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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi addresses judges of the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 11, 2019.

Peter Dejong/The Associated Press

For more than two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi was the sharpest thorn in the side of Myanmar’s military junta. On Wednesday, she stood before the International Court of Justice as the army’s strongest defender, questioning whether a genocide had really taken place against the country’s Rohingya population.

It was just the latest twist in Ms. Suu Kyi’s long, convoluted story – one that dismayed her former supporters in the international community, even as it may bolster her and her party ahead of elections in Myanmar next year.

Opening Myanmar’s defence against accusations of genocide, the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate said the court had been given “an incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation” Tuesday, when the African country of Gambia – pointing to evidence accumulated by a 2018 United Nations fact-finding mission – asked the ICJ to intervene and order Myanmar’s military to halt its operations in the country’s western state of Rakhine.

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In professorial remarks, the Oxford University-educated 74-year-old chided outsiders for their poor understanding of her country’s politics, taking pains to avoid identifying the Rohingya as a separate ethnic group. She instead referred to the Muslim and Buddhist residents of Rakhine.

She said that, rather than a genocide, what happened in Rakhine was an “internal armed conflict” between Myanmar’s army and an insurgent force, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. She said ARSA had instigated the fighting by repeatedly attacking police and army posts in 2016 and 2017.

“Please bear in mind this complex situation and the challenge to sovereignty and security in our country when you are assessing the intent of those who attempted to deal with the rebellion,” Ms. Suu Kyi told the court. “Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.”

She said confusion had arisen from the military’s use of the phrase “clearance operation” to describe its offensive in Rakhine. In Burmese, she said, it “simply means to clear an area of insurgents or terrorists.”

Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, called Ms. Suu Kyi’s remarks to the court “a political statement."

“I think it is directed at a domestic audience. What she has agreed to do is defend the country and its institutions, including the army, in the face of criticisms from the outside,” Mr. Rae said in an interview in The Hague, where he was attending the ICJ hearings as an observer.

“She’s determined not to let a nationalist and populist wave, which has been building in Myanmar for the past couple of years, overcome her. She’s going to ride that wave. That’s a political determination on her part. The problem is that it’s at odds with the facts on the ground.”

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Mr. Suu Kyi’s version of the events is contradicted by the UN report, which saw the ARSA’s attacks as a reaction to Myanmar’s systematic and decades-long repression of the Rohingya. The UN called the events of 2016 and 2017 a “foreseeable and planned catastrophe.”

The fact-finding mission found that “the gravest crimes under international law” had been committed and called for senior members of Myanmar’s military to be tried for genocide.

The report said more than 10,000 Rohingya had been killed and that more than 700,000 had been forced to flee their homes to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Canadian lawyer William Schabas, acting as the legal counsel for Myanmar, said those figures were not high enough to prove genocidal intent.

Mr. Schabas said Myanmar had evidence that the figure of 10,000 deaths was an exaggeration and that no mass graves had been found.

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In its report, the UN called its estimate “conservative.”

The legal threshold for declaring a genocide is high. Only three have been recognized since the end of the Second World War: the killing of as many as two million people under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s; the massacre of an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994; and the murder of 8,000 men and boys by Serb forces in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995.

Ms. Suu Kyi pleaded with the ICJ to let Myanmar’s own justice system deal with any abuses that may have been committed during the military operation in Rakhine.

“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 ARSA fighters and civilians,” she said. “If war crimes have been committed by members of Myanmar’s Defence Services, they will be prosecuted through our military justice system.”

Last year, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, announced that seven soldiers involved in the September, 2017, massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour. All seven soldiers – the only military personnel known to have been punished over the 2017 operation – were granted early release after less than a year in prison.

Late last month, the Tatmadaw said it had begun a court martial of an unspecified number of soldiers over events in another village, Gu Dar Pyin, the site of a second alleged massacre of 10 Rohingya.

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On Tuesday, Gambia – which is leading the case at the ICJ on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – argued that the court needed to order what are known as “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar from the continuing risk of genocide.

Ms. Suu Kyi looked on impassively Tuesday as Gambia’s lawyers quoted from the UN’s findings of summary executions, mass rapes and the burning of hundreds of Rohingya villages. Her decision to travel to The Hague to act as Myanmar’s representative in the case was a bitter blow for some of the Rohingya refugees who fled the military offensive.

