Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged that war crimes “may have been committed”, including by members of her country’s powerful military, during its 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s leader, who has been condemned internationally for her response to the violence, was writing in the Financial Times ahead of Thursday’s hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Myanmar faces accusations of genocide over the crackdown.
Her acknowledgment that war crimes may have taken place is a departure for a government that until recently dismissed Rohingya testimony and news reports about killings, rapes, and arson during the crackdown as “fake news”.
“War crimes that may have been committed by members of the defence services will be prosecuted through our military justice system,” Ms Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in Thursday’s FT. “It is never easy for armed forces to recognise self-interest in accountability for their members, and then follow through with actual investigations and prosecutions.”
The comments reflect what is expected to be Myanmar’s line of defence in the genocide case, and follow a report by a government-appointed commission of inquiry this week.
However, echoing past remarks, Myanmar’s leader also accused human rights groups and some refugees of making “unproven statements” and presenting “a distorted picture” in their reports on the crackdown, which killed thousands of members of the minority group and drove more than 730,000 into exile.
“The international justice system may not yet be equipped to filter out misleading information before shadows of incrimination are cast over entire nations and governments,” Ms Aung San Suu Kyi wrote.
While a verdict on the genocide case is expected to take years, on Thursday the UN’s highest court will be asked to rule on whether “provisional measures” are needed to protect the Rohingya from further harm.
It is unclear what form these measures might take, or whether the ICJ will be able to enforce them. However, if ordered, they would represent a further black mark on the reputation of Myanmar and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, who has been condemned internationally for appearing indifferent to the Rohingyas’ plight.
“The voice of victims must be heard and must always touch our hearts,” Ms Aung San Suu Kyi writes. “But it is equally important that fact-finders are vigilant in their search for truth.”
Myanmar’s leader, who faces an election this year, startled international observers but was cheered by her countrymen when she chose to testify at the opening of the ICJ case last month.
A government-appointed Independent Commission of Enquiry this week concluded that “war crimes, serious human rights violations, and violations of domestic law” were committed by “multiple actors”, including troops.
However, in an argument that is expected to mirror Myanmar’s defence against the genocide charge in The Hague, the ICOE said there were no plans “to destroy the Muslim or any other community in northern Rakhine state”.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s pleas for understanding are likely to be rejected by Rohingya activists and human rights groups, who have dismissed the ICOE report as a whitewash and rejected the notion that Myanmar’s military court system can deliver justice, particularly for senior military figures.
“They know the blanket denial will not work any more,” said Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the UK-based Free Rohingya Coalition. “We don’t believe in the military or public justice system, and we want justice through the international court.”
A Myanmar military tribunal in 2018 sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for a massacre in the village of Inn Din, but then released them early last November, casting doubts on the credibility of its military justice system.
The Rohingya crisis has hit investor confidence and tourism in one of Asia’s poorest countries, while pushing it closer to China, a powerful neighbour that has defended it at the UN.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledged that international condemnation around the Rohingya “hampers our ability to lay the foundation for sustainable development in a very diverse country”.