In 2018, there was a Labour motion about righting the wrongs of Windrush. Priti Patel, the present home secretary, was among 306 Conservative MPs voting against the bill and effectively silencing much of the information in the Windrush story.
Of course, it is true that the motion was linked to other issues that were party-sensitive and, therefore, unlikely to be endorsed by any Government ministers. However, an alternative bill was not put forward by the Government. One would have thought that Mrs May would have wanted to correct her own mistakes but I think that is not really a priority. It is fairly shameful.
So, alot of wriggling today, therefore, from Priti Patel who cannot really hide her own voting record, nor indeed hthe fact that she was once sacked for dishonesty: this is the lady who is running our police force and leading “by example”.
She has invited a good deal of criticism, not least from a swathe of Labour MPs who sent her a letter earlier this month in the wake of the george Floyd riots. To her credit, Ms Patel published the letter on twitter.
The problem here is that this is not a party-political problem and no one in power today is quite blameless, so no one side can take a “holier-than-thou” position. The “Hostile environment” was actually set up, I think, in defiance of the Equal Opportunities act, by the Blair/Brown government but made all the more aggressive by Theresa May’s championing of the concept in 2012 and with two nasty immigration bills in 2014 and 2016. Her statment “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” actually reinforced a series of policies put in place by Jack Straw. If you need to check the details, note the opening of Yarl’s Wood in 2001 and the belief in the “deterrance of detainment”, something that never worked here nor elsewhere in Europe. But also look for terms like “deterrent dogma” and “deportation targets”. This latter is a term that continues to be used and in 2000, under Blair, was set at the deportation of “30,000 people over the next year”.
Oddly, Amber Rudd, who was in charge when the Windrush scandal broke and who took the fall for what her predecessor and now her boss, PM May had set up, was one of the more reasonable Home Secretaries to have held the job in the last 20 years. It does not say alot of course. It fell to Sajid Javid, perhaps even better, to criticise the policy more directly, “I don’t like the phrase hostile. So the terminology I think is incorrect and I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful and it doesn’t represent our values as a country.” But he did not hold the job long enough to change the way things were done and the problem anyway was not about nomenclature.
I am aware of much of the horrible atmosphere in the Home office because I have found myself for nearly 20 years dealing with failed or botched student visas and I have been innumerable times to the detestable visa centres to try to sort out problems. In some cases, I saw promising students deported half-way through A levels and certainly more than one Oxbridge hopeful having their chances completely ripped away by these policies. This is a form of savagery, but it is also deeply scurrious. We have taken money from these students and then, at the crucial moment, deported them on a technicality. Even when it has worked effectively, we have often given students an education and thrown them out the moment they graduate.
It seemed to me that targetting students, which of course continues, is a cheap trick to suggest that the Home Office is keeping its eye on immigration. Students are very well documented so they are always going to be an easy target.
I went to see a number of ministers as well as my own MP at the time, Andrea Leadsom. ms Leadsom saw me at her constituency surgery, hectored me for about 10 minutes and then let me go, almost without giving me a chance to say anything to her myself. She was surrounded by advisors and gatekeepers. It was one of those rare occasions when I was frankly speechless. In response, I sent her a letter explaining that, had I been given the oppportunity to say something, these would have been the things I would have said. This led to further correspondence with the Home Office, then under Mrs May and to further meetings with other departmental ministers and MPs. I am afraid, though, that nothing much changed.
Part of the problem was a sense that this had public approval. Part of the problem is that Theresa May loves bureaucracy.
The Windrush scandal broke both the assumption about public approval and its trust in paperwork: the home office threw the paperwork away. We cannot ride roughshod over people who have worked so hard to integrate with and build up our society and then blame them for our own stupidity.
Our hospitality to countless waves of immigrants has benefitted us greatly.
Last night a statue in Bristol was pulled down in protest, and today the Cenotaph has been defaced. There have been protests in the past about statues, most notably about the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, but I think this is the first time we have had a Stalinesque or Sadaam Hussein moment where we have toppled imagery.
Like those dealing with 7th century Byzantine and Roundhead iconoclasm, the authorities of the day have not gone to the hub of the problem and it is essentially philosophical. Should we respect history- that is, record what is good and what is bad? Use the imagery as a source and draw a conclusion? The evidence is all around us and only by preserving it, can it ever make any sense. Pulling down statues, erasing pictures does not actually erase the history, though it might make it harder to access even if the statement itself may be of value. At its worst, therefore, we are in danger of obliterating, or hiding our past.
What is odd is that the iconic images of statues crashing down elsewhere is applauded while here Priti Patel wags her finger at the people who have defaced public property. Priti Patel has long been a figure of fun. This is not a cause that will win her much support or change her reputation particularly as she fails to identify the problem. As ever, with this makeshift secretary of state, she is out of touch and hides behind bluster and bullying. She actually expects to be taken seriously. She is the wrong person to deal with this problem.
The statue mess has not been a sudden decision. The BBC did a programme about Colston in February 2018
In Russia, the old communist statues have been gathered together and erected in parks. In ancient Rome, the heads of figures out of favour were generally lopped off and replaced, most famously with the colossal statue of nero. We instinctively know that public statues have a meaning. They are not simply decorations to our streets; they proclaim history in a three-dimensional way, both the good and the bad. In the case of Colston, his statue was put up to commemorate his huge effort to eradicate his 11-year association with slavery and the abominable trade of the RAC (its victims were branded with the acronym before they were transported and sold. This trading company had links up the highest chain of command in the country as its nominal boss eventually became king). He put money into charities, sat in parliament and endowed schools (particularly Colston’s girls’ school) in the area. And he was not the only one in 17th/18th century society who was clearly ashamed of his past and wanted to make good. Many people through these centuries had links with slavery- George Washington is a good example (cf Lucy Worsley’s “American History’s biggest fibs” – I will find a screen shot from one of the scenes I drew for that programme and post it here later! *TW).
