On Tuesday 10th December 2019, the embodiment of pacifist opposition to military dictatorship, placed under house arrest for almost fifteen years, came to defend Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, the country having been accused of conducting a “genocide” against the Rohingyas.
720,000. This is this number of Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh from the Rakhine State in Myanmar since 25th August 2017. Conversely to other conflicts in the world, the Rohingya crisis rapidly engendered international reaction and an intense media coverage. Although the confrontations between the Muslim minority and Buddhist majority in Myanmar date back centuries, it was the creation of Rohingya militia armies, as a reaction to the persecutions they were suffering, which alerted the international community. Following the visit of the United Nations Security Council to Myanmar and Bangladesh between 28th April and 1st May 2018, an agreement was settled on 6th June between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Development Programme. The Human Rights Council described the actions of the Burmese army as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide (in their report of 27th August 2018), thus placing it under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Fatou Bensouda, Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations of deportation on 18th September 2018. However, it was before the International Court of Justice (the court which judges disagreements between states) that the State Counsellor of Myanmar (and de facto Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi came to defend her country. This was following the action of Gambia, mandated by the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, against Myanmar for “acts of genocide”. Myanmar did not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, but it was the presence of Burmese Rohingyas in Bangladesh, who did recognise the Court’s judgment, which allowed a procedure against the government of Myanmar to be launched. It must be noted that Myanmar is in a complex political situation. Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the legislative elections of 2015, the country is still in a state of political transition, as elected political representatives and members of the military junta continue to coexist.
However, it is from a common understanding that Myanmar defends itself in the face of accusations of genocide towards the Rohingyas.
The evocation of a “complex” historical context
One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s angles of defence before the International Court of Justice was to highlight the historic and territorial complexity which compounds a confrontation on religious grounds.
On the one hand, the Rohingyas are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, of Muslim conviction, living in a geographical area where the historic and present-day majority are Buddhist. The Rohingyas are a stateless minority; namely, they are not recognised either by Myanmar or any neighbouring country as members of their population (this is why some analysts note that Aung San Suu Kyi did not mention the term “Rohingyas” as a recognised Burmese minority because they have had no civic or political rights since the 1970s). This stateless status of the Rohingyas has its beginnings in the years of colonial rule in Burma (Myanmar). In fact, during the period of British rule in Burma (1824-1948), the Rohingyas, already involved in conflicts with the Buddhist population, allied themselves on several occasions with the British colonists against the Burmese separatists. They country gained its independence and left the Commonwealth on 4th January 1948, thanks to the work of Aung San, father of the current Burmese leader, up until his assassination in 1947. The period which followed, and which continues today, is particularly difficult for the Rohingyas, being viewed as traitors by both those in power and the general population of Myanmar, due to their Muslim beliefs. This brought about several waves of migration of the Rohingyas principally towards Bangladesh; the most recent of these has been going on since August 2016.
On the other hand, territorial conflicts (also linked to the country’s complex history, and relied upon by Aung San Suu Kyi to defend her government) impact the humanitarian crisis linked to the forced exodus of Rohingyas towards Bangladesh. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi emphasised that in the region where the most of the Muslim minority lives, Rakhine State, is where the organisation of rebel militias composed of Rohingyas takes place, and said that such action threatens the unity of the country and the stability of the region, which was annexed to Myanmar in 1785.
Aung San Suu Kyi rejects the accusation of genocide
Aung San Suu Kyi counter-attacked the principal judicial body of the UN with reference to the accusations of genocide presented by The Gambia. These accusations were based on several testimonies which mention rape, acts of torture and even mass graves, but Aung San Suu Kyi argued that The Gambia put forward a situation which did not align with reality. Although rejecting the label of genocide, as defined in Article 6 of the Rome Statute as acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or. religious group’, she recognised in her defence speech that certain authorities of the Burmese army may have committed war crimes; namely, the violation of customs and laws relating to war. She said also that she believed that her country has the necessary resources to resolve the Rohingya crisis before the country’s national courts, saying that the International Court of Justice was not the appropriate body to take on this task. Nevertheless, we must wait for the outcome of the investigation, authorised by the International Criminal Court judges the month before, into the presumed crimes against the Rohingyas.
Translated by Jenny Frost