Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi denied Wednesday that Myanmar's armed forces committed genocide, telling the United Nation's top court that the mass exodus of Rohingya people from the country she leads was the unfortunate result of a battle with insurgents.
The image of the former pro-democracy icon appearing before the International Court of Justice to defend the army that kept her under house arrest for 15 years was striking. Suu Kyi, who as Myanmar's state counselor holds an office similar to prime minister, was awarded the 1991 peace prize in absentia for championing democracy and rights under the nation's then-ruling junta.
Myanmar's accusers have described a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.
Addressing the world court in The Hague in her additional role as Myanmar's foreign minister, Suu Kyi calmly refuted allegations that army personnel killed civilians, raped women and torched houses in 2017.
She said the allegations stemmed from "an internal armed conflict started by coordinated and comprehensive armed attacks ... to which Myanmar's defense services responded. Tragically, this armed conflict led to the exodus of several hundred thousand Muslims."
Rohingya representatives and rights group said they were appalled by Suu Kyi's testimony.
"The world will judge their claim of no genocide with evidence," said Mohammed Mohibullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. "A thief never admits he is a thief, but justice can be delivered through evidence."
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The African nation of Gambia brought the legal action against Myanmar on behalf of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Gambia alleges that genocide occurred and is still ongoing.
It requested an emergency legal hearing asking the International Court of Justice to take action to stop the violence, including "all measures within its power to prevent all acts that amount to or contribute to the crime of genocide" in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi insisted that Gambia provided "an incomplete and misleading factual picture" of what happened in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, saying developments in one of Myanmar's poorest regions were "complex and not easy to fathom."
She detailed how the army responded on Aug. 25, 2017 to attacks by insurgents trained by Afghan and Pakistan extremists.
Suu Kyi said the armed forces had tried "to reduce collateral damage" during fighting in 12 locations. Conceding that excessive force might have been used and that one helicopter may have killed "non-combatants," she said Myanmar is investigating what happened and should be allowed to finish its work.
"Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers who are accused of wrongdoing?" she asked the court.
Rights groups joined Rohingya representatives in slamming the claims Suu Kyi and Myanmar's legal team made in The Hague.
George Graham, humanitarian advocacy director at Save the Children, said Suu Kyi's remarks "fly in the face of all the evidence gathered by the U.N., and the testimony our own teams have heard from countless survivors."
"Rohingya families have faced patterns of unimaginable horrors in a campaign of violence. Children and their parents have been systematically killed, maimed and raped," he said, adding that "the government of Myanmar has failed at every turn to punish those responsible."
Amnesty International's Nicholas Bequelin, accused Suu Kyi of trying to downplay the severity of crimes committed against the Rohingya and "wouldn't even refer to them by name or acknowledge the scale of the abuses. Such denials are deliberate, deceitful and dangerous."
"The exodus of more than three quarters of a million people from their homes and country was nothing but the result of an orchestrated campaign of murder, rape and terror," he said.
The U.S., meanwhile, slapped economic sanctions on four Myanmar military officers suspected of human rights violations. It sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing, commander of Myanmar's armed forces, over allegations of serious rights abuses. Deputy commander Soe Win and two other military leaders, Than Oo and Aung Aung, were also targeted.
"There are credible claims of mass-scale rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by soldiers under Min Aung Hlaing's command," a U.S. Treasury statement said Tuesday.
The court's hearings are scheduled to end on Thursday, when Myanmar and Gambia will have 90 minutes each to wrap up their cases.
Cook reported from Brussels.