UN’S ANALYSIS OF SATELLITE IMAGERY SHOWS DESTROYED VILLAGES

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MYANMAR

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Maungdaw

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Villages destroyed on:

Aug. 25 to Oct. 11, 2017

Oct. 11 to Dec. 16

Dec. 16 to March 18

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

HIU; ASSOCIATED PRESS

UN’S ANALYSIS OF SATELLITE IMAGERY

SHOWS DESTROYED VILLAGES

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Maungdaw

Rathedaung

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Villages destroyed on:

Aug. 25 to Oct. 11, 2017

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Dec. 16 to March 18

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

HIU; ASSOCIATED PRESS

UN’S ANALYSIS OF SATELLITE IMAGERY SHOWS DESTROYED VILLAGES

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Taungpyoletwea

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RAKHINE

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Buthidaung

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Villages destroyed on:

Aug. 25 to Oct. 11, 2017

Oct. 11 to Dec. 16

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Dec. 16 to March 18

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; ASSOCIATED PRESS

Yousef Ali, a 46-year-old who said he was tortured and raped by Tatmadaw soldiers for three days in 2017 because he was suspected of providing food to ARSA fighters, said he voted for Ms. Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s 2015 election because he viewed her as someone who would stand up for the rights of the country’s minority groups.

“We thought she was good. We voted for her because she was a Nobel Peace Prize winner,” Mr. Ali said in an interview in The Hague, where he and two other Rohingya refugees travelled this week with the support of the Canadian and Dutch governments. “It’s sad for me to see her protecting the military forces.”

Ms. Suu Kyi, once hailed as a human-rights champion akin to Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, was released in 2010 from two decades of off-and-on house arrest. Since early 2016, she has served as de facto prime minister in an awkward power-sharing agreement with the military she once opposed, a partnership that gives her no role in the army’s chain of command.

Her decision to travel to The Hague may be calculated to appeal to nationalists at home ahead of next year’s election, when her party is expected to face a stiff challenge from the military-backed opposition.

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“At home, her [appearance at the ICJ] has changed the political calculus,” read an editorial this week in The Irrawaddy, an independent online news website based in Myanmar. “Her decision to walk into the line of fire has triggered a resurgence in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity.”

The ICJ is scheduled to hear closing statements from both sides Thursday. A decision on whether to order emergency “provisional measures” against Myanmar is expected to take about a month.

INCIDENTS IN RAKHINE STATE, MYANMAR DOCUMENTED BY

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

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Taung Bazar

Maung Nu

Buthidaung

Maungdaw

Gu Dar Pyin

Zay Di Pyin

Chut Pyin

Inn Din

Rathedaung

Koe Tan Koek /

Chein Kar Li

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Legend

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Site of major incident

Border Guard Police base

where torture was documented

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

HIU; AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

INCIDENTS IN RAKHINE STATE, MYANMAR

DOCUMENTED BY AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

0

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INDIA

CHINA

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MYANMAR

LAOS

RAKHINE

STATE

THAILAND

BANGLADESH

Taungpyoletwea

MYANMAR

Min Gyi

RAKHINE STATE

Taung Bazar

Maung Nu

Buthidaung

Maungdaw

Gu Dar Pyin

Zay Di Pyin

Chut Pyin

Inn Din

Rathedaung

Koe Tan Koek /

Chein Kar Li

0

15

KM

Legend

Town

Site of major incident

Border Guard Police base

where torture was documented

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

HIU; AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

INCIDENTS IN RAKHINE STATE, MYANMAR DOCUMENTED BY AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

BANGLADESH

INDIA

CHINA

Detail

MYANMAR

LAOS

Taungpyoletwea

THAILAND

RAKHINE

STATE

Min Gyi

0

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Taung Bazar

KM

Maung Nu

Buthidaung

Maungdaw

RAKHINE

STATE

Gu Dar Pyin

Zay Di Pyin

Chut Pyin

Rathedaung

Inn Din

Koe Tan Koek / Chein Kar Li

Legend

Town

Site of major incident

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15

Border Guard Police base

where torture was documented

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

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