“Rohingya civilians.” That’s the phrase conspicuously absent from Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s 3,500-word statement to the International Court of Justice on Wednesday. The omission is no accident.
Suu Kyi’s highly anticipated ICJ appearance was to answer to The Gambia’s official complaint of Myanmar’s violations of the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention, linked to the extreme military abuses against Muslim Rohingya civilians. Yet her judicial defense strategy studiously avoided any mention of civilian suffering.
Instead, Suu Kyi – the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate – peddled the Myanmar military‘s long-discredited narrative that its activities in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 constituted legitimate “clearance operations” in response to attacks on police posts, allegedly perpetrated by an insurgent group. According to Suu Kyi, what transpired was merely “an internal armed conflict started by coordinated and comprehensive attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, to which Myanmar’s Defense Services responded.”
Unfortunately for Suu Kyi, that narrative is at odds with voluminous evidence compiled by the United Nations’ Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and other rights monitors. That documentation demonstrates a vicious, widespread, and systematic targeting of Rohingya civilians by security forces in a weeks-long violence spree that began on August 25, 2017. That’s when security forces attacked hundreds of Rohingya villages, massacring thousands of their residents, gang-raping thousands more, and burning their homes to the ground.
As of January this year, the violence and ongoing abuses had killed at least 10,000 Rohingya civilians and prompted about 740,000 others to flee for their lives to Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain. Some 600,000 Rohingya civilians still in Rakhine state remain at risk of further genocidal acts, according to the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission.
Suu Kyi’s claims of judicious and lawful use of force by the Myanmar military flies in the face of compelling evidence of egregious brutality inflicted on Rohingya civilians. The results of a quantitative survey conducted by PHR of 605 surviving Rohingya community leaders in Bangladesh published in March paints a grim picture of the terror inflicted by Myanmar security forces. Most respondents identified the military and the official Border Guard Police as the security forces who deployed “military assets, including helicopters, military trucks, and tanks” against defenseless Rohingya men, women and children in August 2017.
But Suu Kyi made clear that she was not in The Hague to focus on facts.
Instead, she contended that the Myanmar military had strenuously sought to “minimize the risk of collateral damage” in their operations. Even worse, she sought to malign the integrity of The Gambia by asserting that its ICJ genocide complaint constituted “an incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation in Rakhine state.” Suu Kyi salted this slight by suggesting that foreign states were incapable of informed and balanced assessments of these atrocities because “the situation in Rakhine is complex and not easy to fathom.”
What Suu Kyi failed to mention is that her government has consistently blocked outside scrutiny of the 2017 bloodshed by prohibiting international organizations seeking to investigate the slaughter from accessing the area
What Suu Kyi failed to mention is that her government has consistently blocked outside scrutiny of the 2017 bloodshed by prohibiting international organizations seeking to investigate the slaughter from accessing the area. The government has also blocked the United Nations Special Rapporteur to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, tasked with assessing the human-rights situation in the country, from undertaking a credible investigation into the violence. In 2017, the government placed restrictions on an official fact-finding mission led by Lee that she described as an “affront to the independence of my mandate.” That December, the government announced it was denying her access to the country.
Instead, Suu Kyi sought to assure the judges in The Hague that her government and the Myanmar military are best placed to ensure accountability for the violence of late 2017 in northern Rakhine. Specifically, she touted the capacity of Myanmar’s very own so-called Independent Commission of Inquiry to ensure justice is done. She neglected to mention that the ICOI discredited itself as a state whitewash operation when it reported in December that it “had found no evidence so far to prove the widespread allegations that government security forces committed mass human-rights abuses.”
Suu Kyi’s patent falsehoods and doublespeak would be laughable if the stakes were not so high. Without meaningful accountability for the crimes of 2017, there is no possibility of a safe, voluntary, and dignified return of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge in Bangladesh.
Those Rohingya won’t return to Myanmar while their military victimizers roam free with the explicit approval of a government that refuses to utter the word “Rohingya” and continues to justify their mass extermination as a reasonable response to “terrorist activities.”
Suu Kyi’s shameful performance in The Hague makes clear that she and “her father’s army” are resolutely unwilling to impose accountability on themselves. That failure only reinforces The Gambia’s case at the ICJ that Myanmar’s crimes against the Rohingya require a substantive international judicial response to ensure accountability for past atrocities and to help deter future abuses.