WE have lots of questions to answer but pulling down a statue will not give us these answers. I think the biggest question must be about when the statue was erected. A man with a known history of association with slavery has a statue put up at the end of the 19th Century when only a few years’ earlier there had been a big effort to abolish slavery for good. What message were the businesspeople of Bristol sending? If there was an attempt to erase history, was it done then at the end of the 19th Century?
The problem is that nothing is ever quite so simple. Coulston was associated with the governing board of the RAC but there is no evidence that he was actually involved in slavery. Certainly, he might be said to have endorsed it. I think the arguments for pulling done the statue of Colston are less sound than the arguments about removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the facade of Oriel college in Oxford. Rhodes clearly had blood on his hands.
But images matter.
Otherwise, we would not be erecting statues in the first place.
This is what the museum in Bristol has to say about Coulston:
In March1680, he bought a share in the London-based Royal African Company. Only RAC members could trade with Africa, for gold, ivory and enslaved Africans. His father William also owned shares in the RAC, and supplied trade goods to its ships.
Edward Colston never, as far as we know, traded in enslaved Africans on his own account. We do not know how much profit he took from the RAC’s trade in enslaved Africans – he was paid dividends such as 50 guineas in July 1780, and 160 guineas in November 1685. He sold William, Prince of Orange, some of his RAC shares worth £1,000 in 1689, then bought more for himself. We do not know how much of his fortune was built up from his trade in wine and oil, or from investments or loans, or from money and property inherited from his father. What we do know is that he was an active member of the governing body of the RAC, which traded in enslaved Africans, for 11 years.
Since writing this, I have had a very interesting exchange on line about the points I have raised here. I think I need to clarify a few things, therefore, and apologise if my writing might sometimes be a bit muddier than I intend.
My main gripe is with The Home Secretary whose response is quite out of step with the issue- this is not about defacing property or about meaningless actions. This is purposeful action.
I was making 3 points: 1) It was wrong to erect the state in the first place 2) Priti Patel’s finger wagging about damaging property gets it wrong and 3) such a literally iconoclastic approach cannot be a receipe for the future- there are many other statues and paintings that commemorate historical figures with detestable associations.
We cannot go round the country throwing all this vile statuary into the harbour. Some of it, indeed, forms part of great works of art. We need to fully contexturalise these pieces and the men and women (mostly men) depicted, so children and visitors know when they approach these monuments that this is not a celebration or a glorification of someone who was powerful at the expense of others. Or if these were, that we do not think that is right.
We need to change the balance of power and glorify the down-trodden.
Contexturalising something is not about adding a plaque or placing something in a museum. (A plaque is little more than a plaster on a serious wound). We need to have burst of cultural activity where many new pieces are commissioned to stand up to those monsters of history who litter our streets – statues that celebrate the human rights’ movements, and the people who have been overlooked in our history. We have to find a way to deal with this issue because it cuts across so many of our celebrated pieces of art history. In this case, the statue of Edward Colston is fairly awful as a piece of sculpture but the works of Eric Gill, on the other hand, are rightly celebrated as great art. Gill was a detestable man, yet we cannot destroy his art because of his personal life, however depraved and wrong.
Statues and paintings are not really about wording. They are a potent visual image and we must respond in kind. It is not about plaques that explain away the ghastliness in small-print. We need to do this more creatively and boldly. I would love to see, for example, a work commissioned now that celebrates in bronze the dumping of this statue in the harbour. That is iconic and should be commemorated.
This evening, I put up a poster on instagram that I had made around the image of George Floyd. I copied some graffiti from a photo I found on the internet and thought that would be ok. Lots of valuable hashtags there and I have recently mastered the hashtag.
What I did not know was that one of these slogans (“All lives matter”) had been hijacked and perverted some years ago. On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that Humpty Dumpty addresses in Alice- words can mean what you want them to mean but that effectively renders the whole process of language incomprehensible. On the other hand, it is Canute-like to pretend that words do not change their meaning.
There is always more to learn- if words need to be adjusted and if slogans are being used in a specific way, then we need to learn about this and make sure we are not making a bad situation worse. This is a problem that has targeted one community, but it is now everyone’s fight. Blackouttuesday showed us this spectacularly. And we have to get it right.
I have therefore re-edited the poster. I do not want to cause offence to anyone and racism is such a serious issue. It may be an issue of greater prominence today in the USA but it is an issue that wriggled underneath the British referendum debate and it is one, I think, that is worthy enough to see a few words adjusted.
“Black lives matter” was a campaign begun in 2013, by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. It began in response to the shooting of African American teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who had shot him. In 2014, two other African American men were shot by the police and protests particularly in Missouri led to the slogan and the campaign. It is about exposing and condemning structural racism.
“All lives matter” was proposed by Republicans, most particularly Tim Scott. It was then picked up by Hillary. The backlash was fairly aggressive. My gut feeling is that both Scott and Clinton were using the phrase fairly naively, as was I, but others were not. This was not a philosophical debate. It was about cheapening or belittling an important campaign. However, Trump has since gone on record saying that the slogan “Black lives matter” is itself racist and that seems to change the picture entirely. Trump is absurd and needs to be challenged. Even if that means accepting that fairly innocent words have been weaponised.
What is important here is that the police and the legal system have acted appallingly, and that needs to be called out. We also need to make sure that change is in place and that people remember.
By the way, I genuinely think the ideal must be that “all lives matter”, that we must be vigorously colour-blind and defiant of all prejudice in whatever form it takes. And I think, moreover, it goes beyond the human. Again, I am aware that language has changed and that the term “colour-blind”, something that I am mostly aware of in my experience of casting and being cast for parts in British theatre, was challenged in the late 1990s. Again, there is a way in which majorities who do not face prejudice have taken over these terms and effectively used them to sabotage the huge efforts being made by the BME community to achieve credible, full and workable equality. However, this was good terminology advanced during the civil rights’ movements of the 1950s and 60s, I cannot think of a better expression and I hope it is understood in those terms. We have an overwhelming duty of care to whoever or whatever is part of our life. That is mutual. It is neither patronizing nor subservient. We share our life with others, globally, nationally and domestically. We must respect and be responsible for others, as they for us.
