By Advocate Shabnam Mayet


About the author: Advocate Shabnam Mayet is the founder member of Protect the Rohingya . She has just returned from a visit to Cox Bazaar Bangladesh, where almost 600 thousand refugees have been housed in makeshift camps after fleeing the atrocious massacre by the Burmese Military and The Buddhist .


The right to self-determination of peoples is a fundamental principle of international law and is enshrined in article 1 of the ICESCR and the ICCPR. The ICCPR provides for the rights of peoples to self-determination in addition to the right of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion or to use their own language. Article 1 imposes an obligation on States Parties to facilitate the realisation of and respect for the right to self-determination, ‘not only in relation to their own peoples but also vis-à-vis all peoples which have not been able to exercise or have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their right to self-determination.’

Keeping this in mind, it is inconceivable that in 2017 there are minorities in the world still fighting for their right to self-identify. The Pope’s visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar last week highlighted this aspect of the plight of Rohingya. The Pontif elected not to use the word Rohingya when speaking about the massive humanitarian crisis which has forced 640 000 to flee to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017. However during his time in Bangladesh the Pope on his state visit to Myanmar he asked the Rohingya refugees who travelled to meet him for forgiveness. The refusal of Myanmar to recognise them or even name them is ironic in that they are denied a name, yet they are simultaneously being persecuted for who they are.

Human rights violations against the Rohingya in the military’s latest crackdown include, the deliberate burning to death of civilians in their homes; killing of adults and children, indiscriminate shooting of those fleeing; gang rapes, rapes, public nudity and the forced sexual slavery of women and girls in military barracks. There has also been the burning and destruction of 330 villages , this includes mosques, homes, markets and schools.

None of this is new for the Rohingya. State- sanctioned violence against them is symptomatic of a long and oppressive history of discrimination by the Myanmar government. They have suffered military atrocities and have been forced to flee en masse continuously from the 1970s. In 1982 their citizenship was revoked by the state rendering them stateless and Rohingya children have not been issued birth certificates since the 1990s. They are denied access to tertiary education and have been stripped of their identity cards, their right to vote and their right to form political parties. Rohingya have also been subjected to restrictions on movement, forced sterilisation, require government permission to marry and may not own land.

Myanmar even adapted four laws in 2015 for the Protection of Race and Religion. These were seen as a means to further discriminate against the Rohingya. Despite being led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate, the democratic government has done little to address what academics and activists the world over have labelled a genocide. Suu Kyi has been a great disappointment, making apparent the fulfilment of her own idea that, ‘It is not power that corrupts, but fear’. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. 

Fleeing refugees have witnessed Rakhine Buddhists assisting the military by looting Rohingya homes and setting villages alight. For its part the government insisted that the Rohingya were burning down their own homes and the reports of rape by the military were fake.

The incitement to hatred and violence against the Rohingya by extremist Buddhist groups has become prevalent following the 2012 violence. The majority see the Rohingya as illegal Bengalis. They are considered a threat to the state and subhuman, vermin to be disposed.

The recent bilateral repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar specifies that the refugees should be returned to their homes and property, an improbability as villages have been burned and cattle and lands confiscated by Rakhine Buddhists. Myanmar’s minister for resettlement, Win Myat Aye, has said that his country would be taking back no more than 300 refugees per day. At that rate, it would take over five and a half years for all the Rohingya that fled to be allowed back in.

The main issue is that resettlement has to be safe and voluntary which seems highly improbable since Rohingya are still entering Bangladesh and Northern Rakhine remains inaccessible to international observers and foreign media. The government of Myanmar has given no undertakings about the legal status of the returnees nor is it guaranteeing their safety.

For the civilian government of Myanmar and its de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the refugee agreement is a public relations exercise to ward off international condemnation. Sources in Myanmar told me there is no communication between the military and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on the issue. Without support from the military leadership, even if she would be so inclined, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot stop the army from assaulting the Rohingyas.

Fleeing refugees tell stories of Rakhine Buddhists assisting the military by looting Rohingya homes and burning down villages yet the government persists that the Rohingya are burning down their own homes. As the propaganda machine turns it becomes apparent the government would have us believe the Rohingya are slaughtering their own children.

Having unrestricted access to information means that we get to sit back and watch while ultranationalist Buddhists continue propagating hatred for the Rohingya unabated. In the past they have lobbied the government to pass laws related to population control, interfaith marriage, religious conversion and monogamy. They have even gone as far as to protest the usage of the word ‘Rohingya’ and have asked shops not to sell food to Rohingya in a bid to create a religiously or ethnically homogeneous society, something South Africans know all too well.

Recently when addressing a Special Session of the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asked if anyone can rule out that elements of genocide may be present? By labelling the Rohingya terrorists, Myanmar has adopted the War on Terror narrative. Recent history has shown repeatedly that once that happens, oppressive regimes have free reign to unleash shocking and awful brutality on a civilian population without being questioned.