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The Lawsuit filed by Gambia against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ): The Public Perception and the Impact on Myanmar

ISSUE 2019
No 18
Release 30 December 2019
By Mr. Oo Zeyar


Gambia has filed a lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with the accusation that Myanmar is violating the 1948 United Nations’ Genocide Convention in November, 2019. Following the acceptance of Gambia’s official complaint by the ICJ, the court hearings session was conducted from 10 to 12 December, at Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands and that was attended by the State Counselor of Myanmar, the Union Minister of Foreign Affairs, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as country’s agent, leading the Myanmar legal team.

The suing of Gambia against Myanmar was a nightmare for not only the government of Myanmar and the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmataw) but also for the entire population. In the earlier days, the complaints angered and shocked the people of Myanmar since they did not expect such a small country from West Africa which is situated thousands miles away from Myanmar and which does not have any dispute with Myanmar, has filed a lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ. Most people believe that the move made by Gambia does not help Myanmar in solving the unending conflicts in the Rakhine State, and rather it will further worsen the complex situation in the Rakhine State affected by the ongoing fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmataw) and the Arakan Army (AA).

Different Narratives on the Issue of Rohingya between Myanmar and the World

Myanmar has never accepted the term “Rohingya” as the world has done that presents a primary root cause of the social conflicts in the Rakhine State. The successive governments of Myanmar considered that they could offer them a status of citizenship, but the former could not recognise them as one of Myanmar’s ethnicity since the term “Rohingya” has never existed in Myanmar’s long history. From the perspective of Myanmar related to Gambia’s complaint, the possible misconduct of the Tamataw that might have occurred during area clearance operations should not be relevant to the 1948 United Nation’s Genocide Convention rather than referred to the humanitarian law or human rights convention. Myanmar also views that false narrative of one sided persecuted Muslims described by some western countries and international bodies through disinformation manipulated by world media has increased tension between the two communities: Buddhist community and Muslim community in the Rakhine State.

Background Situation

The conflict in Rakhine is not a new issue recently emerged, but a chronic political issue that has been affecting the two communities in the Rakhine State. This issue has occurred since the British colonial era that they brought Bengalis people (Rohinjyas) as the seasonal workers to Myanmar, later settled down in the Rakhine State near Bangladeshi borders. The today Myanmar’s crisis is the outcomes resulted from the last comprehensive and coordinated attacks of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 police outposts on 25 August, 2017, for long term political ambition in which they aimed to secede from Myanmar. Following their trick attacks, the Tatmataw responded to the ARSA that had unexpectedly caused the exodus of the Rohingya people plunged into Bangladesh to take refuge. It was a huge drawback for the NLD-led government in pursuing the sustainable development in the Rakhine State. The stalled implementation process of the repatriation of the refugees from Bangladesh due to lack of cooperation and coordination between Myanmar and Bangladesh has exacerbated the already deteriorating situation that has increased international concerns of the vulnerable people of the world’s terrorists. Accordingly, the NLD-led government within its capacity has been making painstaking efforts in settling the complicated and complex challenges compounded by the delay of repatriation process of the refugees, the ongoing fighting between the Tatmataw and the AA, the security challenge presented by the ARSA, the lack of overall development in the Rakhine State.

Change in the Public Attitude

However, it is believed that the international bodies have challenged the credibility of the government by presenting the discriminated action in dealing with the people in the Rakhine State at many occasions. According to the local sources, the indigenous Rakhine people chided that the INGOs and NGOs were biased in providing humanitarian aids to the refugees at the IDP camps in the Rakhine State. The indigenous Rakhine people also accused that some INGOs were meddling in internal affairs of the Rakhine State amid the complex situation leading to an increase in social tension. Subsequently, the indigenous Rakhine people urged the government not to allow the INGOs and NGOs to access to some areas especially the conflict affected areas in the Rakhine State. Therefore, after the ARSA’s 2007 coordinated attacks had occurred, the NLD-led government barred the INGOs and NGOs to access to the conflict affected areas in the Rakhine State for security reason except for some the United Nations-led organisations such as the UNHCR, the UNDP and ASEAN-led organisations such as AHA Centre. Once the Tatmataw spotted humanitarian aids of some NGOs in a hidden camp of the ARSA in Mayu mountain range, public attitude towards the INGOs was greatly affected. In the course of mass killing of the Hindu people committed by the ARSA in 2017, the world media had missed to state the significant brutality of the terrorist act of the ARSA and it was not very popular in the international community as it should had been. By calculating all those incidents, the people of Myanmar lost their confidence with the role of the international bodies and it is believed that the latter has always been wearing sun-glasses in eying Myanmar rather than trying to understand what is really happening on the ground and how the government is working with its limited resources.