The Little Prince
Martin Luther King talks about being judged not on colour, creed or gender but on “the content of their character”. He is quite right, but I think he does not go far enough. We should simply care and be kind to all because we all have a shared life together. As I said, I think this goes beyond the human- We can think of the story of the fox in The Little prince (I love the song in the slightly obscure lerner/lowe film, incidentally) or even of the last sentence in the book of Jonah where God defiantly says he cares for the cattle too:
“..and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” (this was the first text I ever translated and learnt in Hebrew so I have great fondness for it. It sounds lovely and is quite funny.)
Here’s a link to the Little prince- Gene Wilder is charming here as is the little boy. We have responsibility for those we get closer to. It does not stop the little prince going away. That is something I do not quite understand. I hope I would have stayed with the fox.
We need to take responsibility for one another. We need to care more.
I have been drawing pictures over the last few days. Here are some of them along with a link to my “Middle of the week” video. I shall try to keep up a mid-week vlog until Christmas.
There is a big debate about anti-semitism in the Labour party. It seems to me that this is really a debate about the quality of leadership that is offered by Jeremy Corbyn, and Miriam Margolyes, a committed Labour supported and of course a Jewish actor, yesterday on Channel 4 put it rather succinctly.
The question remains whether the Chief rabbi is right to get involved in politics during an election. He talked about “a poison sanctioned from the very top – has taken root” but what he well knows is that this has been ongoing for a good few years. It is nothing new. So the newsworthy issue is the fact that the Chief rabbi has spoken out at a time that is judged to cause maximum damage to the Labour campaign. What is generally agreed is that Corbyn has not dealt with the underlying issue well enough and that there is a swelling and vocal group within labour that smudges the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli. There is a distinction between the two and Miriam Margolyes makes it adroitly in her interview (she goes further in fact and says she is not a zionist and that there are many things about the current state of Israel that need to change. She emhasizes that she does not in any way question the existence of the state of Israel or its legitimacy. I would be more cautious than Margolyes and simply point to the impeachment of Netanyahu as a demonstration that the rot is now identified). It is about language and about the way anger can slip into prejudice, but it is also about mob mentality and Corbyn fails to understand this. When it comes to leadership, it is not enough to look at individual failings but to strike at the problem. The problem is a nasty use of language and a casual disregard for how it is perceived. In the end, it is about arrogance.
The Chief rabbi did not specifically tell people to vote against Labour. He urged them to vote with “conscience”. He also said that there were 130 cases of anti-semitism in the labour party that had not yet been processed. (There were 635 complaints at the beginning of the year)
To prove the point of his criticism, however, on 4 occasions today Corbyn has refused to apologise to the wider Jewish community for his failure to stamp out anti-semitism in the Labour party. He has admittedly, in the past, now apologised for calling Hamaz and Hezbollah “friends” back in 2009 and has eventually permitted labour’s definition of anti-semitism to be brought in line with that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Diane Abbott today, however, said she did not think Jewish people were “anxious and frightened”. I suppose she knows Jewish people better than the chief rabbi, or is this another instance of the “arrogance” of the labour leadership? To their credit, Labour MPs seeking re-election, Wes Streeting (for Ilford North) and Jess Phillips (Birmingham) have both apologised to the Chief Rabbi for the way this has been handled, saying they will do whatever they can to “win back trust” in the community. Again, their apology suggests the leader remains out of sync.
Deeply concerned to read of potential deals with Nigel Farage as the way to secure a Conservative victory in any General election.
My concerns go beyond the issue of “deal or no deal”, a mantra that seems to come from a TV game show anyway. I am much more concerned about what bothered me in the past and that has never been properly addressed- specifically, the way the debate over Europe was hijacked by extremists who wanted to promote a racist agenda of their own. In many ways, they succeeded, partly because it suited Mrs May to continue her “hostile environment” and partly, because it was so popular, but it was still racist at its core.
Three moments spring to mind that highlight the racism- the first is the event in 2015 which led to my resignation and to a small moment on TV sparring with Mr Farage – who claimed I was out of my depth- not at all, Nigel! The story was about a nasty racist slur cast by the UKIP MEP David Coburn who confused the name of the Scottish Minister for Europe, Humza Yousaf, with the name of a convicted handless terrorist serving time in a gaol in New York, Abu Hamza. There was never any apology because Farage insisted it was “just a joke- can’t you take a joke?”
No amount of massaging words can disguise the casual racism of the original remark and, moreover, the savage cowardice of doing so, when Humza was actually late and, therefore, not in the studio to respond. This was cheap and nasty and needed to be called out.
The point is that the same joke has come up more than once in UKIP, and, because it was tolerated then, even celebrated by Farage and his cronies, it was taken then as acceptable and remains so in their eyes. Its latest outing was to confuse Sadiq Khan with the leader of the 7/7 bombers. The person who made this joke, the new leader, Richard Braine apparently takes offence when people mock him with the name “Dick-Brain”. Double standards? But again, he does not get it at all.
Whether we accept what elected ministers and Mayors are doing or not, we cannot deliberately confuse these elected leaders in a democratic country with common convicted terrorists and certainly not because we think it funny to mix up one Muslim name with another. This is not Islamophobia or a “fear of Islam”. It is pure hatred and contempt. The fact that Farage did not join me in condemning Coburn tells me that he did not see this as wrong, and the fact that it continues in the party he led, tells me that he must, therefore, continue to take responsibility for something he started.
Beyond this, yet another UKIP leader, Gerald Batten said that Carl Benjamin’s racist tweet to Labour MP Jess Phillips, was also a joke, specifically “I think that was satire” and an example of “free speech”. Batten went on to identify Islam as a “death cult” and to forge greater links, or rather more open links, with Tommy Robinson and the DFLA.
