LONDON — Myanmar's state counsellor, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Tuesday to defend her government against accusations of genocide.
Myanmar's military is accused of conducting a campaign of mass killings, rape and torture against the country's Rohingya Muslim community in 2017, forcing more than 700,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for 15 years until 2010, but she is now defending the military that once imprisoned her. Almost 28 years to the day since she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the state counsellor listened as lawyers for Gambia, which brought the case against Myanmar, began to detail the alleged acts of genocide.
"One witness recounted, 'The soldiers killed the male members of my family. They shot them first and then slit their throats. The courtyard was full of blood,'" lawyer Andrew Loewenstein told the court. "'They killed my husband, my father-in-law and my two nephews of 15 and 8 years old. They even killed the child in the same way.'"
Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou told reporters Tuesday he wants the International Court of Justice to order special measures to protect the Rohingyas until the genocide case is heard in full.
"We are signatories to the Genocide Convention like any other state. It shows that you don't have to have military power or economic power to stand for justice," Tambadou said.
There were protests in Myanmar against the court hearing. In refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, Rohingya Muslims held prayers as the case got under way.
Refugee Lokman Hakim echoed the sentiment of many: "Aung San Suu Kyi knew about the genocide but she did not ask it to stop, so we want justice."
As state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi is head of Myanmar's civilian government and is not directly responsible for the military. Her appearance at the court is part of a domestic political agenda, said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK.
"She's using the nationalist card here to whip up support, but also it plays into another agenda she has, which is trying to persuade the military that she's not a threat to them and that they should agree to further democratic reforms in the country," Farmaner told VOA.
Farmaner argues the civilian government is also guilty of genocide.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is pursuing policies in the country which are killing Rohingya people every day. She's denying them humanitarian aid from the international community. She's restricting their access to health care. Rohingya children are not allowed access to higher education," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi denies the accusations and has repeatedly claimed the military operations were a legitimate counterterrorism response to Rohingya attacks on security forces. She is expected to give evidence Wednesday.
A ruling from the court to approve measures to protect the Rohingya is expected within weeks. A final ruling on the accusation of genocide could take several years.