In a remarkable show of solidarity with the generals who once imprisoned her, Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has issued a detailed denial that a violent military crackdown against the country's Rohingya Muslim population in 2017 amounted to genocide or had "genocidal intent".
After an initial day of evidence at the International Court of Justice alleging mass murder, rape, and systematic expulsion by Myanmar's army as it forced some 750,000 Rohingya out of their homes and into Bangladesh, Ms Suu Kyi said such claims were both "factually misleading" and inflammatory.
The former human rights champion was opening Myanmar's defence in a case brought by The Gambia, a country with a 95 per cent Muslim population, and backed by the 57-state Organisation of Islamic Co-operation – whose standing in the proceedings was challenged by Myanmar's legal team.
The Gambia has asked the court to issue an emergency order instructing Myanmar to cease alleged "genocide-related activities", not to destroy evidence or put it beyond reach, and to co-operate with UN bodies that have been investigating the ethnic violence in Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh.
In a nuanced address, Ms Suu Kyi never departed from her fundamental contention that the military was not responsible for initiating the 2017 violence, while accepting that the state was not without blame, and supporting the need for repatriation of refugees and “a spiritual mindset of unity”.
At the root of the conflict, she contended, was the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group active in Rakhine and categorised as a terrorist organisation by her government.
Although the group had not been mentioned by The Gambia, she said, it had been active since 2013, acknowledged by the International Crisis Group in a 2016 report, and in 2017 had been responsible for co-ordinated attacks by several thousand fighters on 30 police posts, leaving 12 officers dead.
In this context, she said, the term “clearance operation”, taken by critics to suggest the forced expulsion of Rohingya, in reality referred to counterinsurgency operations. It had been “misused and misinterpreted”.
However, Ms Suu Kyi (74) – who was held under house arrest as a political prisoner for 15 years – said it “could not be ruled out” that the military had, on occasion, used disproportionate force, or even that it may have failed to distinguish between armed militants and civilians.
“Even in such circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis”, she told the court.
There had been courts martial as a result of some incidents, she said, and “more will follow”. There were also two investigations, one by an independent commission of inquiry and the other by Myanmar’s judge advocate general, which “must be allowed to run their course”.
“Can there be genocidal intent on the part of a state that actively investigates its own military and pursues those who may have done wrong?”, she asked.
“No stone will be left unturned to make domestic accountability work”, she added. “International justice affirms our common values. It must not be used to fan the flames of extreme polarisation and hate narratives.”
Also appearing for Myanmar, Canadian lawyer Prof William Schabas accused some UN investigators of "campaigning for a case rather than assessing the situation in a measured manner".
The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation also came in for criticism from Myanmar’s legal team, on the grounds that it “wanted to bring a case, but was not concerned about its legal basis”.
Protesters at the gates of the court were vocal as the Myanmar entourage left. Pro-Rohingya protestors chanted, “Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you!”
Just yards away, Myanmar supporters carried banners reading, “We stand with You!”