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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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