Pro-Myanmar protesters gathered outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague last week as their country’s leader faced charges of genocide. Many carried placards that read, “We stand with you,” but a smaller group of counterprotesters stood outside the court shouting, “Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you!”
Back in 1991, Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize after spending 15 years under house arrest for opposing the military junta in the country also known as Burma. Humanitarians around the world admired her for continuing to oppose Myanmar’s military dictatorship in the face of imprisonment and an assassination attempt. But today, as Myanmar’s leader, she faces international criticism for her silence on the military’s 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority group. Suu Kyi attended three days of hearings at The Hague over allegations that the crackdown constituted genocide.
The court has yet to issue its decision, but Suu Kyi’s testimony angered many who suffered during the conflict. A group of fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, many of whom pushed for her release from prison, released a joint statement Wednesday expressing disappointment in her support of Myanmar’s military crackdown.
Suu Kyi described the violence as an internal armed conflict and said the military was only responding to a “rebellion.” She admitted the military might have used disproportionate force in some instances but denied it amounted to genocide.
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims have faced repeated persecution in Myanmar, while the country refused to grant them citizenship. In August 2017, Myanmar’s security forces launched clearance operations against the Rohingya after militants from the ethnic minority targeted security posts in Rakhine state. The military killed more than 6,000 people, while more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Human rights groups accused the military of rape, murder, and burning entire villages.
Gambia, a small West African nation, brought the accusations against Myanmar to the UN court with backing from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Gambian Attorney General and Justice Minister Abubacarr Marie Tambadou warned in his opening statement that a genocide is unfolding in the country. “It does not suddenly spring up or appear overnight out of the blue,” he said. “It is preceded by a history of suspicion, mistrust, and hateful propaganda that dehumanizes the other and then crystallizes into a frenzy of mass violence.” Gambia accused the Myanmar military of violating the 1978 Genocide Convention and called for “protective measures” to help prevent further killings in the country.
Inside the court, several persecuted Rohingya sat in silence. Yousuf Ali, who fled his home in Nayain Chaung with his six children, arrived at the court with personal documents and photographs documenting the crackdown. “There should be equal rights for all the groups in the country,” he told The Guardian. “It was very difficult to remain silent in court.”
On Dec. 10—Human Rights Day—the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Myanmar’s military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, along with three other senior commanders deployed in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi said Gambia’s allegations presented “an incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar.” She argued that the government has already tried several soldiers for violent behavior. But in May 2018, authorities released seven soldiers who were sentenced to 10 years for killings in a Rakhine village less than a year into their sentence.
Back home, Suu Kyi’s decision to go to The Hague to represent the country drew praise from locals. Ahead of her departure, thousands of supporters rallied in the capital of Naypyidaw, and senior officials held a prayer ceremony for her at the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral in the former capital of Yangon. Several counterdemonstrations took place in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The judges said they would deliver their decision soon, but Suu Kyi’s testimony left many Rohingya hoping for justice. “A thief never admits he is a thief, but justice can be delivered through evidence,” said Mohammed Mohibullah, Rohingya leader and chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. “The world has obtained evidence from us.”