A flurry of emotions hit Hamida Khatun as she sat in the International Court of Justice Tuesday, listening as lawyers laid out the gruesome details of the alleged genocide that took the lives of her mother and, she believes, her husband.
There was the sadness of reliving what Myanmar’s military did to the country’s Rohingya population – and anger for the perpetrators. But there was also deep disappointment at the sight of Aung San Suu Kyi – the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar’s de facto prime minister – sitting silently in the courtroom as the ICJ was told of summary executions, mass rapes and the burning of Rohingya villages carried out by the country’s army, the Tatmadaw.
Ms. Khatun, like many Rohingya, voted for Ms. Suu Kyi in 2015, when the country held its first free election after decades of military rule. Ms. Suu Kyi, she believed at the time, would stand up to the military and protect the rights of all Myanmar’s citizens, including the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority. But the expectation is that the erstwhile champion of democracy, who is in The Hague to represent her country before the ICJ, will instead defend the actions of the Tatmadaw when she addresses the court on Wednesday.
“I feel very sad to see Aung San Suu Kyi here. She is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but she is here as a shield for our military, which committed genocidal acts against us,” said the 50-year-old Ms. Khatun, whose mother was shot and killed during the Tatmadaw’s summer, 2017, operation against the Rohingya. Her husband was arrested and never heard from again. She says she believes he died in detention.
Ms. Khatun was one of three Rohingya refugees who travelled from the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh to sit in court as witnesses on Tuesday during the opening day of a remarkable case before the ICJ. (Canada and the Netherlands shared the refugees’ travel costs. Canada stripped Ms. Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship last year over her failure to defend the Rohingya.)
The tiny African country of Gambia has accused Myanmar of violating the Convention on Genocide, a document to which both countries are signatories, and is asking the ICJ to intervene to prevent further atrocities.
“Every day of inaction means that more people have been killed, more women have been ravaged and more children have been burned alive,” Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said in his opening statement.
Ms. Suu Kyi sat stoically in the front row and said nothing during the 3½-hour hearing.
She is not a defendant at the ICJ, which only hears disputes between countries. A separate investigation into the allegations of genocide has been opened by the International Criminal Court, which is also based in The Hague.
A surprise participant in the proceedings, Ms. Suu Kyi will get her chance to reply on Wednesday, when she is expected to repeat her previous statements that the accounts of genocide are exaggerated and argue that the actions of the Tatmadaw were a justifiable response to attacks by insurgents on police checkpoints in August, 2017.
The ICJ’s 17-judge panel will hear closing statements from both sides on Thursday.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s denials are at odds with the findings of a 2018 United Nations fact-finding mission that determined a genocide had been committed against the country’s Rohingya population. At least 10,000 people were killed, and 700,000 others were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University who is serving as the counsel to Gambia in the case, laid out the scope of the alleged genocide in grim detail while quoting from the UN report.
“Everyone was a target and no one was spared: mothers, infants, pregnant women, the old and the infirm all fell victim to the ruthless campaign,” Mr. Akhavan said, before reading out testimonies of witnesses and survivors recounting systematic gang rapes, the burning of villages and the murder of children.
He told the court that at least 392 Rohingya villages in Rakhine State had been destroyed by the Tatmadaw.
Mr. Akhavan, who has served on tribunals investigating genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, told the court that the ICJ needs to intervene in order to protect the Rohingya still living in the country.
“Not all Rohingya villages have been destroyed – at least not yet. Some 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar. They are in urgent need of protection,” he said.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s justifications of the Tatmadaw’s assault on the Rohingya has destroyed her once-unassailable credibility. She spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing military rule in her country, but has shared power with the army since early 2016, before the alleged genocide began. Although she has no formal role in the chain of command, she has been accused of helping to whitewash the military’s actions through her public statements. She has also avoided acknowledging the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar.
She arrived at and left the ICJ in a motorcade that passed a crowd of several hundred pro-Rohingya activists outside the court who shouted, “Shame! Shame!” as she passed.
Her decision to travel to The Hague is popular at home, however, and she may have her eyes on the country’s 2020 election. Thousands of people rallied in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, on Tuesday, waving national flags as they chanted: “To protect the country’s dignity, stand with Mother Suu."
A group of two dozen of Ms. Suu Kyi’s supporters gathered in The Hague, across the street from the pro-Rohingya protesters. “We are not here to discuss this matter [the genocide], we are just here to show support for her,” said Aung Tin Thein, a 64-year-old English teacher from Yangon identified by the other pro-Suu Kyi demonstrators as their “leader.” He said he’d spent $2,200 of his own money to travel to the Netherlands.
In court, Mr. Akhavan named Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing – viewed as a likely rival to Ms. Suu Kyi in the 2020 election – as someone who should be “investigated and prosecuted” over the alleged genocide. On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions targeting Min Aung Hlaing and three other top Tatmadaw generals for their roles in “serious human rights abuse” committed against the Rohingya.
Mr. Akhavan hinted that Ms. Suu Kyi may also be among those culpable for what happened in Rakhine State. He told the court that a government agency headed by Ms. Suu Kyi – the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance in Rakhine State – was found by the UN to have been responsible for the “large-scale confiscation of Rohingya land” and “the bulldozing of burned Rohingya villages.” The latter act, he said, likely destroyed important evidence.
“Its chairperson is Myanmar’s agent in this case,” Mr. Akhavan said, turning his head to look in the direction of Ms. Suu Kyi.
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