Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's really going on in Burma / Myanmar? And what can be done about it?

What’s really going on with the Rohingya in Burma / Myanmar Rakhine State? –
and what can be done about it?

For 4 to 5 years now, after initial attacks by Rohinyga Muslims on Rakhine Buddhists and vice-versa in Rakhine state in 2012, a campaign of massacres and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority has been going on in Burma (or Myanmar as military regimes renamed the country) carried out by mobs and militias of Rakhine Buddhists, the Buddhist nationalist military and the police (1) – (3).

There is also a relatively small and very poorly armed insurgency by Rohingya militants going on in Rakhine state (known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Movement (ARSA), or Haraka Al Yakin (Movement Of Faith) in Arabic) which may have committed some crimes of its own against civilians (4) – (5).

But the evidence suggests the insurgency is more the result of the decades long history of ethnic cleansing and denial of basic rights to Burmese Rohingya, by the Burmese military,  than the cause of the conflict. And profit for the military from seizure of land in “special economic zones” is also involved (6).

An extreme faction of the Burmese military (or ‘tatmadaw’) seized power in the 1960s and purged all officers who were not of the majority Bamar ethnic group. Since then the tatmadaw has committed war crimes against civilians of many other minority groups who are not Muslim, all of who have also had armed militant groups who fight back including very recently (7) - (12). 

In any case insurgency cannot justify indiscriminate ethnic cleansing, rape and massacres of civilians.

How real is democratisation in Myanmar?
Can there be democratisation by a government
carrying out ethnic cleansing and massacres and denying citizenship based on religion?

The argument made by Aung San Suu Kyi and the first elected government of Myanmar is that we must not risk upsetting a fragile transition to democracy from military rule. (13).

Yet  Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s civilian government are denying and apologising for genocide, based on the same Buddhist nationalism and oppression of minorities as military regimes before them.

Burmese Muslims who had backed Aung San Suu Kyi – and even been injured defending her, weren’t even allowed to vote in the 2015 elections that brought Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy (NLD) party to power, as they were not recognised as citizens. The NLD  and ASSK herself said nothing (14).

Even Nyan Win, a senior NLD spokesperson wants all Rohingya moved into refugee camps claiming “We can’t give them freedom of movement because they are not our citizens.” (15)

Suu Kyi herself denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya is happening and dismisses all reports of rapes and atrocities by the military and police as “fake news” (16) – (18).

Buddhist nationalists including NLD supporters routinely protest not against the ethnic cleansing, but criticism of it, with slogans claiming Rohingya are not Burmese (19).

Far from providing more freedom of speech, the new government has prosecuted more people just for criticising the government than the military dominated SLORC government that preceded it, using a vague law against “defamation” to jail people for up to 3 years (20).

And even if the NLD government weren’t going along with ethnic cleansing, it has no actual control over the military, nor over the civil service, both of which are controlled by ministries reserved for the military under a constitution written by them , and passed in a referendum widely seen as rigged (21).

No country can be a democracy or in transition to democracy while its military and police allow, let alone take part in, genocide against its own people. Myanmar is not a democracy as long as ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, and denial of their rights as equal citizens continues.

While the Burmese security forces have a right to defend themselves and their people, so do the Rohingya community when their own government, military and police carry out massacres and ethnic cleansing against them.

The propaganda lines and exaggerated theories that facilitate genocide

The genocide is also facilitated by four propaganda stories. First that Rohingya are all “illegal Bengali immigrants” from Bangladesh, as General Min Aung Hlaing, the most powerful man in the country, puts it. Second that Rohingya are the only ones responsible for starting violence and human rights abuses (22).

Third that the violence is all carried out by Rohingya Muslim or “Bengali terrorists” , or even an Islamist terrorist insurgency backed by Saudi and Pakistan (according to the Myanmar military and government and some blog posts) , or even involving Islamic State.  This is supposedly aimed at disrupting a Chinese oil and gas import pipeline for Middle East oil which goes to Made Island in Rakhine State in Burma (which does exist), or alternatively at depopulating the area to safeguard the pipeline (23) – (26).

Fourth that “there is no evidence” of massacres or ethnic cleansing by the military.

The first and fourth stories are false. The second and third stories may have truth in them, but the evidence suggests no significant Saudi or other state sponsors of ARSA – and that the long history of oppression and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya is the main cause of the violence.

Rohingya are not illegal immigrants – they are Burmese

While some Rohingya were brought to Rakhine state by the British from Bangladesh during colonial rule, there were many living there since medieval times. And even those who came under the British Empire have now lived in the country for generations. So it’s like claiming all British Catholics are “illegal Irish migrants” because many of them are descendants of Irish immigrants.

While there have been some Rohingya living in Bangladesh for centuries, and some Burmese Rohingya became refugees there due to previous ethnic cleansing operations by Burma’s military (like the 1978 ‘Operation King Dragon’), there have been Rohingya living in Burma for centuries and possibly over a millennium (27).

The Violence is not all carried out by Rohingya / “Bengali immigrants”/ “terrorists”

The Myanmar military story that “Muslim terrorists” or villagers were burning Rohingya villages has been proven false by BBC journalists (28) – (29).

There is evidence of Rohingya mobs (possibly ARSA) having killed Hindu civilians in Rakhine (bodies in mass graves backed by testimony of survivors in Bangladesh), but also a report of some Hindu men having been killed by the military for refusing to kill their Rohingya neighbours (30) – (31).

