On December 10, 2019, Abubacarr Tambadou, then Gambia’s justice minister, posed a question to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. “Why is the world standing by and allowing such horrors again in our lifetime?”
It was the first day of hearings in Gambia’s case alleging Myanmar violated the Genocide Convention in its atrocities against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State. It was also the first time the abuses of the Myanmar military had been laid out before an international court.
Over three days, Gambia’s legal team described the Myanmar military’s mass killings, rape, and torture that spurred more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The team painted a picture of an armed force unrepentant in its brutality, maintaining power by terrorizing civilians for decades, unchecked. In January 2020, the ICJ unanimously ordered Myanmar to protect the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State from genocide.
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Anti-coup protesters run from teargas deployed by the police during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, March 1, 2021.
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On February 1, 2021, the same generals that orchestrated the atrocities against the Rohingya staged a coup. Since then, the junta has carried out a bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement with the same callous disregard for life that has long driven their scorched-earth operations in ethnic minority regions.
Police and soldiers have killed more than 1,300 people and arrested more than 10,000 protesters, journalists, and others. The methodical and systematic post-coup abuses, like those inflicted on the Rohingya, amount to crimes against humanity. The roots of the coup and the bloodshed that’s followed lie plainly in the impunity that the military has enjoyed since first taking power in 1962.
Two years ago, people rallied across Myanmar in support of the government and then de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who unreservedly defended the military at The Hague. This week, Suu Kyi was sentenced to prison by the generals she backed.
Since the coup, many protesters have sought to atone for the long history of anti-Rohingya hostility in Myanmar. The opposition National Unity Government committed to ending the Rohingya’s statelessness and other abuses. With solidarity campaigns, activists are reimagining Myanmar as a state strengthened by its multiethnic, multireligious makeup.
Against this shifting backdrop, the ICJ case moves forward. The court will next hold hearings on the preliminary objections Myanmar filed 10 days before the coup.
There is no quick route to justice in Myanmar, but never has the call for it been louder.