In a speech on Wednesday at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that lasted about 30 minutes, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended her country’s military against allegations of genocide.
The case, filed by The Gambia, accuses Myanmar of violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, with regard to a bloody crackdown in 2017 in which thousands of Rohingya were abused, displaced and killed.
The hearing concludes on Thursday, but a final judgment could take several years.
In her opening statement, the former human rights icon denied “genocidal intent” on the part of the military and outlined the history of tensions in Rakhine state.
She promised that civilians and members of the military who attacked innocent people would be prosecuted, but repeatedly termed the 2017 crackdown as “internal conflict”, saying Myanmar’s military was responding to attacks by armed local groups, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
But she failed to use one word in the 3,379-word speech to describe the minority, an ethnic group that has been persecuted for years in Myanmar and denied citizenship rights – Rohingya.
She only used the word Rohingya when referring to ARSA.
Critics said her refusal to use the word is part of Myanmar’s attempt to strip the minority of their identity and rights.
“It’s routine for Rohingya to be called Bengalis and even described as Kalars, a slur referring to their darker complexion, to deny that they’re native to Rakhine,” Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist who has reported on the Rohingya and is writing a book about the minority, told Al Jazeera.
“Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t use the terms but she has suggested that they’re not from Myanmar and she has refused to call them Rohingya, even claiming it’s a polarising term.