There are also some reports of Rohingya Muslims forcing non-Muslim Rohingyas to convert to Islam in refugee camps in Bangaldesh, and allegations of attacks by each side on one anothers’ mosques, along with temples and shrines in Rakhine (32) – (34).

There were certainly attacks by both Muslim mobs on Buddhist civilians and vice-versa in 2012 , though which attacked which first is disputed, and a bit irrelevant, since everyone of either community cannot be held responsible for the crimes of some of them (35).

The authorities in Myanmar did at first make some attempts to jail both Buddhist and Muslim members of mobs who had murdered civilians, though police were filmed doing nothing while Buddhist mobs murdered Muslims in some cases (36).

There have also been some reports this year in the Burmese media of Rakhine Buddhist men killed by mobs of Rohingya armed with swords. If true this could be ARSA, but the harsh censorship of Myanmar’s media and widespread Buddhist fundamentalism, along with the military routinely arming Buddhists as militia make it harder to know if the victims were civilians or not (37) – (39) .

It’s possible that ARSA could have been involved in the initial violence in 2012, though it claims to have only formed as a result of that violence, and that it does not target civilians – and the International Crisis Group believes this is true (40).

The violence that began in 2012 has echoes of similar atrocities committed by both sides during World War Two when Rakhine Buddhists were armed as militias by the Japanese and Rohingya Muslims by the British. In both cases the Burmese government and historians claim armed Rohingya began the violence with massacres of Buddhist villages. What’s certain is both sides killed one another’s civilians in large numbers.

(Rakhine Buddhists, themselves an ethnic minority, see themselves as the victims just as much as Rohingya do.)

And today the commander of the tatmadaw – General Min Aung Hlaing, who likely has far more power than Aug San Suu Kyi, has called the Rohingya “unfinished business from World War Two” (41).

And that is the problem now. The military and police and militias organised by them are carrying out “clearance operations” against Rohingya in hundreds of villages that involve rape, burning houses and killing of suspected militants and civilians alike, sometimes including women and children (42). Exactly as they have to Muslims in Myanmar before, and any other ethnic or religious group that has opposed them or fought back against their oppression in any way.

ARSA is probably not armed and funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

ARSA’s lack of modern weapons strongly suggests they have no state backers. For instance Rohingya militants had only swords , spears and a few 19th century pistols in their first attacks on police stations , while Saudi financed and armed Syrian rebel groups have automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers (43) – (44). 

Smuggling weapons into Myanmar is commonplace, including by ethnic minority armed groups, so if ARSA had state funding, they would at least have automatic weapons (45) – (47)

Myanmar’s police are armed, often with automatic weapons, and many have taken part in massacres and rapes of civilians (48).

ARSA also has an Arabic name Harakat Al Yakin or Movement of Faith, which suggests religious ideology, though it’s stated aims are not religious but to protect and secure equal rights for Rohingya .

ARSA is led by Rohingya exiles based in Saudi Arabia, so it’s possible the Saudi and Pakistani governments gave them military training, as some Burmese media reports claim;  but it’s equally possible they got training by fighting for other armed groups in other countries, or serving in militaries (as e.g IRA members sometimes joined the British military to get training) (49).

There has been one report in the Burmese ‘Mizzima’ newspaper of claims that Pakistan’s military intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency or ISI) ordered the ARSA attacks on police stations in August, and that an Islamic State member contacted the group to give a statement of support (50).

This has fed theories that Pakistan’s military has been training Rohingya exiles for decades while Saudi madrassas and mosques indoctrinate them .

While the Saudis do fund Wahabbi madrassas and mosques worldwide, including in Bangladesh, and some Rohingya exiles do live there, and others in Pakistan, whose military promoted Islamic fundamentalism from General Zia Ul Haq’s dictatorship in the 1970s to present, this is pretty thin evidence for this theory.

There’s no evidence of Islamic State involvement either , despite hyped up headlines and dubious quotes of Islamic State members introducing themselves as “al Amin of Daesh” (a derogatory term for IS which no IS member would ever use) (51).

Even if all of three propaganda stories had been true though couldn’t justify the massacre and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of villages of Rohingya civilians, nor mass rape.

The “There’s no evidence” story is false

Another favourite line of Rohingya genocide deniers is that there is no evidence of massacres by the military or police. No photos of it. No video.

There’s a very obvious explanation for this. The Burmese government and military have denied UN and human rights group investigators visas to travel to Burma to investigate human rights abuses during the military’s “clearance operations”, and refused to allow aid agencies access too. Independent journalists are banned from entering areas where the military are currently carrying out offensives. They can only go where and when Burmese military minders allow them to (52) – (54).

What would be the need for this secrecy if the Burmese military and police were committing no crimes and any killings of civilians or burning of villages was carried out by Rohingya terrorists? There would be no need for it.

Another reason is that only one third of the country has any access to electricity – so no recharging mobile phones for Rohingya villagers even if they could afford one, which with poverty rates well over 70% (and that’s defining poverty as earning under $1.90 a day), most of them can’t (55) – (56).

But from satellite images, the statements of senior members of Myanmar’s military,  interviews with survivors of attacks on villages who have fled to Bangladesh, and what journalists have seen in the distance, there is a clear picture of the usual human rights abuses against minorities by the Burmese security forces (57).


The Economic Motives for Engagement
– and for Ethnic Cleansing
–and the military’s stranglehold on
public spending and private companies

Photo: A plantation owned by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited – one of the
conglomerates owned by the Burmese military

Engagement by the governments of democracies with Myanmar is as much about  buying influence to secure deals to export to the country – and import raw materials, from it, as well as rivalry between major powers for military alliances with Myanmar,  as “promoting democracy” (58) – (60).

