Britain must defend Burma's Muslim Rohingyas

The abuse of the Rohingyas by the Burmese government is a human rights catastrophe.

The past year has seen impressive progress in Burma – the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners, preliminary ceasefires with many ethnic minorities in Burma and the first elections in 20 years which saw pro-democracy candidates elected to parliament.  Alongside this internal progress, international progress is being made with sanctions being suspended and political relationships starting to form, not least with an invitation from Prime Minister David Cameron to Burma’s President Thein Sein to visit the UK later this year.  

Burma’s President Thein Sein has been working hard to convince the world his government is changing.  Yet this story of progress and reform hides a far more complex and troubling truth. Burma is taking some initial, fragile steps towards democratisation, but there is still a very, very long way to go. Several hundred political prisoners remain in jail, a brutal war continues many ethnic minorities including the predominantly Christian Kachin people in northern Burma, and there are still systematic human rights abuses – civilians in Kachin talk of forced labour, torture and extra judicial killings and at least 75,000 people have been forcibly displaced.

And there is the tragedy that is the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas. In June, a devastating cycle of violence spiralled out of control in Arakan State in western Burma. Sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman allegedly by Muslim Rohingyas, decades of racial and religious hatred erupted into several weeks of sectarian violence in which hundreds were killed, dozens of villages torched and at least 90,000 people displaced. Both communities committed violence, but the Rohingyas were the primary victims.

The effects were seen far wider than Arakan State. Throughout Burma, and among Burmese exiled communities abroad, including in the UK, blatant and shocking anti-Muslim racism came to the fore with threats against Rohingyas as well as those who campaign for them and crude comments on social media depicting the Rohingyas as “Bengalis” and “terrorists”.

Back in Burma, as the violence subsided, the security forces began a violent crackdown going house to house arresting Rohingyas who have now seemingly disappeared without charge and without trial. Those who could flee had nowhere to run except the jungle. Those who could not flee faced jail or death. This is a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in the making.

Underlying this entire issue is the question of citizenship. The Rohingyas have lived in Burma for generations, but under the 1982 Citizenship Law they are not recognised as citizens. The Burmese government, and many in Burmese society, describe them as “illegal immigrants”. For years, they have faced severe restrictions on marriage, movement, education and religion in Burma, because they are deemed “foreigners”. They are among the most persecuted, marginalised people in the world.

Bangladesh, however, will not take them either. Although an estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees have lived in dire conditions along the Bangladesh-Burma border for years, Bangladesh refuses to give sanctuary to any more. Those fleeing the current crisis have been turned back from the border, sent to face an uncertain fate. Those who have escaped from Burma on boats have been turned away from Bangladesh’s shores, often to die in stormy seas or be shot at by Burmese troops.

In early July, President Thein Sein escalated the crisis even further, by reportedly telling the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that his government will not recognise them. On the same day Britain opened a trade office in Naypyidaw and the US lifted sanctions, Thein Sein wanted to hand the entire ethnic group to the UNHCR to look after until they could be resettled in a third country. He described the 800,000 Rohingyas in Burma as “a threat to national security”.

There is an urgent need for international pressure on President Thein Sein, to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law and introduce a new law that is based on international norms and human rights. No one born in Burma should be denied citizenship. No ethnic group should be written off as “a threat to national security”. Such racial and religious intolerance is unacceptable.

The British government must make this issue a priority. If Burma is to become a truly free nation, with all the responsibilities and benefits that come with that, it must respect human rights for all its people. Britain must push for open access for humanitarian aid and human rights monitors to all areas of Burma, the release of all political prisoners and for an immediate stop to the violence and persecution - including rewriting the Citizenship Law.  Without this, the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma cannot move forward.

The Rohingyas have lived in Burma for generations, but under the 1982 Citizenship Law they are not recognised as citizens. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and member of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Communities and Local Government.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation