In a speech on Wednesday at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that lasted about 30 minutes, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended her country’s military against allegations of genocide.
The case, filed by The Gambia, accuses Myanmar of violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, with regard to a bloody crackdown in 2017 in which thousands of Rohingya were abused, displaced and killed.
The hearing concludes on Thursday, but a final judgement could take several years.
In her opening statement, the former human rights icon denied “genocidal intent” on the part of the military and outlined the history of tensions in Rakhine state.
She promised that civilians and members of the military who attacked innocent people would be prosecuted, but repeatedly termed the 2017 crackdown as an “internal conflict”, saying Myanmar’s military was responding to attacks by armed local groups, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
But she failed to use one word in the 3,379-word speech to describe the minority, an ethnic group that has been persecuted for years in Myanmar and denied citizenship rights – Rohingya.
Yes. The fact the Burmese officials refuse to utter the term “Rohingya” is at the heart of the crisis. The decision not to say this word is a strong sign that the Burmese government refuses the acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya and their right to enjoy human rights https://t.co/m7p94aTlrx
— Marie Lamensch (@MarieLamensch84) December 11, 2019
She only used the word Rohingya when referring to ARSA.
“It’s routine for Rohingya to be called Bengalis and even described as Kalars, a slur referring to their darker complexion, to deny that they’re native to Rakhine,” Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist who has reported on the Rohingya and is writing a book about the minority, told Al Jazeera.
“Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t use the terms but she has suggested that they’re not from Myanmar and she has refused to call them Rohingya, even claiming it’s a polarising term.
“It’s all part of denying that they are native, that they have historical links to the land they live on.”
The majority-Muslim Rohingya make up around one million of the total 50 million population in Buddhist majority Myanmar. They hail from the country‘s northwest and speak a Bengali dialect. Almost all live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states, which has a population of three million.
They are not regarded as one of the country‘s 135 official ethnic groups and are denied citizenship under Myanmar‘s 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively renders them stateless.
To get citizenship, they need to prove they have lived in Myanmar for 60 years, but paperwork is often unavailable or denied to them. As a result, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practise their religion and access health services are restricted.
In her speech, Suu Kyi referred to the Rohingya as Muslims, innocent people, civilians and members of Rakhine communities.
“She has called us Rohingya in the past, until before the 2015 elections,” said Ro Nya San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and cofounder the Free Rohingya Coalition who travelled to the Netherlands from Germany, where he lives in exile, for the ICJ hearing.
“But after she came into office, she started refusing to call us Rohingya. She urged her government not to use either Rohingya or Bengali but to use ‘Muslims from Rakhine state’,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Refusing to call us Rohingya is also a part of genocide. This was the same thing she did at court yesterday. She failed to recognise our identity. Calling us Muslims is not right. It is a religious identity. In our country, Myanmar, ethnic identity is the most important. Religion is private belief. I would call her now a genocide denier. She has officially denied genocide. She has dismissed genocide.
“Her stand will be remembered by the world history. This is first time a Nobel Peace Laureate has defended genocide at world’s highest court.”
Simon Adams, head of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said in a tweet: “Of all the words from Aung San Suu Kyi today denying that Myanmar committed genocide, there was one especially important word that did not pass her lips…’Rohingya’. The denial of Rohingya identity is inextricably linked to denial of their human rights ultimately, to genocide.”
Phelim Kine, researcher at Physicians for Human Rights and an expert on human rights in Asia, said Suu Kyi’s failure to use the word Rohingya was “shameless” and a “grotesque whitewash that smears Gambia”.