The economic and legal changes that have taken place as a result of government reforms and the lifting of many economic sanctions since 2010 have reduced corruption and poverty, but corruption remains a severe problem, as does poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. And corruption investigations of senior members of the military and their associates often go nowhere (61) – (64). 

The UN Human Development Programme found in 2014 that over a third of the population are in poverty – and 78% of the population of Rakhine state. Yet military spending continues to rise , is (officially) 14% of annual public spending, and the 2011 constitution allows the Commander In Chief of the Military (General Min Aung Hlaing) to draw unlimited additional funds for military spending without notifying parliament. The law even bans anyone from asking questions about this spending (65) – (67).

The military also controls two of the largest companies in Myanmar and is heavily involved in smuggling jade, which if exported legally, would be worth billions in revenue (68).

Special Economic Zones begun under then President (and former General) Thein Sein in 2010 make it legal to forcibly relocate people and take their land with token compensation within them. They have been continued by the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party since 2015. One of these Zones is planned around the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state (69) – (70).

Combine this with then President Thein Sein’s proposal in 2012 to permanently deport Rohingya from Rakhine state to other areas or countries, and it seems more likely it’s Myanmar’s government and military who have the depopulation plan , not the Saudis or Pakistanis (71).

The military regularly profits by handing land taken from ethnic minorities to companies owned by the military,  former officers or corrupt politicians , for instance by starting private plantations (72).

So the military has continued to profit from ethnic cleansing and massacre of minorities, including Rohingya, all through the democratisation process, making it not worthy of the name.

How could this be ended?

Sanctions on arms sales and targeted sanctions on individuals are not enough when genocide is being committed. Wider trade sanctions and military action must be considered unless the ethnic cleansing is stopped immediately, aid agencies and UN and human rights group monitors and investigators are given unrestricted access to Rakhine state, all refugees are allowed to return, Burmese Rohingya are recognised as equal citizens of Myanmar, and granted full rights in practice.

Negotiations between leaders of the government of Myanmar and military, and leaders of ARSA, as well as representatives of the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist communities should also begin under mediation by the UN.

If this is not done rapidly sanctions and then warnings of possible military action should follow.

Military action would involve serious risks, as China and Russia are both closely allied to Myanmar as its main arms suppliers (and in China’s case main foreign investor) – and Myanmar’s military is well armed for a minor power (73) – (74).

China has vocally supported the ethnic cleansing while Russia says there must be no interference in “Myanmar’s internal affairs”. (75) – (76).

But massacres and ethnic cleansing that have been going on for decades cannot be ignored – and such risks were run in Kosovo without war between major powers resulting.


(1) = BBC News 03 Jul 2014 ‘Why is there communal violence in Myanmar?’,

(2) = Amnesty 14 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Scorched-earth campaign fuels ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State’,

(3) = Human Rights Watch 22 April 2013 ‘“All You Can Do is Pray” Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State’,

(4) = BBC News 06 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?’,

(5) = International Crisis Group 15 Dec 2016 ‘’ Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,

(6) = Middle East Institute 20 Apr 2017 ‘An Evolution of Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar: From Strategic Embrace to Genocide’ ,  By Alice Cowley and Maung Zarni ,

(7) = See (6) above

(8) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, ‘Burma, Ethnic Conflict and Armed Forces Abuses’,

(9) = Amnesty 14 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: Ethnic minorities face range of violations including war crimes in northern conflict’,

(10) = Human Rights Watch 2012 ‘“UNTOLD MISERIES” Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Kachin State’,

(11) = Amnesty 14 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: Ethnic minorities face range of violations including war crimes in northern conflict’,

(12) = NPR 13 Oct 2013 ‘For Myanmar's Kachin Rebels, Life Teeters Between War, Peace’,

(13) = Al Jazeera 19 Sep 2017 ‘Aung San Suu Kyi's speech in full: ‘We condemn all human rights violations'’,

(14) = 03 Nov 2015 ‘No vote, no candidates: Myanmar's Muslims barred from their own election’,

(15) = Reuters 14 Sep 2017 ‘In a first, Myanmar's 'ethnic cleansing' unites Suu Kyi's party, army and public’,

(16) = Guardian 05 Apr 2017 ‘Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’,

(17) = BBC News 11 Mar 2017 ‘Hounded and ridiculed for complaining of rape’,

(18) = 06 Sep 2017 ‘Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi says 'fake news' fuelling Rohingya crisis’,

(19) = 01 Dec 2016 ‘In pictures: Burma protests against Rohingya Muslims’,

(20) = HRW 24 Jan 2017 ‘Burma: Don’t Prosecute Peaceful Speech’,

(21) = CNN 12 Nov 2015 ‘Can Aung San Suu Kyi control Myanmar's military?’,

(22) = Radio Free Asia 23 Mar 2017 ‘Myanmar Military Chief Defends Crackdown Against Rohingya in Rakhine State’,

(23) = 25 Aug 2017 ‘Dozens killed in fighting between Myanmar army and Rohingya militants’,

(24) = Mizzima News (Myanmar) 05 Sep 2017 ‘Pakistan, ISIS allegedly behind Rakhine imbroglio’,

(25) = Bloomberg 11 Apr 2017 ‘China Opens Delayed Myanmar Oil Pipeline to Get Mideast Crude Faster’,

(26) = April 11 2017 ‘China and Myanmar open long-delayed oil pipeline’,

(27) = Personal Testimony delivered by U Ba Sein, a former Rohingya civil servant – now a refugee in London, UK - who lived through this King Dragon Operation in N. Rakhine, Permanent People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, Queen Mary University of London. March 6-7, 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, (Ba Sein’s testimony begins at 7:55 minutes).

