Updated at 4:27 p.m. ET on 2019-12-10
As a landmark genocide case against Myanmar opened in The Hague on Tuesday, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh watched the proceedings on TV while thousands staged a mass rally and prayed in defiance of government restrictions on such demonstrations.
Officials in Cox’s Bazar district had turned down a request Monday by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights to allow the refugees to rally and offer prayers as the case before the International Court of Justice began, Md Syed Ullah, the organization’s secretary, told BenarNews.
That did not stop thousands from thronging hilltops inside the camps on Tuesday while others huddled around television screens to catch a glimpse of the courtroom action. The Rohingya held up banners expressing their support for host country Bangladesh and Gambia, the African nation leading a lawsuit against Myanmar at the ICJ, while chanting “Gambia, Gambia.”
“Our voice is heard at the international court. Thanks, Gambia,” Md Younus, a Rohingya leader at the Kutupalong refugee camp, told BenarNews.
Ullah praised the thousands who rallied.
“This day is a red letter day for the Rohingya,” he told BenarNews. “All Rohingya are upbeat about the move to try Myanmar for genocide and other crimes against humanity.”
“Many of the relatives of the victims have been fasting with the hope that the Myanmar military and the Moghs would be tried at last. The Myanmar military and the Moghs have been continuing their torture on the Rohingya,” he said, using a word that refers to Buddhist vigilantes.
Refugees will cooperate with prosecutors and present evidence of genocide by the Myanmar military, Rohingya leader Ehsanul Hoque told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Anwar Hossain, a leader at the Balukhali refugee camp, said abuses against his people had been ongoing for nearly six decades.
“The Myanmar military has systematically been torturing us since 1962. They burned down our houses, murdered our mothers, sisters and daughters, snatched our land and property as well as [deprived us of] citizenship,” he told BenarNews. “May Allah help us get justice.”
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who watched the first day of hearings, praised Gambia’s presentation to the court.
“Gambia has sought an interim ruling from the ICJ asking Myanmar to immediately stop the atrocities against the Rohingya who are still living in Rakhine. If the court passes such an order, the safety and security of the Rohingya can be guaranteed in Rakhine,” he told BenarNews.
“If their safety and security is ensured and the persecution stops, the Rohingya refugees would feel encouraged to return to Rakhine,” Momen said.
Bangladesh has sent a 20-member delegation to The Hague to give the Gambian legal team technical support in the case, if Gambia requests it, Momen told BenarNews a day earlier.
Former ambassador Humayun Kabir, the acting president of a local think-tank, the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said the legal proceedings, while time consuming, would force international pressure against Myanmar, helping Bangladesh.
“Possibly, Bangladesh would try to persuade Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees by exploiting international pressure caused by the ICJ trial. Myanmar may at some point could agree to take the Rohingya to preserve their international image,” Kabir told BenarNews.
Even if that happened, the trial would continue.
“This is because repatriation and the alleged genocide trial are different issues. Repatriation is a political issue while the trial is a legal matter,” he said, referring to stalled bilateral efforts by Bangladesh and Myanmar to persuade Rohingya refugees to agree to return to Rakhine state.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, said government officials wanted to solve the Rohingya crisis through peaceful means.
“We are not engaging in a confrontation with Myanmar, rather negotiations are going on. This is because they have taken measures to take their nationals back,” Hasina said Tuesday.
Earlier this week, the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group blamed for an attack that led to the August 2017 military crackdown against Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state, thanked the Gambian government.
“It is the Gambian government which saw and understood the persecution on Rohingya by the genocidal Burmese military and terrorist government,” Abu Ammar Junooni said in a Twitter post on Sunday. “They not only understood the situation but also filed a case against them at the International Court of Justice.”