Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi, who is also Myanmar's de facto ruler, on Wednesday defended her country against accusations of the Rohingya genocide at the top UN court.
She took a stand at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague against a case filed by Gambia, a small West African country.
After the court started the proceedings on Tuesday, Gambia asked the court to prevent Myanmar from further killings of the Rohingya.
Myanmar is accused of violating its obligations under the Genocide Convention in its so-called "clearance military operations" against the persecuted community.
The ICJ was told that the Rohingya population is controlled by orders, security and checkpoints.
Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her long fight for democracy and bearing 15 years in house arrest imposed on her by the then-ruling military junta.
However, she has been criticized for remaining silent on accusations of genocide committed against the ethnic Rohingya in her country by the army.
'No intent of genocide'
Defending her country, Suu Ki told the court that her country has a criminal justice which should investigate any allegations against the Burmese defense forces.
She claimed that Myanmar "actively investigates, prosecutes and punishes soldiers and officers who are accused of wrongdoing."
"Can there be genocidal intent on the part of the state?" she asked the court, alleging Gambia had "placed an incomplete, misleading factual picture" of the situation in Rakhine state.
A UN fact-finding mission found that "the gravest crimes under international law" had been committed in Myanmar. The UN team called for genocide trials.
Further, the U.S. on Tuesday imposed severe sanctions against Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing and three other senior commanders over the killings.
U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin said while announcing sanctions: "The United States will not tolerate torture, kidnapping, sexual violence, murder or brutality against innocent civilians."
Suu Kyi seemingly acknowledged the "suffering" of the Rohingya minority, however, she said because of the "armed conflict, the situation in Rakhine state was complex."
The former rights defender avoided to use "Rohingya" by name.
Suu Kyi said the conflict in Rakhine started after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants launched attacks on Burmese forces.
Conflict in Rakhine 'internal'
"This is the start of an internal conflict,” she told the court.
“Although the focus here is on members of the military, I can assure you that appropriate action will be taken on civilian offenders in line with the due process.
"Myanmar military responded to an internal conflict in 2017," she said referring to a massive campaign against the Rohingya when nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
She accepted that Burmese forces used military air force and said "disproportionate force by defense forces may have been used."
"Myanmar has criminal justice system and accusations against armed forces must be investigated by the same system," she added, asking the ICJ to consider "record of other countries" which is also weak on human rights front.
Suu Kyi told the ICJ: "The applicant [Gambia] has brought a case based on the genocide convention. We are, however, dealing with an internal armed conflict."
"Only if domestic criminal justice fails, then international system comes in," she said.
However, the UN fact-finding team in its report earlier this year cited lack of accountability for the perpetrators of these alleged crimes as well as the failure by Myanmar “to investigate genocide and to enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide”.
"The evidence that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State … has strengthened, that there is a serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur," independent UN investigators warned Human Rights Council in September this year.
In its report earlier this year, the UN fact-finding mission said "genocide threat for Rohingya in Myanmar are greater than ever."
"Many of the conditions that led to killings, rapes and gang rapes, torture, forced displacement and other grave rights violations by the country’s [Myanmar] military that prompted some 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017, are still present," said the report of independent UN team investigators which was submitted to UN Secretary General as well.
Suu Kyi said that with support of international and local institutions, all people regardless of identity will be granted scholarships. She also talked about need of social cohesion in Rakhine.
"We are closing three IDPs [Internally Displaces Camps] from Rakhine," she claimed.
On the return of Rohingya, she said Myanmar was ready to receive the "world’s most persecuted community under deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar".
She pleaded that the ICJ should refrain any action that "might aggravate any situation in Rakhine."
Suu Kyi also tried to clarify the term "clearance operations" by Burmese military.
"Its meaning has been distorted. As early as 1950s, it has been used against the Communists. It simply means to clear an area of insurgents or terrorists," she claimed.
'Bringing Myanmar to court big achievement'
Abdullah al-Ahsan, who has been following the cases of conflicts involving Muslim community, told Anadolu Agency that it was not surprising to see a Nobel laureate defending accusation of crimes against humanity.
"Even if the Rohingya do not get anything from the court, this is a big achievement that Myanmar was brought to the court," said al-Ahsan, who teaches Political Science at Istanbul Sehir University.
He said that the ICJ hearing was “good though it is already established that the Burmese military is conducting atrocities and she [Aung Suu Kyi] is supporting it," al-Ahsan argued.
"It is not surprising," he replied when asked whether it was normal that a Nobel laureate defends accusations of crimes against humanity.
"Institution of Nobel Peace Prize is politicized for long. Nobel Prize committee awarded a marked terrorist -- former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with the same prize."
Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center said Tuesday in a released statement that the Nobel laureate's "picture of an internal military conflict with no genocidal intent against the Rohingya is completely false."
"Multiple independent agencies and experts, as well as Rohingya themselves, have documented mass killings, widespread rape, and wholesale destruction of land and property intentionally inflicted on innocent civilians. The government has discriminated against the Rohingya for decades. This is a genocide and it’s precisely what the Genocide Convention set out to prevent," said Radhakrishnan.
According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.
More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report titled Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.
Some 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police and over 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned down and 113,000 others vandalized, it added.