violence. Children and their parents have been systematically killed, maimed and raped,” he said, adding: “The government of Myanmar has failed at every turn to punish those responsible.”
Suu Kyi and her legal team argued that the genocide convention does not apply to Burma. They invoked Croatia during the Balkans wars in the 1990s, saying that no genocide was deemed there when thousands of people were forced from their homes by fighting.
On Tuesday, justice minister Aboubacarr Tambadou urged the International Court of Justice to “tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings, to stop these acts of barbarity that continue to shock our collective conscience, to stop this genocide of its own people”.
The hearing is scheduled to end on Thursday.