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Why is a Nobel-winning human rights activist defending Myanmar on Rohingya atrocities?

In 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a reign of terror on Rohingya Muslims. According to the U.N., soldiers tortured, raped and killed civilians, driving hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Now the International Court of Justice is trying Myanmar for genocide -- as a human rights advocate defends its actions. Nick Schifrin talks to John Dale of George Mason University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A woman known as a champion of human rights spent the day in the dock, defending her nation from the most heinous and inhumane of charges.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, it is a moment of reckoning for Aung San Suu Kyi and her Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, a beacon of human rights defended those accused of genocide.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi rejected charges brought by the Republic of Gambia that the Myanmar military committed genocide against Rohingya Muslims in northern Myanmar.

    In August 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a reign of terror. The U.N. says soldiers torch Rohingya villages and, in the aftermath, tortured men, killed indiscriminately, and carried out systemic sexual violence, creating an untold number of victims of gang rape

    The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution at the hands of the Myanmar military, but never on this scale. Hundreds of thousands refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Refugee camps house almost a million people in flimsy tents.

    Yesterday, the Gambia's lawyer, Philippe Sands, called the case stark.

  • Philippe Sands:

    The evidence before you, frankly speaking, is overwhelming. The risk of destruction of the Rohingya group, in part or in whole, is very real.

    In light of that evidence, it cannot reasonably be argued that there is no further risk of genocidal acts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Myanmar military's operation began in response to an armed Rohingya group's attack. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi blamed militants for starting the conflict, but did admit the military could have overstepped.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the defense services in some cases, in disregard of international humanitarian law. There may also have been failures to prevent civilians from looting or destroying property after fighting or in abandoned villages.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But she said the International Court of Justice should defer to Myanmar's sovereign courts.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Under its 2008 constitution, Myanmar has a military justice system. Criminal cases against soldiers or officers for possible war crimes committed in Rakhine must be investigated and prosecuted by that system

  • Wai Wai Nu:

    The suffering of the Rohingya has been unspeakable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya activist who was thrown in jail by Myanmar's military. Today, she joined other protesters at The Hague, and called the proceedings restorative.

  • Wai Wai Nu:

    There is a moment of acknowledgement, and, like, presenting it to the court, and it has — it does actually mean a lot to the victims and survivors.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But as she watched Aung San Suu Kyi leave the court, she says the woman whom she once supported had let her and so many others down.

  • Wai Wai Nu:

    Well, it's very painful to watch the leader that we respect, the leader who used to be our role model, the democracy icon, a Nobel peace laureate, defending the perpetrators of genocide.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, the International Court of Justice will decide whether the crimes are plausible and if it has jurisdiction, and only then will the court launch a full trial, which could take years.

    So why is Aung San Suu Kyi at The Hague?

    To answer that question, I'm joined by John Dale, professor at George Mason University, fellow at the Wilson Center, and an expert on the politics and human rights in Myanmar.

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • John Dale:

    Thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To most of us, Aung San Suu Kyi is an icon for democracy and human rights.

    And I have even talked to people who have expressed a real horror about what she's doing. But she's also a politician. So, what domestic considerations does she have motivating her to do what she's doing?

  • John Dale:

    Well, she is walking through a political mine field right now, tiptoeing, I'd say.

    There are three concerns, the world court, of course, the ICJ. Then you have got Myanmar's military and the Myanmar electorate. So, you have the general elections in 2020 coming up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Myanmar.

  • John Dale:

    In Myanmar.

    And she has to figure out how to differentiate herself and the National League for Democracy, her party, from the military's political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

    This decision to go to the ICJ is something that the military didn't want to see. They prefer to take an isolationist position and ignore the ICJ. The fact that she's decided to engage the ICJ creates a little bit of political space for her to distinguish herself from the military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And does that mean that she wants to gain a level of popularity, gain in the electorate, so that, next year, after the election, she can try and enact some fundamental reforms by winning that election with a greater majority?

  • John Dale:

    She has already gotten a little bit of support. We have seen people show up at the airport as she was leaving for The Hague.

    She has been suggesting constitutional reform is necessary to further democracy in Myanmar. I don't think much of the electorate is buying that at this point. They have a long way to go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We heard her admitting some soldiers could have used disproportionate force, is what she said.

    Is she trying to walk a fine line between criticizing and exonerating the military?

  • John Dale:

    She is trying to buy some room for some time, really, for the military to go through the process of trying these cases.

    She is trying to defend the idea that they deserve time to try these cases in their own court first.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The person who testified after her, William Schabas of Middlesex University, one of the world's leading experts on genocide, argued that this wasn't genocide, because even if there were 10,000 deaths, he says, that is not a high enough percentage of one million Rohingya Muslims to prove the military was trying to destroy Rohingyas.

    What's your response to that?

  • John Dale:

    I'm not a legal expert on genocide, but the evidence that points to systematic efforts on the part of the military and the intentions that have been a part of that, communications that are coming from above, would still be enough to push forward with a case like that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. sanctioned the Burmese commander in chief and the deputy commander in chief.

    Can U.S. punishment like that change Myanmar's military behavior?

  • John Dale:

    In order to address the genocide that's taken place in Myanmar, we need a variety of tools.

    The case that's before the International Criminal Court, this new case in the International Court of Justice, sanctions, not only by the United States, but internationally, I think all of those tools are important, and really takes all of them working together to have a shot at trying to change behavior in Myanmar.

    So I would welcome those sanctions. Those sanction by themselves, not so much, but I would say that's true of any one of these tools.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John Dale of George Mason University and the Wilson Center, thank you very much.

  • John Dale:

    Thank you.

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