YANGON -- Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday denied charges of genocide against her country's military, telling the International Court of Justice in The Hague that domestic authorities should be left to probe allegations of atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate argued that the ICJ case brought by Gambia presents an "incomplete and misleading factual picture" of a "complicated" situation in the state of Rakhine.
"It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used in some cases by defense forces" in the ongoing conflict, she said, but added that "genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis."
Suu Kyi decided to appear before the court personally because if Myanmar loses, it may lead to a revival of economic sanctions against her country. The ICJ, a permanent tribunal of the United Nations, rules on disputes between states based on international law.
The previous day, Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said the violence is rooted purely in racial and religious differences. "Every day of inaction means that more people are being killed ... only because they were born different, born to a different race, and to a different religion from those who raped and killed them."
Suu Kyi countered by saying that Myanmar has no tolerance of human rights violations, and that there cannot be "genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates [military wrongdoings]." She listed examples of how service members had been prosecuted in the past and vowed that if war crimes have been committed in Rakhine, Myanmar's own legal system will pursue justice.
"No stone should be left unturned to make domestic accountability work," Suu Kyi said.
In August 2017, Myanmar's security forces launched a mop-up operation in Rohingya villages near the border with Bangladesh in response to attacks on police facilities by armed Rohingya militants. More than 700,000 people fled across the border.
A fact-finding mission sent by the U.N. Human Rights Council reported that thousands of residents had been killed, and that their villages were burned.
Now, Gambia is taking a two-stage approach in the international court.
In the first stage, the predominantly Muslim African country is asking the ICJ to order an immediate halt to any acts that lead to genocide. Later, Gambia wants the ICJ to hold a full tribunal and declare Myanmar to be in violation of the Genocide Convention that bans the annihilation of a specific group.
The current round of hearings on the first request will run until Thursday, with a decision expected in three to four weeks.
As for the second request, if the ICJ is to rule that Myanmar has committed genocide, there must be proof of the country's "intent" to do so.
"Gambia's move is aimed at increasing political pressure [on Myanmar]," said Shuichi Furuya, a professor of international law at Waseda Law School in Tokyo.
The Netherlands and Canada issued a joint statement on Monday in support of Gambia's position. The U.S. Treasury Department also imposed fresh sanctions against Myanmar on Tuesday, freezing U.S. assets of four Myanmar military leaders, including the commander-in-chief.
Western screws could tighten further if Myanmar is found to have violated the Genocide Convention, which was enacted to prevent a repeat of the Holocaust -- the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
Suu Kyi led Myanmar's pro-democracy movement during decades of military rule, with the support of Western countries. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Today, those same allies are looking to Suu Kyi to promote further democratization and stand up for human rights in the Southeast Asian country. But as Myanmar's de facto leader, she faces a difficult balancing act at home. The armed forces maintain considerable power over security and defense, and she needs to work with them for the sake of domestic stability.
In her remarks to the ICJ, Suu Kyi warned against "feeding the flames" of polarization and asked the court to avoid any action that could aggravate ethnic conflicts in her homeland.