(28) = BBC News 10 Sep 2017 ‘Who is burning down Rohingya villages?’,

(29) = BBC News 11 Sep 2017 ‘Rohingya crisis: Seeing through the official story in Myanmar’,

(30) = BBC news 25 Sep 2017 ‘'Mass Hindu grave' found in Myanmar's Rakhine state’,

(31) = New Age (Bangladesh) 27 Sep 2017 ‘Hindus lay down lives for Muslims in Myanmar’,

(32) = 26 Sep 2017 ‘'They were killed in a row. Only eight women, young and beautiful, were allowed to live': Hindu Rohingya reveal how Muslim majority force them to convert or die in refugee camps’,

(33) = 11 Jul 2013 ‘Burma jails 25 Buddhists for mob killings of 36 Muslims in Meikhtila’,

(34) = (Germany) 12 Oct 2012 ‘New 'retaliatory' attacks on Myanmar's Rohingyas’,

(35) = See (1) above

(36) = See (33) above

(37) = The Irrawady (Burma) 30 Aug 2017 ‘Mob Kills Four Arakanese Amid Ongoing Rakhine Violence’,

(38) = CPJ 05 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar: One year under Suu Kyi, press freedom lags behind democratic progress’,

(39) = International Crisis Group 15 Dec 2016 ‘’ Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,

(40) = See (39) above

(41) = Dhaka Tribune 03 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar army: Clearing of Rohingya is ‘unfinished business’’,


(42) = UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 03 Feb 2017 ‘’ Devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men detailed in UN human rights report,

(43) = BBC News 06 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar: Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army?’,

(44) = BBC News 14 Jun 2013 ‘Who is supplying weapons to the warring sides in Syria?’, (scroll down to ‘Saudi Arabia’ subheading)

(45) = Anshuman Behera (2017) ‘Insurgency, Drugs and Small Arms in Myanmar’,  Strategic Analysis, Volume 41, 2017 - Issue 1 ,

(46) = Assam Tribune 15 May 2016 ‘Militants smuggling in weapons through Myanmar border’,

(47) = Times of India 08 Dec 2011 ‘North-east rebels using 'smugglers' in China, Myanmar to buy arms’,

(48) = See (2) and (3) and (42) above

(49) = See (39) above

(50) = Mizzima News (Myanmar) 05 Sep 2017 ‘Pakistan, ISIS allegedly behind Rakhine imbroglio’,

(51) = See (50) above

(52) =  30 Jun 2017 ‘Myanmar refuses visas to UN team investigating abuse of Rohingya Muslims’,

(53) = 04 Sep 2017 ‘Myanmar blocks all UN aid to civilians at heart of Rohingya crisis’,

(54) = Human Rights Watch 17 Nov 2016 ‘Burma: Allow Access to Investigate Abuses in Rakhine State’,

(55) = International Institute for Energy and Development 10 May 2016 ‘Energy poverty in Myanmar: only 34% of the population have grid quality electricity’,

(56) = UNDP (2014) ‘About Myanmar’,

(57) = See (2) and (3), (41) and (42) above



(58) = Telegraph 12 Jul 2012 ‘UK opens trade office as Western firms eye Burma riches’

(59) = Reuters 08 Jul 2012 ‘Booming Southeast Asia in a quandary over U.S.-China rivalry’,

(60) = Stimson Center / Yun Sun 10 Jun 2014 ‘Issue Brief - Myanmar in US-China Relations’,

(61) = Financial Times 17 May 2016 ‘US keeps bulk of sanctions against Myanmar in place’,  (mentions sanctions lifted in previous years)

(62) = BBC News 16 Sep 2016 ‘Surprise as US ends Myanmar economic sanctions’,

(63) = World bank 30 Aug 2017 ‘Poverty Declined Between 2004-05 and 2015 in Myanmar: New Joint Myanmar-World Bank Report’,

(64) = MMTimes(Myanmar)09 Jun 2014 ‘Graft scandal sinks without trace’,

(65) = MMTimes (Myanmar) 19 May 2014 ‘Data tweaks change face of poverty’,

(66) = The Irrawaddy (Myanmar) 17 March 2017 ‘Parliament Approves Reduced Budget for 2017-2018’,

(67) = The Union of Myanmar , The State Peace and Development Council Law No. 10 / 2011,

(68) = Wired 22 Oct 2015 ‘Revealed: Myanmar's jade trade is run by former junta members’,

(69) = International Committee of Jurists Feb 2017 ‘Special Economic Zones in Myanmar and the State Duty to Protect Human Rights’,

(70) = Myanmar Times 01 sep 2017 ‘Rakhine to construct Maungdaw economic zone’,

(71) = Radio Free Asia 12 Jul 2012 ‘Call to Put Rohingya in Refugee Camps’,

(72) = Global Witness 26 Mar 2015 ‘ Guns, Cronies and Crops’,

(73) = Al Jazeera 16 Sep 2017 ‘Who is selling weapons to Myanmar?’,

(74) = Myanmar Directorate of Investment and Company Administration

(75) = The Australian 15 Sep 2017 ‘China backs Myanmar’s attacks on Rohingyas’,

(76) = Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh) 16 Sep 2017 ‘Russia opposes intervention in Myanmar’,

Monday, January 02, 2017

Why Trump and Leave won - and how the left should respond

Summary : While Trump and the Leave campaign certainly got the support of racists and bigots, this is not enough on its own to explain getting 46% and 52% of the vote respectively.