I have always conceded that Farage is a consummate politician and one of the greatest orators at work in politics today.
But, it would be wholly wrong to give a national office to a man who has sired this sort of racist nastiness. To have an election pact is the first step to granting ministerial office. If a pact is necessary, then it must be on the clear understanding that ministerial office will not be an outcome. To see Farage in a British Cabinet would be worse than seeing Corbyn leading it.
rehashing the old letterbox issue again, but rather well this time. The applause that greeted Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi was deserved and his question impassioned, precise and elegant. Boris was fairly good in response too, to his credit, making reference to his own Muslim ancestors. He might also have added that his maternal grandmother was Jewish which I am pretty sure under the rules of the Beth Din makes him Jewish as well – though as I write this, I have someone calling me on the phone and he says that Boris’s grandmother, Frances Beatrice Loew, was only half Jewish- and her mother was actually Scottish. So his great grandfather, Elias, was Ashkenazi and a former Oxford academic, which puts pay to my theory there, but still- it gives a bit more weight to his comment about cleaning up anti-semitism in the Augean stables that is Labour.
An as for Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, he is a Cambridge Mathematician, so one expects something pretty impressive there! A meeting of giants across the floor of the House.
Articulating the problem of getting through horrendous home office bureaucracy that has been ill-fit for purpose for many years now and that has led me to encounters including a unpleasant hectoring from Andrea Leadsom and an exchange with Theresa May before she became Prime Minister. We must stop this nonsense of parading bureaucracy as a fix-all, esp when the assurances we give in public are contradicted by the paperwork people are required to fill out and the opaque “investigations” that then take place which effectively cannot be challenged. Too much money and respect is wasted on this sort of nonsense.
What we promise, we simply need to deliver. No ifs, no buts, and no mindless pen-pushing.
Many things worry me about the prospect of an alliance with the DUP, -or with ulster unionists at all but then, if the Ulster Unionist party was good enough for Enoch Powell, and for many years took the Conservative whip in the Commons- well…
Of course by the 1980s, Powell was fighting the newly formed DUP as well as other parties in Northern Ireland. Ian Paisey was particularly scathing, I think, about his “anglo-Catholicism”. And indeed what remains of the UPP would see itself as quite distinct from the DUP. The UPP has recently refused to get involved with power-sharing in Stormont anyway and in this last election lost its last two seats. It could be argued then that the public voted for people who might come together and negotiate, rather than grandstand and abstain.
Enoch Powell is greatly eclipsed by his own rivers of blood speech, and his departure from the Conservatives in 1974, when he endorsed the labour party over his own. But I recall him as a genial and highly articulate man.
I think his speech was provocative rather than as the Times called it, “evil” and while he sued the Sunday Times for calling him “racialist”, I think, on reflection, he had certainly lapsed into the language of racism. But his speech is a benchmark against which today we can judge what is and what is not acceptable. I think also (a) his speech spurred our country towards greater integration and (b) he was not himself racist or prejudiced. As for his views on Europe, well, the country seems to have caught up with him. His campaign against the EEC in the fisrt Referendum would endear him to many today.
But I would hold him to be one of the great orators of teh 20th Century and a great thinker. It does not mean I agree with what he said, but it does mean that I am less inclined today to dismiss the DUP deal than I might have been …
But their views worry me,
And I wonder quite how a British Government can remain impartial as the peace deal in Northern Ireland plays out if it is so tied to one of the main parties.
The current stand-off between Holland and Turkey actually centres around the divisive figure of Gert Wilders and his supporters across Europe. Certainly, his attitude to Islam and to the treatment of refugees makes the charge of Fascism seem quite reasonable. What is more worrying is that this current fight may well bounce Wilders into power after Wednesday. The whole story shows Europe in the very worst light possible. It looks xenophobic, cheap and chaotic.
A few points are well worth noting. The first is that the various attempts to stop Turkish ministers from speaking in Europe have been couched in the language of “putting public order and safety in jeopardy”, but in fact there is clearly an agenda going back weeks if not months to stop these rallies at all cost. Indeed, this is what Mark Rutte originally wrote on his facebook,
“Many Dutch people with a Turkish background are authorized to vote in the referendum over the Turkish constitution. The Dutch government does not have any protest against gatherings in our country to inform them about it,…But these gatherings may not contribute to tensions in our society and everyone who wants to hold a gathering is obliged to follow instructions of those in authority so that public order and safety can be guaranteed.”
What I find particularly disturbing, therefore, is the late claim by the Dutch Prime Minister filmed by AlJazeera that holding a rally to promote a political cause in another country is actually illegal in Holland. This is how the AlJazeera joiurnalists have documented the comments later:
In the Netherlands it is illegal to hold a public rally about another country’s politics.
“The Dutch authorities appear not to want to allow any Turkish government minister to address any rally in this country,” Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Rotterdam, said.
“That’s in their law, and all the parties appear to be supporting the position of the government.”
However, no one appeared to think it was illegal before Saturday and before the damage had been d0ne! Indeed, Dutch News reported a few days ago ”
It would have made so much more sense, then, if it is truly the case that it is illegal to hold foreign rallies, to have said that at the outset, rather than to have whimpered on about “security and timing”. It smacks of mendacity. It is certainly not straightforward and it is thoroughly regrettable.
More to the point, there is a good record of Mr Wilders’ lengthy campaign to stop these rallies and of his personal opinion of Mr Erdoğan. The British press have chosen to conflate the various events of the last few days, suggesting that Mr Erdoğan’s language was intemperate and that the removal of the Family Minister was sparked by that. In fact, Mr Erdoğan was simply articulating the fact that Mr Wilders’ campaign was winning and I certainly do not see a vast gulf between the sort of things Mr Wilders promotes and the views of Fascism.
