Former peace icon Aung San Suu Kyi told the UN's top court Wednesday there was no "genocidal intent" in Myanmar's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, despite admitting that the army may have used excessive force.
The 1991 Nobel peace laureate rejected the "misleading and incomplete" allegations by The Gambia that Myanmar's 2017 military operation amounted to an attempt to exterminate the Rohingya.
Thousands of people were killed and raped and around 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after the Myanmar military launched a huge offensive that it said was in response to attacks by local militants.
Once hailed worldwide as a rights icon for her defiance of Myanmar's junta, Suu Kyi was this time on the side of the generals when she opened the majority-Buddhist nation's defence at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
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"Regrettably, The Gambia has placed before the court a misleading and incomplete picture of the situation in Rakhine state," said Suu Kyi, wearing traditional Burmese dress and flowers in her hair.
Addressing judges in the wood-panelled courtroom, the 74-year-old said Myanmar was dealing with an "internal armed conflict" in the southwestern state where the alleged atrocities took place.
"Please bear in mind this complex situation and the challenge to sovereignty and security in our country when you are assessing the intent of those who attempted to deal with the rebellion," she said.
"Surely under the circumstances genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis."
UN investigators last year concluded that Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya amounted to genocide while rights groups have detailed a catalogue of alleged abuses.
The Gambia, a small West African state that is mainly Muslim, filed an application in November accusing Myanmar of breaching the 1948 genocide convention and asking the court to take emergency measures to stop further violence.
A day after sitting through hours of graphic accounts of violence read out by The Gambia's lawyers, Suu Kyi admitted there may have been civilian casualties including some killed when a helicopter opened fire.
But she argued these were an inevitable part of the conflict.
"It cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the defence services in some cases in disregard of international humanitarian law, or that they did not distinguish clearly enough between fighters and civilians," she said.
Myanmar was undertaking its own investigations and "if war crimes have been committed", then its justice system would deal with them, she added.
Suu Kyi said the court, set up in 1946 to rule on disputes between member states, had not confirmed genocide in cases of mass expulsions of civilians in the 1990s Balkans war.
Lawyers for Myanmar also zeroed in on what they said was the lack of proof of "genocidal intent", which is notoriously difficult to prove in international law.
Myanmar lawyer William Schabas dismissed the UN fact-finding mission cited by The Gambia as "flawed" and argued the court should disregard it.
ICJ judges have only once before ruled that genocide was committed, in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. Two of the three cases it has dealt with genocide concerned the former Yugoslavia.
'Allegations are rubbish'
Around 250 pro-Myanmar protesters gathered in front of the ICJ on Wednesday, carrying placards with Aung San Suu Kyi's face reading "We stand with you".
"These allegations against Myanmar and Suu Kyi are rubbish," said Chomar Oosterhof, 53, a Burmese living in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, a small group of pro-Rohingya supporters were also at the court, shouting: "Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you!".
Suu Kyi's decision to personally lead her country's case at the court has proved popular at home, where the Rohingya are widely regarded as illegal immigrants.
Flag-waving supporters joined rallies in support of Suu Kyi in several Myanmar cities on Tuesday. Huge billboards of Suu Kyi and three smiling generals have also appeared around the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi was once mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, having won the Nobel Prize in 1991 for her resistance to Myanmar's brutal junta.
After 15 years under house arrest, she was freed in 2010 and led her party to victory in elections in 2015.
But her defence of the same military that once kept her locked up has since caused international condemnation.
Myanmar meanwhile faces a number of legal challenges over the fate of the Rohingya, including a probe by the International Criminal Court -- a separate war crimes tribunal in The Hague -- and a lawsuit in Argentina personally mentioning Suu Kyi.