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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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.