December 18, 2019 / 2:39 PM / a month ago

Myanmar's Suu Kyi says supporters a 'source of strength' during genocide hearings

YANGON AND DHAKA (Reuters) - Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday thanked supporters who staged large rallies on her behalf as she defended the country against genocide charges at The Hague, speaking to the nation for the first time since she returned on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the top United Nations court, after court hearings in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, in The Hague, Netherlands December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/File Photo

Gambia accused Myanmar of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention over a military campaign that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh. It has asked the International Court of Justice to order “provisional measures” to prevent more harm.

“The support of our people, given generously and unquestioningly ... was a great source of strength to us when we presented our case at the ICJ,” Nobel laureate Suu Kyi said in a televised address screened by the state broadcaster.

Suu Kyi led a team to the Netherlands for three days of hearings last week, during which she denied genocide and argued the U.N. court should not have jurisdiction.

“Every country passes through difficult times and Myanmar is no exception. Such trials provide us with an opportunity to assess our strengths and weaknesses, to reinforce one and rectify the other,” she said.

“The challenge we faced at the court actually emerged due not only to the crisis that happened in recent years, but also missed opportunities to handle fairly and constructively social issues, politics, and the economy, over many decades.”

Suu Kyi was long feted in the West as a champion of human rights and democracy and was a high-profile political prisoner during 15 years of house arrest for her opposition to Myanmar’s then ruling military junta.

She came to power after a landslide election victory in 2015 that ended half a century of army rule.

But her stance on the Rohingya issue has seen her stripped of many awards, calls for the Nobel committee to revoke her peace prize and strong criticism from former celebrity supporters and other organisations.

At home however, Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s founding father Aung San, is still revered by many.

The proceedings in The Hague galvanised supporters, who staged rallies across the country chanting “Stand with Suu Kyi” and waving flags.

CAMP VISIT

A delegation of Myanmar officials visited the sprawling Bangladeshi refugee camps on Wednesday, where they spoke to several dozen Rohingya in an effort to kickstart a process to repatriate them.

Myanmar says it has been ready to accept back the refugees since January last year and has built camps near the border to receive them.

Rohingya leaders say they want Myanmar to recognise them as an ethnic group with the right to Myanmar citizenship before they return.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who remain inside Myanmar are mostly denied citizenship and live in conditions Amnesty International has likened to apartheid, confined to camps and villages and unable to travel freely.

Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya a native ethnic group. Many in the Buddhist-majority country call the Rohingya “Bengalis”, suggesting they belong in Bangladesh.

Rohingya leader Abdur Rahim, who joined the talks on Wednesday, said no progress had been made.

“We are very upset. It’s going to be another failed negotiation. They are saying the same old thing. There is nothing new,” he told Reuters by phone.

Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Nick Macfie

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