No more heroes
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - December 14, 2019 - 12:00am

Aung San Suu Kyi decisively completed her transformation from international symbol of hope for oppressed people to populist nationalist champion of the very same thugs in military uniforms that imprisoned her for almost 15 years now accused of the most heinous crimes against humanity itself.

28 years to the day since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the daughter of Burma’s national hero Aung San represented the government as its Foreign Minister in a case brought to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands, by the Gambia.

The ICJ released what may well be the defining picture of the New Aung San Suu Kyi – Genocide Apologist. She stands at a podium in white scarf and black business jacket to the right of the frame, a wood panelled wall is her background, to her right her legal team. She looks as if she is listening intently but essentially unmoved. Throughout the three-day hearing Aung San Suu Kyi made no eye contact with the Gambia delegation, instead she invariably stared ahead as the list of alleged atrocities were stated.

Thousands of people were killed and about 740,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority fled across the border into sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a huge military crackdown in Rakhine state that began in late August 2017 and continued full scale for several weeks. There has been no fundamental change to any of Myanmar’s policies towards Rohingya whose identity they deny; indeed Aung San Suu Kyi, in line with her government’s policy, has refused to even use their name.

Aung San Suu Kyi has pleaded with the ICJ’s 17 international judges to dismiss allegations that Myanmar has committed genocide and urged them instead to allow the country’s court martial system to deal with any human rights abuses.

The Gambia’s claim states that Myanmar has perpetrated “manifest” contraventions of the 1948 genocide convention enacted after the Holocaust through the acts of its military, and continues to do so.

Those acts, the court was told, included “extrajudicial killings, rape or other forms of sexual violence, burning of homes and destruction of livestock ... calculated to bring about a destruction of the Rohingya group in whole or in part”.

Myanmar, as the country was renamed by its military rulers, has been through extraordinary turmoil during those years with multiple ethnic armies at war with the military in some of the world’s longest running civil conflicts which continue to this day. A land rich with natural resources and diverse peoples, the largest in land mass in mainland south east Asia, is being run by a military that regards itself as the only viable institution to hold the union together.

On my first visit there in late 2006 with a crew from Al Jazeera English, we were relentlessly accompanied by government minders on a trip that was a rare exception in that it was permitted by the government who saw the new upstart international news channel as anti-American. That seemed to make the difference at a time when the USA’s Bush government led isolated Myanmar as a kind of pariah because of its poor human rights record. But as we stood at the port watching laborers loading boats about to begin their journeys up the Irrawaddy, some approached us with curiosity and asked where I was from. “The Philippines,” I answered. “Philippines! Brothers. Family,” they said, drawing invisible lines between us with his pointed finger.

During three days of hearings, Gambia’s legal team asked the ICJ judges to impose “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya before the case can be heard in full. Thousands of Rohingya remain in prisons, camps or in isolated ghettos unable to work or travel outside of these designated places, their identities unrecognised without even the most basic services including healthcare. Violent incidents continue to be reported though independent access to Rakhine state is severely limited.

Aung San Suu Kyi said Myanmar expected a report by an internal inquiry to recommend more prosecutions of Myanmar soldiers soon.

“I can confirm there will be further court martials after the submission of the report ... in a few weeks,” she said. “It’s vital that our civil and military justicesystem functions in accordance with our constitution.” But the record shows that the military can act with total impunity, right across the country.

“I stand before you to awaken the conscience of the world and arouse the voice of the international community,” Abubacarr Marie Tambadou, the Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister, said.

“Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes yet we do nothing to stop it,” he said. “This is a stain on our collective conscience. It’s not only the state of Myanmar that is on trial here, it’s our collective humanity that is being put on trial.”

Prof Philippe Sands QC, the last lawyer to make submissions for the Gambia, told the ICJ that it was “the ultimate guardian of the genocide convention; it’s on you the eyes of the world are turned”. He quoted from the UN fact-finding mission which said Aung San Suu Kyi had not used her “de facto power or moral authority to stem or prevent the unfolding events or to protect the civilian population.”

The proceedings are in themselves a vindication for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya now trapped in camps in Bangladesh. They live in makeshift shelters, in appalling conditions, still deprived of adequate protection, education, healthcare and livelihoods. Bangladesh has started building fences around the camps and wants them repatriated. At least with these proceedings there is a sense that finally their existence and rights are internationally recognised and that some form of justice is taking place.

It’s the women and children I think about most. They’re not conventional heroes. They don’t speak beautiful English the way Aung San Suu Kyi does. But they have endured and they live. Everywhere they turn they are seen as victims, but whatever others decide about them and what legal terms to use about what has happened to them, the hearings this week have served to topple an icon. They have exposed the dreadful injustices, the cruel brutality and the abysmal failings of their own government and the international systems that are supposed to protect us all.

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