Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi took the stand in the UN’s top court today to say there was no proof of "genocidal intent" behind her country's military campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
In a 20-minute presentation broadcast live on UN TV, she accepted that "it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by the military" but insisted that "surely under the circumstances genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis."
"Regrettably The Gambia has placed before the court a misleading and incomplete picture of the situation in Rakhine state," Suu Kyi told the court.
Questions have been raised by a number of experts as to whether Gambia might be overstepping the mark with their allegations of genocide in a conflict where clearly there have been many human rights abuses.
Myanmar State Counsellor Suu Kyi said the situation in Rakhine State was complex and that efforts were underway to investigate what happened and to also bring to book military charged with extrajudicial killings and human rights abuse.
Her key argument was that the Myanmar army was responding to an attack by hundreds of Rohingya terrorists in 2017.
"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 fighters and civilians," Suu Kyi Said.
But she said that Myanmar was undertaking its own investigations.
The State Counsellor’s argument, to be backed up by other speakers presenting the Myanmar side, is that a judicial process is already underway to assess the validity of human rights abuse that came out of the conflict in Rakhine State.
The main thrust of her argument is that the label genocide is not applicable to the conflict that she claimed was a response to deadly attacks by ARSA terrorists.
As she noted, the situation in Rakhine State is complex, and the outburst in 2016-17, are in part a legacy of British colonial rule that went back centuries.
She highlighted the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military that has had severe repercussions on civilians of all ethnicity and religion in Rakhine. This conflict in itself has displaced thousands and resulted in restrictions and a curfew.
Suu Kyi said the main clearance operations resulted from the attacks by ARSA terrorists who claimed responsibility for killing nine police and 100 civilians. She claimed the group had received training from Afghan and Pakistani militants.
She stressed the importance of not misunderstanding the term “clearance operations”, noting it was a standard term used by the Myanmar military for dealing with clearing out militants as opposed to civilians.
The Myanmar State Counsellor, speaking in her role as Myanmar’s leader and foreign minister, stressed that the correct path to take was what her government was doing in carrying out their own investigations and prosecutions, ahead of any intervention on an international level.
“As part of the overall efforts of the Myanmar government, a court martial found that 10 Muslim men had been summarily executed in In Din village, one of the 12 the locations of serious incidents referred to earlier. It sentenced four officers and three soldiers each to 10 years in prison with hard labour. After serving a part of the sentences, they were given a military pardon. Many of us in Myanmar were unhappy with this pardon,” she noted.
Other cases are undertaken without controversy, Suu Kyi said, pointing to a court martial case in Chin State where three displaced civilians had been killed. “It sentenced six soldiers each to 10 years in prison in January 2018. Relatives of the victims and local civil society representatives were invited to the proceedings. The office of the judge advocate general in Myanmar is by our standards well-resourced with more than 90 staff and a presence in all regional commands throughout the country.”
She said she was encouraged by this court martial and she expects the office to continue investigations and prosecutions based on reliable evidence.
Suu Kyi said the clearance operations tragically led to several hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims having to flee Rakhine State over the border into Bangladesh.
She said if there were war crimes committed, these should be addressed locally. The danger of pursuing the claim of genocide was that this would feed the flames of polarization and hate.
Suu Kyi mentioned a speech made by Burmese diplomat U Thant in 1974 in which he used the term “planetary citizenship”.
She said she recognized that the Myanmar government needed to get to grips with the challenges of low development and poverty in the region. She said the authorities were committed to expediting ID cards and registering all children born in Rakhine State as citizens. Efforts included scholarships for all communities and interfaith dialogue was being encouraged.
Suu Kyi said she was encouraged by the fact that three IDP camps had been closed in the state.
She questioned how there could be genocidal intent, noting the current ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military that did not involve Muslims.
Additional reporting AFP