The Gambia condemned Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘silence’ over the plight of Rohingya Muslims on Thursday after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate defended Myanmar against genocide charges at the UN’s top court.
Lawyers for the mostly Muslim African country said her arguments that Myanmar’s 2017 military crackdown was a ‘clearance operation’ targeting militants ignored widespread allegations of mass murder, rape and forced deportation.
‘Madame agent, your silence said far more than your words,’ The Gambia’s lawyer Philippe Sands told the International Court of Justice, referring to Suu Kyi, who is officially acting as Myanmar’s agent in the case.
‘The word ‘rape’ did not once pass the lips of the agent,’ Sands added, as Suu Kyi sat impassively in the courtroom, wearing traditional Burmese dress and flowers in her hair.
The Gambia has taken majority-Buddhist Myanmar to the court in The Hague, accusing it of breaching the 1948 UN Genocide convention and seeking emergency measures to protect the Rohingya.
Once regarded as an international rights icon for standing up to Myanmar’s brutal junta, Suu Kyi has seen her reputation tarnished by her decision to side with the military over the Rohingya crisis.
She used a dramatic appearance at the ICJ on Wednesday to say there was no ‘genocidal intent’ behind the operation that led to some 740,000 Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi defended Myanmar’s actions saying it faced an ‘internal conflict’ and that the military conducted ‘clearance operations’ after an attack by Rohingya militants in August 2017.
But Paul Reichler, another of The Gambia’s lawyers, said that those killed included ‘infants beaten to death or torn from their mothers’ arms and thrown into rivers to drown. How many of them were terrorists?
‘Armed conflict can never be an excuse for genocide,’ he said.
The lawyer said Suu Kyi had also failed to deny the conclusions of a 2018 UN investigation that found that genocide had been committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya.
‘What is most striking is what Myanmar has not denied,’ Reichler said.
He also dismissed Suu Kyi’s insistence that Myanmar’s military should be left to probe the allegations itself, saying it was not credible when its own top generals have themselves been accused of genocide.
‘How could anyone expect the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) to investigate when six of its top generals, including Min Aung Hlaing, have all been accused of genocide by the UN fact-finding mission?’ he asked.
The US on Tuesday slapped fresh sanctions including a travel ban on military chief Min Aung Hlaing over the Rohingya crisis.
The lawyer added that Suu Kyi in her speech to the court had also followed Myanmar’s ‘racist’ policy of refusing to refer to the Rohingya Muslim minority by their name.
Gambian justice minister Abubacarr Tambadou pushed the court to impose the emergency measures, saying there was a ‘serious and imminent risk of genocide recurring’ and that ‘the lives of these human beings are at risk.’
A decision on the measures could take months, while a final ruling if the ICJ decides to take on the full case could take years.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from South Asia