It has been a view certainly shared by the UK which issued its own travel ban to Mr Wilders, in force from 2006 to 2009. Following his most recent visits at the request of Lord Pearson, and Baroness Cox, and the screening of his film, “Fitna”, the Home office noted that his “statements and behaviour during a visit will inevitably impact on any future decisions to admit him”. It is unclear what the official British position might be, but Maxime Verhagen was quite candid. She said,
“He incites discord among people in a distasteful manner. And in the meantime he damages the interests of the Dutch population and the reputation of the Netherlands in the world”. In the article where this is quoted, Wilders is also abusive of the President Erdoğan: “En de Turkse premier Erdogan noemde hij een ‘total freak’.”“Verhagen: Wilders beschadigt reputatie Nederland”
Indeed, as Lord Ahmed said, Mr Wilders’ presence in the UK was a platform to “provoke violence and hatred”. He has clearly done that in Holland, and the effects of his manipulation are now dictating the way Turkey behaves. What a mess!
In January this year, following a visit to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Human rights envoy to Myanmar said,
“There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar deprived of some of their most fundamental rights. This is a million too many.”
She met privately with Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw to discuss the future of the Rohingya.
These people have rightly attracted the attention of the International community. They are abandoned and rejected, and many have tried to escape by boat to nearby States. In Myanmar, they are seen as a “self-defined” an unregistered Islamic community with a militant past, at a time of growing anti-Muslim prejudice. The Rakhine province, isolated by a range of mountains from the rest of Burma, was independent before it was annexed in 1785, and the only text from before the late 20th Century to mention the Rohingya by name dates to just 14 years after this annexation. Rakhine was then a stronghold of Buddhism, with a celebrated Statue of the Buddha, the Mahamuni image, which was later transported to Mandalay. Maybe there is a sense that the State has been sidelined and this is shared by both the Buddhist and Islamic communities. Today, certainly, Rakhine Buddhists say they feel vulnerable.
Aung San Suu Kye on the TODAY programme 24th October 2013
What appears to be a simple humanitarian issue shown in the 2013 Meiktila campaign, the deaths and destroyed homes that followed, the atrocities in Mandalay in 2014, the rise of 969 and in the grotesque camps of Sittwe, and an appalling example of State brutality is by no means straightforward. It is compounded by support for Aung San Suu Kyi who seems to follow an agenda in this instance that is comparable to the Nationalist agenda of her father. In a shocking interview with Mishal Husain that she gave to the BBC’s Today programme in October 2013, she justifies the exclusion of the Rohingya community in terms of the war on terror (what she calls “worldwide perception”) and allegedly commented afterwards, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. Her comments on and off record seem to suggest that (a) Aung San Suu Kyi is herself prejudiced and (b) that if she wanted to do something to help the community, she could. Significantly, however, she does not deny the rights of the Rohingya to live legitimately in Myanmar. She simply denies that muslims have been subject to a form of ethnic cleansing and goes on to say that
“Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subject to violence.”
In that interview, she suggests that the violence suffered by the Rohingya is about adjusting to the demands of becoming “a genuine democratic society.” Yet at the same time, she makes no offer to award the Rohingya any citizenship.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s views are actually supported academically by people like Christian Fink, an anthropologist who admits that the Rohingya have been denied citizenship, but also notes the “Buddhist Rakhine population’s fears of a Muslim takeover.” (“Living silence”). This is no reason to deny healthcare, education and citizenship. It also does not address the historical record that the Rohingya voted in the first Constituent Assembly Elections of an independent Burma in 1947. If they were accepted then, it does not really make sense that they are excluded now.
Much was expected of Aung San Suu Kyi and in 2015, the Dalai Lama observed, “It’s very sad. I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.” The Pope has joined criticisms observing that the Rohingya are targeted “simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith.”
Official Silence and Actual threats
Since this interview, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to take action, and remained silent about the Rohingya, whose plight has simply got worse. This has involved a rise in hate-speech, travel controls, population control, signed by the then President Thein Sein, to restrict the number of children as well as a migration, now thwarted on rickety boats to Thailand and Malaysia. The few refugees who today make it through, are left in no doubt about their country of origin. whiteboards declare them to be from Burma. In October 2016, Benedict Rogers notes that 2000 Rohingyan villagers were held in fields by the army.
This is what John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, said:
“Right now, it is routine for Burmese politicians, Burmese people in all walks of life, to say extremely reactionary and hateful things about the Rohingya population of Burma. Nobody is standing up and saying, ‘No, this is not what democracy is, what modern pluralistic societies are like. Aung San Suu Kyi could have been that person, and she failed to do that.”
The militant monks
The Rohingya face the rising popularity of demagogue monks, among them Ashin Wirathu, Ashin Wimala, and Ashin Parmoukkha who stretch the pacific image of Buddhist monasticism to breaking-point, though arguably it is nothing new (cf U. Ottoma also from Rakhine). They also face political discrimination from a topsy-turvy understanding of law, like Section 295 designed to prevent inter-religious conflict, now used to silence any criticism of Buddhist Nationalism. A new law purporting to be for the Protection of Race and Religion forbids conversion and inter-marriage.
Anti-Muslim propaganda, as well as Rakhine Buddhist fears threaten even greater violence that may entrench community divisions and deepen hostility. This may well explain Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence as, after 50- years of military rule, Myanmar is finally moving towards democracy. While the local population is broadly behind the Democracy movement, it does not seem sympathetic to efforts by the international community to solve the Rohingya problem. The muslim population of Myanmar, of which the Rohingya is now the majority, makes up only 4% of the whole population. In 2015, following the rescue of 1000 refugees off the coast of Ayeyarwady Region, protestors led by monks, demanded the expulsion of what they called the “bengalis”. Initial slogans critical of the UNHCR were removed but slogans demanding that “INGO/NGO respect the truth” remained. The truth they wanted to assert is that the Rohingyas have no right to be in Myanmar at all.
