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Myanmar defiant as legal noose tightens

Suu Kyi to lead ICJ defense against lawsuit claiming that Rohingya Muslims were victims of genocide

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Myanmar defiant as legal noose tightens

Rohingya migrants drift on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea in May 2015. The International Criminal Court on Nov. 14 gave the green light for a long-awaited full probe into Myanmar's alleged crimes against Rohingya Muslims including violence and forced deportations. (Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP)

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While the first international legal attempts to bring justice to the persecuted Rohingya community have been launched, the moves have provoked a mixed reaction from people in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Last week three separate cases were filed accusing Myanmar of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims — the Gambia sued at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), rights groups filed a lawsuit at an Argentine court, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) approved full authorization of a Rohingya probe.

The ICJ said it will hold a public hearing on Dec. 10-12. The ICJ settles disputes between states, while the ICC seeks to convict individuals responsible for crimes. Both courts are based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

More than 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh after a military clampdown in August 2017 and subjected to violence that UN investigators say amounted to genocide.

Myanmar’s government and military have vehemently dismissed accusations of ethnic cleansing or genocide.

The government has justified the crackdown as a necessary counterinsurgency against Rohingya militants who attacked police outposts in Rakhine in August 2017.

Damaged reputation 

Zaw Htay, a Myanmar government spokesman, said legal efforts by rights groups have severely damaged the country’s image internationally.

He said the government will respond to the ICJ in accordance with international laws but will not respond to the ICC and the Argentine lawsuit.

He stressed that Myanmar is investigating rights abuses through its Independent Commission of Inquiry and the military is also holding its own tribunal.

Myanmar is not a member of the ICC but the court ruled last year that it had jurisdiction over crimes against the Rohingya because Bangladesh, where many Rohingya refugees live in camps, is a member.

On Nov. 20, Myanmar’s government announced that de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will lead a team it will send to the ICJ to contest a case of genocide filed by the Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

“Suu Kyi will lead a team to defend the national interest of Myanmar at the ICJ with regards to the displaced persons from Rakhine,” a brief statement said. It didn’t mention that the application to the ICJ involved a charge of genocide.

Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy, said a legal defense has been prepared. “The main task will be proving that the genocide or ethnic cleansing mentioned in their accusations never actually happened,” Myo Nyunt told Radio Free Asia.

Minority Muslims silent

While rights groups have welcomed the legal moves as a step forward for justice and accountability, Muslims inside Myanmar remain mute on the issue as they are a minority and frequently targeted for political gain.

Aye Lwin, a Muslim and former member of the late Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Commission, said the government acknowledged that incidents had happened in Rakhine but they must be investigated thoroughly.

“I hope there is a collaboration from the side of Myanmar’s government in solving the legal issues at the ICJ,” Aye Lwin told ucanews.

Kyaw Min, a Rohingya and chairman of the Yangon-based Democracy and Human Rights Party that works for Rohingya rights, said he has no idea how the legal issues in the international courts will affect Myanmar politically.

“What we are most interested in is the return of thousands of Rohingya refugees who remain in Bangladesh camps to their places of origin,” Kyaw Min told ucanews.

Kyaw Nyein, a Yangon-based lawyer, said Myanmar needs to respond to the ICJ legally as Myanmar is a member of the UN convention on preventing genocide.

“A total denial and responding to the issue with words might not be a proper solution. It needs to defend itself legally and respond to accusations by the international community diplomatically,” Kyaw Nyein told ucanews.

He added that the international legal attempts are part of a process of healing the wounds of people who were victims of rights abuses by bringing justice and accountability against perpetrators.

Pe Than, a lower house MP for the Arakan National Party in Rakhine state, said the party would wait and see how the government responds to legal moves worldwide.

“The important thing for us is peace and stability in conflict-torn Rakhine state,” Pe Than, an ethnic Rakhine, told ucanews.

Myanmar’s government regards the Rohingya as Bengalis. By not recognizing the term “Rohingya,” the government has implied that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite vast numbers of them having lived in Myanmar for decades.

They are effectively denied citizenship under the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, which has been the basis for refusing them legal documentation that would allow them to travel.

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