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Inaction over ethnic cleansing in Myanmar will only fuel Islamist extremism

If Western governments don't speak up for the Rohingya, extremist recruiters will. 

The silence of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the Rohingya emergency has been deafening. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been rightly challenged, repeatedly, over her failure to address what the United Nations has said is “ethnic cleansing”.

It is not hard to find the hatred which beats beneath the surface of the country and targets the nation’s one million vulnerable Rohingya. The anti-Muslim rhetoric being promoted by those such as the so-called “Burmese Bin Laden” – the Buddhist priest, Wirathu – is no different to some of the virulent anti-Muslim hatred that has been used by far-right extremists in Europe. Wirathu has spread the politics of division and hatred by suggesting that Muslims repeatedly rape Buddhist women.

In one interview he said: “We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town…..In every town, there is crude and savage Muslim majority.” The aim appears to be to rally the masses against a weak and insecure Rohingya population and to frame them as an unstable and malign force within Myanmar – simply because of their faith.

Back in February a UN human rights report highlighted the systematic targeting and persecution of Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. It gathered testimony from 220 people which showed “severe restrictions on the freedom of movement” of the Rohingya and “clearance operations” by the army, with relatives and family members reporting rape, other sexual violence, abuse and disappearances.

The government of Myanmar’s response has been to deny all charges, claiming it is the victim of a conspiracy from foreign forces wanting to destabilise the country. In essence, this mirrors the response we heard from another regime which was involved in the mass transfer and genocide of its populations: the Serbian government under Slobodan Milošević, and the Republika Srpska paramilitaries which were controlled by Radovan Karadžić, in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Karadžić, the President of Republika Srpska at the time, was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment last year for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered. 

The comparisons between the two countries do not end with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent calls for independent states led to Serbia’s war of aggression towards Bosnia and its predominantly Bosnian Muslim population. Religious hatred tore apart villages, communities, marriages and families that had been forged over centuries. The attack on the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina led to the merciless siege of Sarajevo, with daily news items showing people cowering from shells as Serb gunners fired down with impunity from the surrounding hills.

The siege of Sarajevo and the West’s inactivity and unwillingness to intervene acted as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremists. Their narrative, often carried in extremist literature handed out on London’s streets, said that Muslims are being murdered because they were Muslims.

Western European nations did not step in for some time. In 1992, then-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd made clear that Britain would not engage troops on the ground. It was this inertia that created a strong pull for the Islamist-Jihadist narrative, which said that the West was doing nothing and was in cahoots with the Serbs to wipe out Muslims in Europe. Fighters arrived from the Middle East, fuelled by stories of the atrocities unleashed by Bosnian Serb and Serbian forces against Bosnian Muslims.

Myanmar today is reminiscent of the Bosnian crisis, though there is only one side which is perpetrating the majority of violence. The images and video footage filtering through are having an impact. Within Muslim countries, and here in the United Kingdom, large sections of the Muslim community are voicing anger about the international community's inaction.

Just as in the 1990s people complain about the “inaction of the West”, irrespective of the complexities and or opportunity to influence any real change in Myanmar. The reality seems to be that Western nations are not going to intervene in Myanmar. In a world of realpolitik they calculate they need Myanmar’s military junta as a "stable partner" for the future. There will be much talk about human rights and about the need for the persecution to stop, but the reality is that the UK government will probably do little to exert real and sustained pressure on Suu Kyi and the military.

How soon we forget the lessons of Bosnia, when inaction feeds Islamist groups and extremism, who then step in to portray themselves as the defender of Muslims and Islam. Inaction over the Rohingya and softly spoken words about the genocide in Myanmar will help no-one but Islamists who use such situations as a recruiting sergeant for Muslim hearts and minds.

The Rohingya do not need jihadi bedfellows. Nor can or should we allow Suu Kyi and her junta to get away with the open and blatant persecution of a defenceless people. The latter is going unpunished, but without action the former becomes increasingly likely.

Fiyaz Mughal is founder and ex-director of anti-Muslim hate crime initiative, Tell MAMA, and Director of the interfaith organisation, Faith Matters

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left