The Union Citizenship Act of 1948
This act, following an earlier act the previous year, and coming just a few years after a serious massacre of the Rohingya by “the Rakhine Maghs”, restricted citizenship to any person “from ancestors who for two generation at least all made any of the terriories included within the Union of Burma their permanent home and whose parents and himself were born in any such territories.” (Section 11 iv) Following this, many Rohingyas were formally registered, given identity cards (NRCs) and allowed to vote. (under section 30 of the 1950 Burma Population Registration Rules states that no foreigner may be thus registered). One wonders, incidentally, how long a foreigner needs to be resident before he or she qualifies for citizenship, of course! This is what MA Gaffer, a member of Parliament, said at the time,
“Though Rohingyas resemble a little with the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), their literature, names and tittles, dresses, languages, customs and cultures are as difference as the sky and the earth. Therefore to regard Rohingyas as Chittagonians is a grevious hurt to Rohingyas and a matter of tragedy and a great blow to Rohingya and far from actual history.”
“Although Rohingya’s culture, tradition, history and civilization are not inferior to that of other indigenous races of Burma, Rohingyas are always victims of persecutions, specially, the immigration used to arrest them. In June 1959, 76 Rohingyas were rounded and arrested in Akyab and Mayu districts by the immigration and were sent to Rangoon by steamer for ultimate dispatch to Gawdu-thoung in Pyapon District.”
“…Section 4(2) of the Union Citizenship Act. also pointed out that those persons whose ancestors had made Burma for two generation as their home and who and whose parents were born in Burma were also citizens of the Union. It had been observed by the court that in Union of Burma there were races who could not speak the Burmese language and who nevertheless were citizens of the Union of Burma.”
In the early 1950s, Government officials, including the Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu, and the Defence Minister U Ba Swe confirmed the identity and rights of the Rohingya. This is what UBa Swe said in November 1959,
“The Rohingyas are equal in every way with other minority races like the Shan, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, and Rakhaine. They have lived in Myanmar Naing Ngan for ages, accordingly to historical facts. They are of the Islamic faith. There is historical evidence that they have lived faithfully and harmoniously with other races of the Union.”
Confusion over 1973 census
There are two approaches to the historical evidence: the first is to establish the origin of the Rohingya peoples and the second is to establish the use of the name “rohingya” itself. the two issues, however, are often (deliberately?) confused by people on both sides of the debate. Certainly, the modern term is a political construct while the weight of evidence suggests that the Rohingya have been in Myanmar for about seven centuries, though there is some confusion about nomenclature.
In the 1973 census, though, they were recognised along with 142 other ethnic groups. This put into law the statement by the Prime Minister in 1960 on Sept 25 that the Rohingya of Arakan were one of the ethnic races of Burma.
However, this was later delisted, admitting only the Kamen to the number of recognised Muslim groups. While this effectively made the Rohingya “foreigners” in Arakan, local Government records at the time do not note an increase in the number of registered aliens. Indeed, in 1972 there are 1192 foreigners recorded by the Arakan Divisional security and administration committee, while in 1975-6, there are 1037 people recorded in the three monthly report by the Arakan State people’s council. No adjustment is allowed for the thousands of Rohingya excluded in the delisting.
1982 Citizenship law
The Rohingya appear today to be utterly displaced, rejected both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar.
“There is after all, very little in common – except common religion – between the Rohingya of Arakan and the Indian Muslims of Rangoon or Burmese Muslim of the Shwebo district. These are different groups that do not identify with each other, do not share the same goal and aspiration.” Moshe Yegar, The Muslim of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group p. 111
But I believe the Political key to their future lies in the repeal of a fairly recent 1982 Citizenship law which defined citizens as Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and other ethnic groups settled within Myanmar before 1823. At the same time, this law accepts the Rakhine historians’ claim that the Rohingya were slaves settled in Myanmar after the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824 and therefore foreigners. (It is this law that effectively brands the Rohingya as foreign, non-indigenous and/or “illegal immigrants” without cultural, religious or social ties to Myanmar) But even so, aliens should be given proper human rights.
Moreover, if the law were quite as clear as it appears, I do not understand why the Myanmar government repatriated so many refugees from the 1992 Rohingya exodus.
The 2 groups
The issue is complicated by the existence of two lists of ethnic groups that underpin the 1982 Citizenship law, one of 101 groups, that is pre-colonial, and a later one that includes 135 specific groups. Neither list mentions the Rohingya. It seems that any legal advance must involve a review of these lists and a recognition that the strict definitions of the past need to be loosened today. In other words, a solution to the Rohingya problem should involve change throughout the country. Some observers question whether it is even right to talk about “national races”.
Defining a group
It is certainly not clear how any of these groups were ever actually defined- is this by self-awareness, language, political affiliation, or some sort of (dare I say?) colour-coding? There is a fundamental, legal and philosophical question that underpins this: Is ethnic identity something we choose for ourselves or something that is imposed on us? Identity is often contested; it is actually fairly fluid and becomes more so as one group is exposed, intermarries and interacts with another.
This is what a British writer in 1945 records,
“The Musulman Arakanese generally known as Bengalis or Chittagonians, quite incorrectly…To look at, they are quite unlike any other product of India or Burma that I have seen. They resemble the Arab in name, in dress and in habit. The women and more particularly the young girls, have distinctive Arab touch about them.. .As a race they have been here over two hundred years.” Anthony lrwin, Burmese Outpost (London: Collins, 1945) p.22.
Just to draw an uncomfortable parallel here- The concept of Jewishness may have seemed clear to the Nazis, but it would not be a definition shared by the average Jewish beth din. In other words, identity is by no means a clear-cut issue.
A solution today?
International Observers today tend to favour the government granting full citizenship and rights to the Rohingya community, but this solution also overlooks the growing tension on the ground. A solution “from above” or from outside the country itself would be unlikely to sort out the tension between the communities, and given the jigsaw of differing ethnic groups that make-up modern-day Myanmar, a solution that is rejected by the Buddhist majority threatens to tear apart this newly emerging Nation.
