Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:22 pm, 20th December 2018

It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and a real honour to follow my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and Mrs Main, who spoke in this debate with such knowledge and passion. It was a real delight to hear them talk.

Like many other Members present, I took part in the debate last year in which we heard about the appalling violence that was being carried out against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and about the disgraceful failure of the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, to act. She was a woman in whom I placed real hope and faith; she has now betrayed her nation and the most vulnerable in it.

The most horrific stories are still emerging, but I wish to share just two. Lukia is just 18. She grew up in Rakhine state with three sisters and one brother. Their father was a fisherman who took care of them all. Lukia was married just one week before her village was attacked. Some would say she was fortunate to be out of the house when the Myanmar military fired at it with a rocket launcher. Her family, brothers and husband were all killed instantly. She managed to escape the village and, after weeks of walking with other bereaved people, sleeping in tents with traumatised strangers, starving, she managed to join her sister and nephew in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. There, she at least has some rice and dal to eat, and some soap to get clean. But she cannot work, so she can do nothing except dwell on all that she has lost—the family and home that were so cruelly stolen from her. She still dreams of one day returning.

A man called Abul Basar has a similar story. He was also married at 18, and he sold betel leaves to support his wife. When the military entered his village two years later, he ran to a nearby hill to hide, because he knew that men of military age were often abducted or killed, as the UN reports confirm. From that hill, he saw the military take his wife and subject her to rape and torture. There were so many of them that there was nothing he could do. They put her in a house with 20 other women and burned them all alive. Abul said:

“The world went dark for me at that moment.”

He does not remember the journey afterwards—the trauma was too much for him—but he seems to have been carried by people from his village all the way to Bangladesh.

It is so hard to imagine the suffering that Abul, Lukia and the 900,000 others are going through. The Rohingya have already suffered so much, and the criminals who planned and perpetrated all this are getting what they wanted: ethnic cleansing. For those who do return to Rakhine state, the Government there are developing Rohingya-only settlements. They will not be allowed to return home. Amnesty International has called what is emerging

“a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounts to apartheid”,

and that is so true. There is no room for doubt about the scale of the persecution of the Rohingya, and there should not be any doubt about the intentions of those responsible.

In 2012, the Rakhine Nationalities Development party, the most powerful elected party in Rakhine at the time, was already preparing for genocidal violence. It spread an insidious message of hate, representing the Rohingya as terrorists and a threat to the Buddhist majority. In an official publication, the party used the example of Adolf Hitler to spread its message. The report explicitly said that “inhuman acts” are sometimes

“necessary to maintain a race”,

and called for a “final solution”. What an utterly terrifying thing for any Rohingya person to hear. The report went on:

“Although Hitler and Eichmann were the greatest enemies of the Jews, they were probably heroes to the Germans.”

Just this year, the Myanmar army published a pamphlet to justify the violence that said:

“Despite living among peacocks, crows cannot become peacocks.”

Dehumanising language, presenting an entire people as a threat, and praise for Hitler and the holocaust. I know the Minister will agree that there are clear grounds for an investigation under article 3 of the genocide convention—the crime of:

“Direct and public incitement to commit genocide”.

I really hope he will address that later.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, social media platforms played a huge role in the incitement. As the UN report says, for so many in Myanmar, Facebook is almost synonymous with the internet, and Facebook has proved to be a useful tool for spreading hatred in the build-up to each outbreak of violence. The site was used by individuals to post messages urging their friends to fight the Rohingya the way that Hitler fought the Jews, or advocating burning Muslim refugees

“so that they can meet Allah faster.”

The UN report describes this as a “carefully crafted hate campaign” conducted by

“nationalistic political parties and politicians,”— and, heaven help us—

“leading monks, academics, prominent individuals and members of the Government.”

It was a campaign of hatred across all levels of society.

Facebook continues to host the page of the so-called Information Committee, apparently run from the office of Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The page shares propaganda posts denying the persecution of the Rohingya people. One particularly awful post smeared a woman who had dared to speak publicly about being raped. The words “FAKE RAPE” appear twice, in big font, at the top of the post. Facebook officials have conceded that they bear some responsibility, and they have now trained dozens of content moderators who speak the Burmese language and banned various military figures from the site. It is a start, but we need social media platforms such as Facebook to take responsibility for their complicity in horrors such as this much earlier, ensuring that such content cannot be shared on their platforms. Facebook does need to take responsibility, but it is the Government and the military of Myanmar who are ultimately responsible for the evils that have taken place. Thankfully, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has launched an initial inquiry into the violence against the Rohingya—I was not alone in asking for that last year. This is genuinely good progress, but we need to do far more.

In the debate last year, the Minister said that the responsibility lies with the Government of Myanmar and the security forces. He said that we should support the Government in following through on the promises made by Aung San Suu Kyi. But look at what is still happening. Look at the things that the security services are still saying and doing. Working with the security services of Myanmar would be a betrayal of Abul, Lukia and the hundreds of thousands of others who have suffered. It would not help end this horrific persecution, remove the people responsible from positions of power in Myanmar or secure justice for the Rohingya. So I would like the Minister to categorically rule out any military transfers and commit to a broad review of UK trade with Myanmar. We need to know that no aid money provided by this Government, and not one penny of profit from trade or investments involving UK companies, will reach the hands of those responsible for this genocide.