THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice on Tuesday to defend her country over charges of genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority, as back home thousands of people rallied in her support.
Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou and Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi attend a hearing in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Gambia launched the proceedings against Buddhist-majority Myanmar in November, accusing it of violating its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.
“All that The Gambia asks is that you tell Myanmar to stop these senseless killings,” Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said in opening comments.
“To stop these acts of barbarity and brutality that have shocked and continue to shock our collective conscience. To stop this genocide of its own people.”
During three days of court proceedings Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, is expected to repeat denials of genocide and argue that military operations in question were a legitimate counterterrorism response to attacks by Rohingya militants.
Suu Kyi arrived in a motorcade at the ornate Peace Palace in The Hague and ignored questions shouted out to her by waiting reporters. She sat expressionless in the courtroom as the Gambian team detailed alleged atrocities in Myanmar.
Outside the court, dozens of Rohingya demonstrated to demand justice for victims, while in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, thousands of people rallied in support of Suu Kyi, waving national flags as they chanted: “To protect the country’s dignity, stand with Mother Suu.”
“It’s like Mother Suu went to the frontlines for our country,” said 58-year-old Myint Myint Thwin. “Therefore to show our support and that we stand with her we joined this march.”
This week’s proceedings before a panel of 17 judges will not deal with the core allegation of genocide, but Gambia has requested a court order for Myanmar to halt any activity that may aggravate the dispute.
DISPUTE BETWEEN STATES
Gambia, a tiny, Muslim West African country, is arguing that Myanmar’s forces carried out widespread and systematic atrocities during what it called “clearance operations” from August 2017 that constituted genocide.
“This is very much a dispute between The Gambia and Myanmar,” Tambadou said. “We seek to protect not only the rights of the Rohingya, but our own rights as a state party to the Genocide Convention, by holding Myanmar to its … obligations not to commit genocide, not to incite genocide, and to prevent and punish genocide.”
The tribunal has no enforcement powers, but its rulings are final and have significant legal weight.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after the military-led crackdown and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh.
Hasina Begum, 22, said she was among many women raped by Myanmar soldiers who also burned down her village.
“They have done these things to me, to my relatives and my friends. I can tell them face-to-face, looking them in the eyes, because I am not lying,” she told Reuters before the hearings started.
In the Bangladeshi refugee camps on Tuesday, hundreds gathered on a hilltop and chanted, “Gambia! Gambia!”, pumping their fists. Some offered special prayers at mosques in the camps and many others were fasting.
“Our people were killed, our children were thrown into fire, our women were raped, our houses were burnt down. All we want is a fair trial,” said Nurul Amin, 30.
United Nations investigators have said Myanmar’s military campaign was executed with “genocidal intent”.
Myanmar has previously denied almost all allegations made by refugees against its troops, including of mass rape, killings and arson, and promised to punish any soldiers involved in what it says were isolated cases of wrongdoing.
Reporting Toby Sterling, Shoon Naing; Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Ruma Paul in Cox’s Bazar and Sam Aung Moon in Yangon; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson