An extraordinary event took place in the Netherlands this week: a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that is a first small step toward justice for one of the world’s longest-suffering minority groups.
On Thursday, an ICJ panel wound up the first phase of a legal process aimed at determining whether Myanmar committed an act of genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority. In August 2017, using a counterterrorism operation as a pretext, the Buddhist-dominated Myanmar military launched an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed thousands of Muslim Rohingya and drove nearly 1 million of them into neighboring Bangladesh.
The ICJ investigation is likely to continue for years. The outcome is uncertain. Yet the mere fact that it took place at all counts as a huge moral victory for the Rohingya. For the first time, this group — which has endured decades of systematic discrimination at the hands of its own government — experienced a fair hearing from an impartial tribunal. The power of that realization prompted tearful reactions from Rohingya activists in The Hague.
“It was very emotional to see the military facing charges in a court for the first time,” U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin told me. “The military have been getting away with human rights violations against us for decades. We have worked so hard for this day.”
Back in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, people clustered around computer screens or mobile phones to get a glimpse of the proceedings. (The Bangladeshi authorities had cut off Internet access to the camps a few months ago but restored the connection for several days this week until the third day of the hearing — long enough for the refugees to watch at least part of what was happening in the Netherlands.)
The only courts known to most Rohingya are part of the deeply corrupt judicial system in Myanmar. “The community has never experienced a free and fair trial, and this experience is making them feel as if they are reclaiming their humanity for the very first time,” said Tenzin Palkyi of the American Jewish World Service. “They feel that the wheels of justice are finally turning for them. They know this is just the beginning, making the enormity of the moment truly palpable.”
The case against Myanmar was filed by the small West African country of Gambia, backed by the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. A video clip shows thousands of Rohingya refugees in one of the camps chanting praise of Gambia — a country that few had heard of until recently.
The Rohingya have endured decades of discrimination and abuse. During the long years of military dictatorship, the ruling junta treated them as an alien presence in the Buddhist-majority country, dismissing them as “immigrants” from Bangladesh even though most of them were long-established residents of Myanmar. A 1982 law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. Other measures created a system of virtual apartheid, restricting their freedom of movement and limiting their access to education.
To this day, the government refuses even to use the word “Rohingya,” as many of those watching were reminded this week, when Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who now effectively runs Myanmar — arrived in The Hague to defend her country’s policies. During her presentation to the panel, Aung San Suu Kyi studiously avoided using “Rohingya” even as she disputed the government’s responsibility for atrocities.
It was an extraordinarily depressing spectacle. The woman once revered for her stubborn defense of democratic ideals during the long years of the dictatorship now finds herself allied with those who negate the existence of an entire group.
Yet some activists found a measure of consolation in the fact that “Rohingya” was repeated over and over during the hearing — and that the Myanmar government delegation had to sit there and take it.
A small thing, to be sure. But the hearing in The Hague showed that the Rohingya may finally be on the path to achieving the accountability they have sought for so long.
“Just seeing the military facing charges in court for the first time is a victory,” Tun Khin said. “Aung San Suu Kyi having to listen to hours of testimony on what the military did to us is a victory. The case may save lives because for the first time the military’s sense of impunity is being eroded. They might think twice before doing the same again.”