The stereotype of Trump voters as mostly poor uneducated whites is not accurate. In fact a majority of the poorer voters who voted at all voted for Clinton. While about half the population of the US earns under $30,000 a year, only 17% of voters in 2016 were from that income group. Around 53% of those low-income voters who did vote voted Clinton. So the problem was more poorer voters thinking neither candidate would change their lives for the better, so not voting at all.

Trump voters were mostly less educated and white, but most of them earned well over the median and average income. Leave voters, like Trump voters, were more likely to be older and have less education, but unlike Trump voters, were more likely to have lower incomes – and to read the Sun, Daily Express, or Mail – newspapers which have churned out anti-EU and anti-immigrant and refugee stories for decades. But like Trump voters, some Leave voters may have thought any change – or revenge on those in charge – was better than no change.

Trump is not popular with a majority of voters. In fact he got less votes than Clinton, and in polls more voters disliked him, and more of his voters said they were voting against Clinton than for him. But he remains dangerous all the same. Hitler, another demagogue who got support by whipping up hatred of minorities and blaming foreigners and refugees, never won a majority of the popular vote either.

Clinton wasn’t popular either though. As a politician who had been in office for decades and part of the Republican – ‘New Democrat’ concensus on free trade, deregulation and “welfare reform, was the ultimate establishment candidate. So the worst choice to stand against a candidate selling themselves as anti-establishment. Deregulation was one of the main causes of the banking crisis and subsequent recession which saw a swing back to the right.

Clinton’s campaign spent too much time criticising Trump’s racism, sexism and bigotry instead of promising jobs or better wages or holding the banks to account.

Trump’s condemnation of NAFTA (and the Clintons’ backing for it), his promises to provide more and better paying jobs, and to punish the big banks and politicians who had caused the banking crisis, were effective in the ‘rust belt’ states. Especially as they continue to lose jobs as firms move production to Mexico.

(Of course Trump won’t punish the big banks – he’s already chosen several former Goldman Sachs executives for his administration. Another similarity to Hitler – denouncing big banks and companies in opposition, then making deals with them in government).

The focus of the Remain and Clinton campaigns on prejudice and racism among some of their opponents backfired at some points by not appealing to voters self-interest enough. Claims about creating jobs or funding public services better (whether true or false) may have been more effective than talking about ideals.

Nationalism was a strong factor in both Trump and Leave’s campaigns – though with Leave voters it was as much English as British nationalism.

Some members of Black Lives Matter and some anti-racism/sexism/bigotry campaigners have also scored own goals by making their own prejudiced statements. Talking as if all white people or all men were responsible for the prejudice of some alienated some voters.

Identity politics has also been an own goal. Obama did not say “vote for me because I’m black’ but Clinton and some of her female supporters
repeatedly said “vote Clinton because she’s a woman”. Trump certainly pandered to racists and got the votes of racists and sexists, but making the election about race, citizenship status, or gender was never a good idea – especially in a country with a majority of white voters.

Too many Democrats had convinced themselves that the growing proportion of non-white and Latin/Hispanic voters now determined election results. Not this one.

The Electoral College, which was designed to prevent demagogues being elected, failed spectacularly in this election. Since the EU referendum was one person one vote, the voting system can’t be blamed for the Leave result though. Nor can any voting system prevent demagogues or prejudiced people winning elections if enough voters agree with them.

The lessons for the left are to focus on opposing free trade deals that are designed more with the interests of big firms that donate to party funds than the average voter, on controlling the big banks that caused the crisis, and on reducing inequality. While racism and other prejudice have to be opposed and condemned, condemning opponents as racist or prejudiced in other ways is not enough on its own to win elections or referenda. So campaigns should not focus too much on these issues at the expense of economic and trade policy, job creation and reducing inequality. Nor immediately label anyone who opposes current immigration levels racist (even if some of them are).

Pointing out the broken promises, hypocrisy and lies of Trump , the Conservative brexiteers and UKIP on their main campaign pledges is vital too. They must not get off with claiming to be “anti-establishment” while appointing Goldman Sachs executives.

The lesson for the Labour party is less clear. Corbyn is certainly an anti-establishment candidate, but unlike Sanders in the US, he is behind rather than ahead of his party’s political opponents in the polls. And Clinton lost partly because she was supported by a majority of Democrats, but not a majority of voters (due to ‘closed’ primaries in most states in which only voters registered as Democrats could vote on selecting a candidate). Corbyn similarly seems to be popular with a majority of Labour party members, but not a majority of voters. The Trump vs Clinton polls were out by several per cent, but the polls here being out by the 17% that the Conservatives now lead Labour by seems less likely.

And those who say Labour must become a crusade for the EU are selling a doubtful proposition when a third of Labour voters voted Leave and losing votes to UKIP is now Labour’s biggest threat.

Just racism and prejudice?

There are a lot of opinion pieces putting the victories of Donald Trump and the Leave campaign in the UK’s referendum on EU membership down simply to racism, sexism, bigotry against Muslims, and prejudice against immigrants and refugees, combined with ignorance among voters and propaganda by politicians and some of the media.

There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole truth.