Peoples’ Response to Gambia’s Complaint against Myanmar at ICJ

Given such a particular situation, the official complaint against Myanmar brought by Gambia at the ICJ has inflamed nationalist sentiments rather than it has solved the challenges of the ongoing conflict in the Rakhine State, particularly social tension between the two communities. It is believed that after having witnessed court hearings proceeding before international judges at the ICJ virtually through the television, social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, most Myanmar have been suffering from a mixture of outrage, frustration, agony, anger and sadness. Most people are aware of general picture of the Rakhine State that is what the present situation is, how the government is working, how the world is contributing to the complex issue with different interpretation. Thus, once Gambia brought the dispute under the term of “Myanmar’s violation of the 1948 Genocide Conventions” at the ICJ, it was quite strange to the people of Myanmar as they believed that it is not persecution of the Muslim people but it is long affected social conflict between the two communities in the Rakhine State. To this end, it is believed to interpret that Gambia’s move representing the OIC is a sort of hegemony and diplomatic coercion to Myanmar in an attempt of legal intervention in the internal affairs of Myanmar.

Many commentaries, politicians, parliament members warned that the State Counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should not lead the Myanmar team in defending against Gambia at the ICJ due to the sensitivity and vulnerability in its nature under such particular circumstance. However, before the departure of the State Counselor-led Myanmar delegation for The Hague, some Ethnic Armed Oragnisations (EAOs) issued their own statements showing that they support State Counselor for her courageous decision to lead the Myanmar legal team. For nation-wide, the show of support-events and activities participated by thousands of people, were held throughout Myanmar, demonstrating their strong support of the State Counselor. On the other side of the world, the Myanmar diasporas who are residing in the European countries gathered near the vicinity of Peace Palace at where court hearings proceeding was conducted, to demonstrate their unity and togetherness with the State Counselor. Among others, the twenty two supporters who are the residents from Yangon immediately flied from Yangon to Netherlands to provide moral support to the State Counselor. Observing the whole picture of the public responses to the Gambia’s dispute against Myanmar, the people of Myanmar with different background regardless of religion, race, colour have come with strong stance against the world bodies particularly Gambia of the applicant and the OIC for its alleged manipulation.

Potential Impact and Policy Recommendations

Observing the whole picture depicted above, Gambia’s complaint against Myanmar with the accusation of the latter’s violation of the 1948 United Nations’ Genocide Convention at the ICJ will result in an impact on Myanmar in one way or another. First, the suing of Gambia has brought most people from Myanmar to the same boat that is leading to an increase in nationalism that is likely to flame the tension between the two communities in the Rakhine State. Second, whatever the ruling of the ICJ is issued in favour of which party: Myanmar or Gambia, there is possibility of distrust, disunity and disharmony to prevail in the Rakhine State due to different narratives of the Rohingya issue, public perception on Gambia’s attempt at the ICJ and an increase in nationalist sentiments. Third, since attitude of the people of Myanmar has been increasingly negative to the international community, it will be difficult for the government to deal with international bodies in resolving the complex and complicated issues in Myanmar that will impact the all-round development of Myanmar.

Taken into account those impacts, the paper proposes the following recommendations: First, the government of Myanmar should work closely with the international community to make them know the true story behind today’s chaos in the Rakhine State, and in such case, the government should effectively and efficiently utilize the legal proceedings at the ICJ: Second, the international bodies particularly the United Nations-led organs and its affiliated organisations should consider the role of the people and their sentiments while working with the government by knowing that the latter is an ethnically diverse country; Third, the international community should refrain from making judgments and putting excessive pressure on Myanmar while knowing it is likely to worsen the already deteriorating situation in the Rakhine and somewhere else in Myanmar, and rather should try to understand to ensure Myanmar is on the right track leading to durable solution through close cooperation and communication.


evertheless, it is undeniable that the situation in the Rakhin State has been increasingly deteriorating day by day than ever since the response of the Tamataw to the coordinated attacks of the ARSA in 2007, leaving the exodus of the Rohingya people fled into Bangladesh. The complicated and complex nature of the issue of Rohingya has significantly challenged the NLD-led government due to different narratives made by Myanmar, and the world and presumed discriminated behaviours of some INGOs and NGOs in providing humanitarian aids in the conflict affected areas in the Rakhine State. After Gambia has filed lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ, the Rohingya issue has become an international spotlight than ever and that left perception of the people of Myanmar leading to an increase in the nationalist sentiments. All these scenarios have demonstrated that Myanmar is currently facing the greatest challenge than ever. If the proper treatment is not taken timely by government of Myanmar with an effective and efficient cooperation of international community, not only the Rakhine State, but also Myanmar, and the entire region will suffer from bitter consequences.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.