Column Road

Myanmar crisis shows we shouldn’t choose a path of isolationism post-Brexit

Myanmar, the home of the latest humanitarian crisis.

By Harry Heath

In the early hours of last week, Sky News revealed that they had witnessed abysmal scenes of suffering in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, where thousands of Rohingya Muslims are stranded, starving, and fearing that help may never come.

The Rohingya population was greater than one million at the start of the year but this number is in rapid decline as the Myanmar government is employing barbaric methods to rid their nation of the group. The authorities insist that this is fake news, and that they are merely enforcing their anti-terrorism policy. The shocking footage so valiantly recorded by Sky’s journalism presents the truly unimaginable results of what the United Nations have described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

At its most shocking, the video evidence of this growing humanitarian crisis comes in the form of absolute suffering and malnourishment. Babies, in their rows, laying on beaches where they have been born, women so emaciated that they can barely stand and cannot swallow when they are given biscuits. As totally distressing as it is, I urge that you watch this footage online, for the levels of pain cannot be articulated with words alone.

The relative silence of world leaders on this matter is to the shame of the international community, who appear to be acting with indifference to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. That or they are just too busy with conflict of their own: Donald Trump seems to only be concerned with a war against North Korea that he is intent on fighting via Twitter; Britain meanwhile is preoccupied with squabbles over sovereignty with its new enemy, Brussels.

The paucity of response to such suffering does pose questions regarding the effectiveness of the so-called ‘great powers’ of the world, and not for the first time. Nations are reluctant to describe these mass-killings, sexual-assaults and house-burnings as official genocide even though it clearly meets all the characteristics as defined by the UN. This is because they would then be obliged to act against it, by force if necessary.

Such cowardice on the part of today’s world leaders should not come as a surprise, this merely adds to the depressing political landscape across the globe. While we could never expect anti-democrats such as President Putin to act in support of human rights, it is sadly true that the US and Britain’s political establishment has decided to turn inwards when the pressing issues of today demand a pooling of sovereignty.

However their supporters may wish to define them, both the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are in reality a retreat from globalism. The indecisiveness alone of the West in recent years has allowed Putin and Syria’s President Assad to flex their muscles in the Middle-East, but with the Trump administration showing little enthusiasm for NATO, and with ourselves selecting a path of disintegration from our closest friends on the continent, maybe it is time we ceased to regard the US and Britain as global players at all.

Humanitarian crises such as the one ongoing in Myanmar, along with climate change and global terrorism, do not recognise national borders; therefore, there is no chance of an effective response to them without western powers acting in unison. We have already witnessed the scale of chaos that can occur when a western state acts unilaterally: the admirably compassionate though ill-conceived opening of the borders of Europe by Angela Merkel springs to mind.

There was much argument over what the proper response was during the height of the refugee crisis, often between those who claimed a monopoly on what was either rational or humane, as if the two were mutually exclusive. What was evident was the attitudinal shift in debate and media coverage since the photograph of Alan Kurdi was published, the three-year-old boy lying face-down dead in the sand. One wonders what it will take this time, what more must be revealed about the crisis in Myanmar to elicit a real response from our leaders.

The creators of Channel 4’s 90s sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, set in a fictional newsroom, originally considered the title of Dead Belgians Don’t Count, an ironic but cutting jibe at the cynicism in news reporting that often does not give deserving stories due coverage for commercial reasons. Highlighting abuses of power such as in the case of Myanmar at present is where the fourth estate is at its best, raising awareness and influencing public opinion. We should demand at least the same level of courage from our politicians as that showed by Sky News’ journalists, who made the dangerous trip across the water at night to support the cause of those fleeing persecution.

I sincerely hope that I have spoken too soon, and that in the days and weeks to come the leaders of the liberal democracies of the world act not with merely hard rhetoric, but with decisive and coordinated action, showing that dead Rohingyas do count. Britain’s ability to be a force for good in the world and export the liberal values we enjoy are far greater reasons to be proud than Christianity, the Monarchy, the Empire and good heavens, Brexit. I agree with the late, great Christopher Hitchens that ‘internationalism is the highest form of patriotism’.

While our recent military involvement has been hugely divisive, we must not learn the wrong lesson: that it is never right to intervene. Britain has punched well above its weight on the world stage; liberal interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo have proved that we can help bring freedom and peace to countries ridden with tyranny and bloodshed. We now cut a slight figure however, one of introverted irrelevance to many of our allies in Europe and America. This latest crisis in Myanmar proves that even if we cover our ears and argue amongst ourselves, the world’s problems do not vanish. Only time will tell as to whether we are walking away, just as some depend on us most.