Yes all the racists and bigots in the US voted for Trump, and all the racists and bigots and neo-Nazis in the UK voted Leave.

But Trump would never have got 46% of the vote – 63 million votes – if all his voters were ignorant racists and bigots. And ditto for the Leave campaign’s 52% of the vote (1).

They included votes against the status quo, against the establishment, against the effects of globalisation policies – especially lost jobs in manufacturing in the UK and US. Also votes for instance by left wingers against the extreme austerity policies imposed on Greece by the EU.

Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put up in the current climate, because she is not only associated in voters’ minds with the establishment, as Bill Clinton’s wife, a senator and then Obama’s Secretary of State. She is also one of the most prominent supporters of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) trade deal that is still resulting in factories in the US closing down and moving to Mexico today (2) – (3).

This was brought up over and over again by Trump in campaign speeches – and one of the reasons he won the “rust belt” states that have suffered most.

Clinton’s conversion to opposing TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (both of which would let multinational banks and firms sue governments merely for regulating them) came only when she feared Sanders might win the nomination from her, and was unconvincing (4).

Many senior Republicans were voting for Clinton on the calculation that her opposition was purely tactical and would end once she was elected.

David Cameron and George Osborne were also establishment figures who oversaw austerity and were 100% for every free trade deal.

The Clintons are the ultimate representatives of the concensus between the Republicans from Reagan on and the ‘New Democrats’ of the 1990s on free trade, deregulation and “welfare reform”.

It was Bill Clinton who in 1994 successfully concluded negotiations with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA which had been begun by President Bush Senior.

NAFTA established the Maquiladora zone on the Mexican border with the US. In theory it also included comprehensive workers’ rights and environmental protection, but in practice neither has ever been enforced, with the Maquiladora’s barely regulated at all (5).

Clinton also deregulated the banks as much as any other President from Nixon on, repealing the Glass-Steagall Act which had been the cornerstone of banking regulations brought in by Franklin D. Roosevelt after the 1929 banking crisis. It had prevented high street savings banks from also being ‘investment’ banks (those involved in high risk trading in financial derivatives).

On top of this Clinton, albeit reluctantly, approved Republican states’ governments’ ‘Workfare’ welfare “reforms”, which forced unemployed people to work unpaid for private companies or else lose any welfare payments (6).

At the same time changes were brought in to reduce the maximum period anyone could receive welfare payments for to 60 days, (except where congress and the President approved emergency packages).

The long term result was jobs moving by the hundred thousand from the US to Mexico, but no reduction in the overall poverty rate in Mexico either.

Deregulation of the banks, combined with Clinton’s administration demanding banks and other lending institutions give mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them (instead of public housing, which was seen as too socialist), led to the banks being able to create Collateralised Debt Obligations – packages of thousands of largely worthless debts, so many together that no one could check individual credit worthiness, which in many cases was none. They then counted these as assets and sold them to other banks as if they had value .

When this was discovered, the banking crisis resulted and recession followed. The people with mortgages they couldn’t afford lost their homes. So did lots of other people who could afford their mortgages until the recession hit.

With “welfare reform” having cut the safety net for those made unemployed by NAFTA or the banking crisis recession, was America left with a lot of people who feel neither main party could care less about them and wanted to give the establishment concensus a slap in the face? For people who feel the status quo gives them nothing any kind of change, or some revenge, may seem better than no change.

NAFTA certainly provided cheaper imported goods for many Americans, but it also put many of them out of a job. It provided more Mexicans with jobs but without improving terrible working conditions or reducing poverty (7).

Some of those jobs may well have moved to other countries anyway as multinational companies sought the cheapest production costs, but NAFTA certainly accelerated this process.

Are these votes evidence of a swing to the right?

There is no evidence of American or British voters having moved to the right, with the possible exception of immigration, which they were already pretty right wing on.

Opposing free trade deals like NAFTA or the EU Single Market is not right wing. The left and trade union wings of the Democrats and Labour party were always opposed to these deals.

Opposing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is even less “right wing”, as both these deals include clauses that would let big banks and companies sue governments for any regulation that might reduce their profits. Which effectively could mean any regulation at all. That goes far beyond even free trade.

Opposing big banks, big firms and the super rich being able to buy too much influence over government policies is not right or left wing either.

Trump is not that popular

Trump actually got less votes than Clinton – 46% to Clinton’s 48% , only winning due to the Electoral College (8).

Turnout was only 60% , about the same as in 2012. That means only about 27% of registered voters voted for Trump. And many Americans aren’t registered to vote at all (9) – (10).

And the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton is the likely reason for the mediocre turnout, with 56% of those polled viewing Clinton unfavourably and 63% viewing Trump unfavourably (11).

In 2008, 68% of Democrats said they were voting more for their candidate than against the other main candidate. In 2012, 72% did. This year only 48% did, 50% saying they were voting for Clinton mostly just to stop Trump (12).

The same was true for Trump though, only more so ; 55% of his voters said their vote would be more against Clinton than for him (13).

Trump certainly got people who didn’t usually bother to vote to turn out for him – and this let him replace all the Republicans who voted for Clinton, or didn’t vote at all, out of distaste for him or for his protectionist policies.

Trump did not win because he was popular. He’s even more unpopular than Clinton. He narrowly scraped a win because he was seen as anti-establishment and got more votes in the ‘Rust belt’ states – and because Clinton was seen as so establishment and such a “no change” candidate by many voters that she could not motivate enough of them to turn out to vote for her.


