Rohingya children play by a relief tent at Bawdupah's Internally Displaced People camp on the outskirts of Sittwe. Photo: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
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The Rohingya crisis in Burma has become “a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo”

The status of Burma’s Rohingya people has devolved to the point where even naming them has become controversial. We need to do more.

Last month Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma (also known as Myanmar), criticised the Burmese government’s attitude towards its own Rohingya people. In Burma’s Rakhine province, there are currently more than one million Rohingya – an Islamic ethnic group – living in apartheid-like conditions.

Don’t feel too guilty if you don’t know much about this humanitarian crisis; coverage in the mainstream western media has been gradually tailing off since 2012. What you should be made aware of, though, is the fact that the Rohingya were previously recognised as the most persecuted people in the world. Just let that sink in. It has actually been possible to identify one ethnic group as the world’s most persecuted people.

But on Wednesday, rather than address its deliberately poor handling of the crisis, Burma’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying it “unequivocally” rejected the term Rohingya and labelled it “terminology which has never been included among over 100 national races of Myanmar”. The ministry went on to accuse Lee of exceeding her jurisdiction, warning that insistence on using the term Rohingya would make the current crisis more difficult to address.

The Burmese government is complicit in the persecution of the Rohingya, a group it declared stateless through the passing of the country’s 1982 citizenship law. With that law, the Burmese government effectively declared the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Subsequently, Burmese officials have made it impossible for them to seek any help and now, following clashes with Burmese Buddhists in 2012, 140,000 Rohingya currently live in displacement camps.

“The displacement camp is no different to a concentration camp,” says Nurul Islam, chairman of the London based Arakan (Rakhine) Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). Formed in 1998, ARNO campaigns for the self-determination of the Rohingya within the Burmese federation, as well as the repatriation of displaced peoples and “the establishment of a welfare society based on equality, liberty, democracy, human rights and freedom for all peoples”.

While the crisis has been on-going for the last five decades, Islam says that the Rohingya are now waiting for the rest of the world to increase pressure on the Burmese government. “[The Burmese government] are persecuting their own people,” he says. “It is now up to the international community to help us. People are dying; all the ingredients for genocide are in place – a slow genocide is taking place in Burma.”

David Mathieson, a senior research for the Human Rights Watch in Burma, explained that through rejection of the term Rohingya the Burmese government are perpetuating a culture of violence against its own people. “[This] is a betrayal of the principle of self identity, and has acted to justify decades of appalling violence and repression,” Mathieson says.

“This denial has been exacerbated by growing numbers of international donors, diplomats and dubious analysts and experts who kowtow to Rakhine extremists and government hardliners like callow collaborators.

So what needs to happen? Well, most importantly, western governments need to be more vocal in their condemnation of the crisis as it stands. Military aid, supplied by countries including the UK, should of course be halted. We need sanctions and, most importantly, our politicians must use the term Rohingya. Loudly.

Both Islam and Mathieson are vocal in their condemnation of nations that have not spoken out about the rejection of the term Rohingya, describing it as “tantamount to being a co-conspirator in ethnic cleansing”. As Mathieson says, the crisis has turned into “a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo”; it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to do more to bring about a swift resolution.

Follow Oliver Griffin on Twitter @OliGGriffin

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.