BANGKOK - The Gambia's justice minister on Tuesday (Dec 10) urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to make Myanmar to stop the "genocide its of own people", in the most high-profile legal challenge to Naypyitaw since a military crackdown expelled some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country two years ago .
Listening impassively in the world court in the The Hague was Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who confounded observers when she decided last month to personally lead the country's defence team against the Gambian challenge.
The Gambia, a Muslim-majority African nation, had filed a lawsuit, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, alleging that Myanmar had breached its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which Myanmar is a state party.
It has also asked the court to approve provisional measures to compel Myanmar to do everything within its power to, among other things, prevent the extrajudicial killing and rape, and the deprivation of food to the Rohingya, as well as ensure that evidence related to the genocide case was not destroyed.
The Rohingya are often derided as illegal "Bengali" immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Over 700,000 Rohingya refugees now face an uncertain future in neighbouring Bangladesh after an insurgent attack in 2017 triggered a scorched-earth military response that the United Nations has likened to ethnic cleansing. Another 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, with their rights and movements heavily restricted.
While Myanmar's military - protected by a Constitution drafted under its watch - acts with little civilian oversight, Ms Suu Kyi has drawn fire in recent years for shielding it from persecution, often by saying the issue is highly complex.
"Every genocide that has occurred in history has had its own causes unique to its historical and political context. But one thing is certain - genocide does not happen in a vacuum," said The Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou when he opened the argument for provisional measures. "Another genocide is unfolding right before our eyes even as I make this statement to you today. Yet we do nothing to stop it. This is a stain on our collective conscience."
Other members of his legal team, at times referring to historical genocide cases in Rwanda and Bosnia, recounted in great detail atrocities like mass rape unearthed by the recent independent fact-finding mission commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council - which Myanmar has refused to cooperate with.
Requesting for the court to order provisional measures, Ms Tafadzwa Pasipanodya, one of Gambia's lawyers, said there was "no other alternative" to protect Rohingya from further acts of genocide.
"Certainly Myanmar cannot be counted on to protect them from itself," she said. "In the past few years, it has appointed numerous commissions to investigate the genocidal acts that have been reported by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission and other international observers. None of Myanmar's commissions have found any violations of internationally protected rights."
Ms Suu Kyi is expected to address the court on Wednesday.
With the next Myanmar general election looming in 2020, some analysts have suggested that Ms Suu Kyi's move would help draw support domestically at a time when the National League for Democracy is drawing flak for a lacklustre first term in office.
Various rallies have been staged across Myanmar portraying her as a defender of the nation. Reaction among groups representing Myanmar's ethnic minorities have been mixed, with some pointing out that they have suffered similar treatment at the hands of the Myanmar military.