Race was certainly a big factor. Trump won a majority of votes among white voters and a heavy majority among non-college educated (but not poor) ones, while Clinton got a majority of Hispanic/Latino votes and the vast majority of black voters.

The many Republican voters who wouldn’t vote for Trump were replaced by a mixture of racists, bigots, neo-nazis and sexists.

Trump pandered to them by demonising and dismissing Black Lives Matter, and by mocking one of his rivals with the line “I, I, I can’t breathe” - the last words of Eric Garner, an asthmatic black man choked to death by police for the crime of selling cigarettes without a licence. Not one of the police were ever charged. A passer by who shot a video of the killing on his phone was (14).

But there were also people who had lost their own jobs or seen their family and friends lose jobs when factories moved from the US to Mexico. And people who were sick of the establishment consensus and voted for Trump as a protest vote.

The rust belt states where he mostly won all have a large majority of white and non-Hispanic / non-Latino voters. The states where Clinton won most heavily – like California – are some of those with the most Hispanic and Asian voters.

It wasn’t mostly poor white people voting for Trump

He didn’t get all the working classes voting for him – Clinton got 53% of votes among people earning $30,000 dollars or less (15).

Only 17% of voters were people earning less than $30,000 annually. Yet 50% of Americans earn less than that amount. The median US income is just over $30k, and the average is $44k (16) – (17).

But Trump did get a majority of votes from white people without a college education or better – though most of them were on incomes of $50,000 a year or more (18).

So the result of the election is not down to poor white voters voting for Trump. In fact it’s down to most poor voters – including most of the victims of the banking crisis and “welfare reform” not voting at all.

And the likely reason is the same one most voters in the UK give – the big political parties don’t care about us, so why should we vote for them? Which is a self-reinforcing cycle, as if most poorer voters don’t vote, why would politicians have policies aimed at appealing to them?

Candidates now need to be seen as outside the establishment – i.e not have held elected office at senior levels for a long time, nor be close to those who have. Being seen as trustworthy is also vital.

While for 2012 we only have figures for what percentage of voters earned under $50k a year, 41% of voters in 2012 earned less than that amount. Only 36% of voters in 2016 earned under $50k (19) – (20)


This Doesn’t Mean We’re In No Danger Though

Hitler and the Nazis never managed to get a majority of the vote either. That doesn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. Trump is an unpredictable narcissistic demagogue with the support of an “alt-right” (alternative right) who include racists, white supremacists and neo-nazis.

And alliance of convenience between some of Germany’s wealthiest industrialists, the Nazis and conservatives in the 1920s and 30s in Germany led to the rise of Hitler.

We can’t afford to start accusing anyone who voted for or supports Trump of being a Nazi, fascist, or racist though. We need to convert some of his supporters to an alternative anti-establishment movement, not alienate them. Remember, 55% of Trump voters said they were voting more against Clinton than for Trump.

While Trump may be an opponent of free trade deals, he has shown by his proposed appointments to his cabinet that he is very willing to do deals with big banks and big firms. Four of his choices are former executives from Goldman Sachs bank, including his campaign manager Steve Bannon. His chosen Secretary of State is currently the Chief Executive of Exxon-Mobil. Hitler similarly denounced big banks and firms and “the establishment” when in opposition, but was happy to do deals with them. (21) – (23).

And Trump’s support being highest in rural areas, while his opponents’ was highest in cities is also a similarity with German elections of the 1930s. As is both Trump and the Nazis getting most of their votes from people middling or higher in income and class.

How the Leave Vote was Similar – and how it was different

The Leave vote in the UK had some similarities to Trump’s vote in the US. But there were also big differences (for sources see sources (24) and (25) and (26) and (27)) .

Leave voters, like Trump voters, were more likely to be less educated (possibly because they were also likely to be older, from before the majority went to college or university, with younger voters far more likely to vote Remain or Clinton).

Multicultural London, like multicultural California voting for Clinton, mostly voted Remain (though some poorer areas had a majority for Leave). And in other big cities there was mostly a majority for Remain – but in many cases only a narrow majority. And the small towns and villages were more likely to vote Leave.

Leave voters , like Trump voters, were opposed to current levels of immigration and to jobs being moved abroad.

However the Leave vote was higher among lower income voters and the Remain vote higher among higher income ones – the opposite to Clinton vs Trump. This was similar to the pattern in the Scottish independence referendum where poorer voters were more likely to vote Yes (i.e to back leaving the UK).

The similarity is that both Leave and Trump voters were voting for a change to the status quo – 82% of voters who thought their candidate was most likely to bring about a change voted Trump (28).

The turnout was much higher, likely because this was a referendum – a rare event on a single big issue, rather than a regular election.

Leave voters, like Trump voters, were more likely to be nationalists – though with Leave voters they were more likely to see themselves as English first.

While some have argued the Leave vote was a vote against the government’s austerity policies, there hasn’t been any real evidence provided to back this claim up.

The media – and social media

While the media in the US was mostly hostile to Trump (with only 6 newspapers – most of them small and local – endorsing him for President) he got a lot of support from many Fox News anchors.

The tabloid press in the UK has been churning out anti-immigration, anti-refugee and anti-EU stories for decades, some exaggerated or presenting unusual cases as if they were typical, others outright lies. (For instance British tabloids have run stories that Euro coins will give you cancer, that the EU wants to ban curved bananas).

So it’s no surprise that 70% of voters who read The Sun newspaper or The Express voted Leave, and 61% of Daily Mail readers (29).