De facto recognition from 1961-1964
In this historic process of ethnic categorization, the Rohingya has been a largely illiterate group, now denied basic education, that falls by the way. Nevertheless, there is a collective understanding among the Rohingya that they have lived together in the North of Rakhine state for many generations.
Indeed, from 1961-1964, under the “Mayu Frontier Administration” (MFA), there appears to have been some sort of de facto recognition of the community which was governed as a separate province from the rest of Rakhine by the Burmese army. Rohingya language programmes were broadcast on the radio from May 1961-March 1965.
The name “Rohingya”
There are four distinct etymologies that I can find.
The first is that the name Rohingya appears to be an indian form of Rakhine. Bluntly, the term Rohingya could mean simply the people who live in Rakhine. The second, that it derives from the terms Rohai and Roshangee which denote Muslim peoples in old Arakan. It could be a version of the word “Roshanga”, used in Bengali literature in the Chittagong region. Thirdly, it is suggested that it is a corruption of the arabic term Rahim (blessing) or Raham Borri, meaning the Land of God’s blessing.
The fourth etymology is most interesting because it suggests the word derives from the Magh language and refers to the Pathan General Wali Khan and General Sandi Khan who helped to restore Narameikhia to the throne of Longgeret, setting up the Maruk-u-Dynasty in 1433. Narameikhia had formerly been in exile in Bengal.
It is clear that from the 1950s, the Rohingya has emerged as a political and military unit (the RLP and from 1974, the RPF led by Muhammad Jafar Habib and the RSO, disbanded in 1998) with an aim to defining a homeland within Myanmar. The community represents today the “largest Muslim community in Burma” (Andrew Selth 2003). The Rohingya appears to have defined itself in the 1950s but that does not rule out a clear historical record of the community in Myanmar that goes back much further. Three issues are linked: the legal status of the group, the humanitarian crisis and human rights’ violations. The Buddhist Rakhine community have, for the last 30 years contested the legitimacy of the group and it is not immediately clear from the modern debate whether there is a culturally distinct muslim identity but the same debate also confirms the view that the Buddhist majority is the aggressor and the Muslim minority the victim.
“A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” by Francis Buchanan 1799
History is about perception and, in this case, there are 3 competing historical narratives, from Arakan, Burma and the Rohingya.
The documented history of the Rohingya -“the people that call themselves Rohingya” as David Steinberg (OUP) in 2009 classifies them- begins with an 18th Century reference which is worth examining. That single instance seems to establish both the existence of the community in Myanmar as well as its own claims to a unique and geographical identity. The 18th Century source, admittedly Colonial, specifically deals with the dialect employed by the Rohingya. In the text, Hamilton says that this is one of the dialects of the Burma empire “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”
Claims to earlier communities from 8th Century
There is an argument that the Rohingya community today is the remnant of a much older Bengali settlement that might even predate the arrival of the Buddhist communities. DGE Hall writes, “The Burmese do not seem to have settled in Arakan until possibly as late as 10~ century AD. Hence earlier dynasties are thought to have been Indian, ruling over a population similar to that of Bengal. All the capitals known to history have been in the north near Akyab.”(M.S. Coilis and San Shwe Bu, “Arakan’s Place in the Civilization of the Bay,” Journal of the Burrma Research Society, 50th Anniversary’ Publication, No. 2, Rangoon, 1960, p.486. Hall, D.G.E., A History of South East Asia. (London: Macmillan, 1958) pp328, 389.) and there is a record of Muslim trading in the area going back to the reign of King Mahatyaing Chandra (780-810). Shipwrecked muslim sailors are said to have settled in villages in Arakan by decree of the Arakanese king. (Sir Arthur P. Phayre, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. XII, Part I, 1844, p.36. SLORC Government, Thathana Yong War Hmn Zay Poh. Rangoon, 1997, pp. 65-70. M.A. Rahim, Social & Cultural History of Bengal, Vol. I, Karachi, 1963, p.37. U Kyi, B.A. (History Distinction), Myanmar Jazawin Thi Hmet Bweya Apyapya, pp 156-157. The Glass Palace Choronicle, Vol. 2, p. 186.) Ceratinly, tehre is evidence of a large number of captives taken back to Arakan after the rebellion in Chittagong in 1246. As Bengal became Muslim in 1203, it is reasonable to assume that these captives were predominantly Muslim.
The kings of Arakan acquired Muslim titles from their association with Bengal. A stone inscription from 1442 speaks of Muslim kings of Arakan. It is certainly not clear that these were Muslim kings as is sometimes claimed.
19th Century observations of a distinct Muslim group in Rakhine
A protestant missionary, JC Fink who omits the term Rohingya but can hardly be describing another community says, “They were not Mughs converted to the Mahomedan faith, but bona fide Musulmans whose ancestors had been imported into the province from Bengal… Many still retain the language and habits of their forefathers;”
In 1834-1844, another Missionary, Cormstock records “within a few years past, many BengaleeMusselmans have immigrated to Arakan, to get higher wages and better living, than they could procure in Chittagong” (Notes on Arakan) and Charles Paton estimates the size of the Rohiongya population in Rakhine to have been about 1/3 of the total population. The Reverend Comstock puts it at a more moderate 10%. By 1869, when a more reliable census was conducted, it appears to be 5% rising to 30% in 1912. In James Baxter’s report on Indian Immigration in 1941, he estimates that 1/5 of the Rakhine population was of Indian origin. Much changed the following year when Burma was invaded by the Japanese.
It seems that a report published in The Scotsman, and reprinted on the same day in the Hindustan Standard in 1949 established the current attitude in Myanmar to the Rohingya. It reads:
“the great majority of Arakan Moslems are said to be really Pakistanis from Chittagong, even if they have been settled here for a generation. Of the 130,000 Moslems here, 80,000 are still Pakistani citizens.”
