Three days of hearings in the case brought by the Gambia against Myanmar ended today. The “troubles of Rakhine State and its population, whatever their background, go back into past centuries and have been particularly severe over the last few years,” said Aung San Suu Kyi. For her, “Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes?”
The Hague (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected accusations that Myanmar authorities are responsible for genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. For Myanmar’s State Councillor, Gambia’s argument before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is "incomplete and incorrect".
The three-day hearing (10-12 December) began with the African country presenting the case on behalf of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Ms Aung San Suu Kyi laid out her case for Myanmar, stressing that the situation in “Rakhine state was ‘complex and not easy to fathom”.
In a speech that lasted about 25 minutes, Myanmar’s State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs explained to the Court the historical context of the "Rohingya crisis", the subject of the court case.
In her view, " the troubles of Rakhine State and its population, whatever their background, go back into past centuries and have been particularly severe over the last few years.”
The pro-democracy leader laid out the main points of what she described as an "internal armed conflict" between government troops and the predominantly Islamic Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
“[O]n October 9, 2016, approximately 400 fighters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – known as ARSA – launched simultaneous attacks on three police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine, near the border with Bangladesh. [. . .] This was the start”.
In the offensive nine policemen lost their lives and a hundred civilians died or went missing. In the following months, “ARSA grew in strength” and “resorted to threats and intimidation against local villagers in order to gain support and allegiance, executing suspected informers".
On the morning of 25 August, several thousand Islamic rebels launched new coordinated attacks against more than 30 police outposts and villages, and an army base.
“Many of the ARSA fighters had been recruited from local villages in the weeks and months preceding the attack,” Aung San Suu Kyi said.
“Myanmar’s Defence Services responded to the attacks of ARSA fighters by the use of ground forces. There were armed incidents in more than 60 locations. The main clashes occurred in 12 places.”
“It is still not easy to establish clear patterns of events in these 12 locations. Many ARSA fighters died. There may have been several hundred casualties in some of the 12 locations. There was some inter-communal violence. Buddhist and Hindu minority communities also feared for their security after the original ARSA attacks and many fled from their homes.”
Eventually, more than 700,000 Rohingyas fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in late 2017, after government security forces launched a ruthless offensive. UN investigators said the operations had "genocidal intent".
Both the Myanmar government and military have denied the accusation. However, Suu Kyi noted that “it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the Defence Services in some cases in disregard of international humanitarian law, or that they did not distinguish clearly enough between ARSA fighters and civilians.”
But, the Councillor of State then added: “Please bear in mind this complex situation and the challenge to sovereignty and security in our country when you are assessing the intent of those who attempted to deal with the rebellion. Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.”
The Myanmar leader also insisted that if members of the Myanmar military committed war crimes, they will be prosecuted in Myanmar courts. She explained that that international law gives international tribunals the power to intervene only when a country fails to prosecute such crimes itself.
At present, the independent Commission of Enquiry of Myanmar is finalising its report on its Rakhine investigation and the Myanmar military is holding a court martial for members who failed to respect its rules of engagement.
Aung San Suu Kyi did acknowledge that forgiving the killers of ten Muslim men in the village of Inn Din was not right. “After serving a part of their sentences,” she said, “they were given a military pardon. Many of us in Myanmar were unhappy with this pardon.”
This said, she asked: “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?
“Although the focus here is on members of the military, I can assure you that appropriate action will also be taken against civilian offenders, in line with due process. There will be no tolerance of human rights violations in the Rakhine, or elsewhere in Myanmar.”
The pro-democracy leader reassured the Court that her country is committed to the safe repatriation of people displaced from Rakhine.
At the end of her address, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Rakhine today suffers an internal armed conflict between the Buddhist Arakan Army and Myanmar’s Defence Services.
“Muslims are not a party to this conflict, but may, like other civilians in the conflict area, be affected by security measures that are in place. We pray the Court to refrain from taking any action that might aggravate the ongoing armed conflict and peace and security in Rakhine.”
In early 2017, Myanmar’s Rohingya numbered a million, mostly in Rakhine State. However, for the predominantly Buddhist country, Rohingya are illegal immigrants and have been denied citizenship.
For years, the community has complained of systematic persecution. According to the Gambia, the actions by the Myanmar military were "intended to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part,” via mass murders, rape and setting fire to their buildings "often with inhabitants locked inside”.
As of 30 September 2019, some 915,000 Rohingya refugees lived in camps in Bangladesh. Nearly 80 per cent arrived between August and December 2017. Back in March, Bangladesh said that it would no longer accept more refugees.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have set up a voluntary repatriation programme, but so far, no Rohingya have taken up the offer.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh plans to transfer 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a small island in the Bay of Bengal, but humanitarian agencies and human rights groups oppose the idea.