While a number of authors have confidently asserted like Andrew Selth, that “most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th Centuries” (Burma’s Muslims:Terrorists or terrorised?”), there seems little further evidence to confirm this claim. Until the 1990s, in Myanmar, the same group that is identified in the 18th Century and is possibly enlarged by Colonial movements in the 19th and 20th Centuries is routinely been referred to by non-muslims in Burma/Myanmar as “Bengalis” or, during the Colonial time, as “Chittagonians”. In modern Burma, there are a range of often derogatory terms used to describe any Muslims, from “kalar” and “mus” and “Bengali”. To further confuse the issue, it is indisputable that a number of migrations from Bangladesh have swelled the Rohingyan numbers considerably, after 1971 and then again in the early 1990s.
Human Rights watch 1993 refers to “Burmese refugees from Arakan”; an account in 1995 by Martin Smith notes a distinction between
“those who have traditionally described themselves as ‘Arakanese Muslims’ as a religious group within the Arakanese people- and those Muslim nationalists, largely concentrated in the north, who prefer to call themselves ‘Rohingyas’.” (The muslim Rohingyas of Burma 1995)
In contrast, it is also well-documented that the Rohingya are not recognised as such in Burma/Myranmar. So, “the muslim Rohingya in Arakan State are not recognised as an ethnic group by the SPDC but rather are labelled as ‘illegal immigrants'” (Mikael Gravers 2007). Indeed, recent reports from Al Jezeera suggest that if Rohingya are prepared to accept that they are immigrants and have not lived for generations in the State, then they might stand a chance of getting residence permits. I fear this is simply a ruse to get Rohingya to confirm their status as aliens and to abandon their claims to a homeland.
A number of Burmese writers beginning with KhinMaung Saw have written a good deal to establish that there is not a reliable record of the term “Rohingya” in use before 1950. Indeed, the name itself is missing from the 1951 “charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims”. But this is by no means a secure way to establish or deny an identity. Even the fact that there have been official acknowledgments of Rohingya rights at various times over the last 70 years should be enough to guarantee those rights today. More than that, a group and individuals confirming residence in the country for so many years should not be denied rights.
About a month ago, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson visited Myanmar, following up a visit by David Cameron in 2012. Although the military retain control over key ministries, and new laws about foreign relatives prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from taking up her rightful position as President, but even as Foreign Secretary, she is the effective leader of the country. There remains a significant exodus from Rakhine, with 66000 fleeing to Bangladesh because of a military crackdown since October. 65000 are registered as living in camps. There are stories emerging of brutality, arson, rape, murder and infanticide. This is unacceptable. But while condemning the violence, we must also condemn the “delisting” of the Rohingya and demand that they are given proper recognition. It is their lack of citizenship and questions about their identity that has encouraged such brutality. What is clear from even a quick review of the history of the Rohingya is that they have had rights to citizenship in the past and there are no reasons for the current Myanmar government to refuse these same rights today. Rather than silence or petulance about who interviews her, Aung San Suu Kyi should be giving proper leadership on this issue. She needs to ensure that ships offering humanitarian help are routinely supported, that a political solution is found, and that proper education and representation is provided to the Rohingya peoples and their Buddhist neighbours. This is an opportunity to empower the State of Rakhine as much as it is a demand that Myanmar observe international norms and demonstrate that prejudice and discrimination have no place in modern democracy.
The fact that a colonial power does not acknowledge the identity of a particular group or calls it something else should not be the basis on which the same group is treated in post-colonial times. Nor indeed has it always been in Myanmar. While local prejudice may have been on-going, it is only relatively recently that this has been compounded by National “delisting” and institutionalised Islamophobia.
the designation “Rohingya” was completely unknown to the British who administered Arakan from 1826 to 1948. It is not to be found in any of the eight censuses compiled between 1872 and 1941. Nor does it appear in any gazetteers, reports or other official documents, nor yet in private reminiscences and correspondence. This total absence of any British record has readily been acknowledged by the Muslim politician U Kyaw Min, who was only released from prison in January 2012 and has a brilliant pedigree as a fighter for freedom and democracy, a former member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament during the dark days of the military regime, and currently chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party.
But U Kyaw Min went on to say: “Then what about some present-day Rakhine state ethnic peoples: Mramagyi and Dai-net who are also not found in British censuses?” The implication is that the British did not really know what was going on…” DEREK TONKIN 17th Aug 2014
Richard Hering (TV Journalist who has worked with indiginous people- “Plunder for Profit: the UK and Brazilian mahogany trade”) writes:
Colonial records can be a dubious source for establishing the history of an ethnic group, for all kinds of reasons. For instance, the favouring of one cooperative group over another may result in the mis-characterisation of the latter for political reasons, as happened in Kenya. The Belgian empire in Rwanda classified two inter-related and -married groups as Hutu or Tutsi based on their appearance, again for reasons of control, with genocidal consequences later. Often names are simply misunderstood or mis-translated, for instance the group known as the Kayapo in the eastern Amazon do not call themselves that name – it’s actually a rude name given them by other groups (“those who look like monkeys”). Also many indigenous peoples have in recent decades started to use again older names so as to revive or preserve their identity, or have taken an ancient name which does not have a strict continuous lineage, nor even necessarily an unimpeachable historical source, in order to argue for their rights as a people.
It is important also to see also this rebuttal of Tonkin: http://www.newmandala.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Rebuttal-to-Tonkin-long.pdf
The ethnogenesis of the Rohingya which I have tried to sketch out in this article does not make it a more “artificial” or “invented” ethnicity than any other, but it does not fit easily in the all too narrow concept of “national races” as is currently understood in Burma: ethnic groups which were already formed as we know them now in pre-colonial times. Others, perhaps the Kachin or the Chin, would also fail the test, because the test itself stems from a misunderstanding of ethnicity and group formation, but it is the political context that has determined that the Rohingya, and the Rohingya alone, should fail it. Their mere existence as a people is a serious challenge to the weak mainstream historical narrative imposed by the military regime.