 The Sun has the highest circulation in the UK, partly due to its low price of 50p, subsidised by Rupert Murdoch’s profits from his satellite TV channels to give him influence with politicians.

This is probably the biggest factor in explaining the majority vote for Leave, just as in the Scottish independence referendum the majority of newspapers were for a No vote and that was the end result.

But the importance of facebook, twitter and new “news” websites with a very strong bias has been increasing relative to the traditional media. Completely false memes (photos or graphs with a list of supposed facts on them) and fake news stories are widely shared.

Whether these changed many peoples’ minds is open to question. Maybe the majority who believed them were already going to vote the same way anyway. But it may have changed the minds of some poorly informed voters, or people who aren’t interested in politics.

The dubious claim that “everything in the mainstream media is a lie” is becoming increasingly widely believed.

Identity Politics Is Not Enough – And can backfire

It’s pretty clear that saying “vote for me because I’m a woman” was not enough to win. Nor is slating your opponent as a racist or bigot (even if he is).

As some American women have pointed out, Trump’s boasting about groping women was disapproved of by just about everyone, but for a lot of women who had lost their jobs – or whose husbands, fathers or brothers had lost theirs due to NAFTA – it was minor stuff compared to the bigger issues.

Obama did not campaign in 2008 or 2012 by saying “vote for me because I’m black and a man”. He won because he convinced enough voters he would bring about change for the better. That he was not just another establishment politician who would maintain the status quo.

Clinton and supporters such as Madeleine Albright continually talked as though Clinton being a woman and Trump a man was a good enough reason to vote for her (30).

What’s more an excessive focus on gender, race or sexuality can make those who don’t share it feel they are being criticised just for being born white, male or straight.

Black Lives Matter are not, as some Trump supporters claim, all racist against white people. But some Black Lives Matter campaigners do say things that are racist against all white people – some even saying “kill all white people” – and this has the predictable result of outraging some white people (31).

Some of the people pointing to racism by some BLM campaigners are themselves racist against all black people, and looking for a way to try and justify the unjustifiable, as if two wrongs could make a right. But not all of them are. Some people who are not racist will be alienated by this kind of black vs white racism.

Of course that doesn’t mean that anyone should stop criticising outright racism or prejudice, or some of the shocking killings of black people by police and failure to charge, try and jail those responsible. But for instance refusing to discuss immigration or Islamic extremism at all could alienate people needlessly.

Campaign slogans and speeches matter – and so does appealing to self-interest

Most voters have no idea what most of a candidate or party’s policy positions are. But more of them have heard some of their campaign slogans or bits out of their speeches.

Trump’s message over and over included the jobs lost due to NAFTA and the Clintons’ support for it ; that he would bring back “good paying jobs” and stop jobs going overseas – and that he would punish the big banks and the corrupt politicians who had allowed this and the banking crisis and all the suffering since it.

Clinton’s message was mostly that Trump was “divisive”, “racist”, “sexist” and so on. Clinton’s message seems to have worked with the majority of black and Latino voters. But it failed with the majority of white voters, particularly those with little or no education.

Now Trump’s claims included a lot of hypocrisy and lies given his appointments already including so many former big bank executives, but it’s pretty clear that his lines were more effective with white, non-Hispanic voters and that this won him many states.

Clinton should have spent more time saying she would create more jobs and less time slating Trump’s prejudices.

Of course that wouldn’t have worked with every voter. There are plenty of resentful and poorly educated voters who have a chip on their shoulder about others having more education than them and “them thinking they know better than me”. But it would have helped with some.


Our Voting Systems are Out of Date –
but no voting system guarantees a particular result

The Electoral College has now let a candidate with less votes win the Presidency in the US twice. And with Trump’s election the theory that this helps prevent demagogues and extremists get elected is looking pretty ludicrous.

In the UK the Conservatives won the last General Election with just 37% of votes cast due to First Past the Post

However electoral reform, while more democratic, is no guarantee that the left or liberals will win elections. Under Proportional Representation the 2015 General Election would likely have led to a Conservative/UKIP/Unionist coalition with just under 50% of the vote between them. A Labour/SNP/Plaid Cymru/Lib Dem/Green coalition would have been theoretically possible with 48% of the vote between them.

A change to a PR voting system would probably have meant many more votes for smaller parties than larger ones, but likely no big change on the totals for the whole left and right.

The EU referendum on a simple one person one vote, majority wins, led to a marginal win for Brexit, but then staying in or leaving the EU has never been a straightforward left/right issue, with both divided on it.

Lessons for the left in the UK

The trouble is that there is more than one way to read most of the results.

Does Clinton’s defeat show that the party elites choosing establishment candidates is a good idea? And so Corbyn should stay on as an anti-establishment candidate? Or does it show that the candidate chosen by party members may not be the candidate who can win an election?

Clinton won due to closed primaries in most states – where only Democratic party members could vote. Sanders won in states with ‘open primaries’ where Independents (voters not registered as supporters of either main party) could vote.

Sanders outperformed Clinton in polls of the whole electorate , up to leading Trump by 20% or more in some polls. Labour under Corbyn is 20% behind the Conservatives in many polls. But is this down to the party being divided with voters not knowing if they’ll get Corbyn or ‘New Labour’ if they vote Labour? Or just disliking division? Or do not enough voters think Corbyn is up to the job to vote for him?

It may be that Corbyn is simply the wrong candidate, not because he is left wing, but because he is neither capable of making an inspiring speech, nor of doing well in debates. The problem being that most of his rivals are ‘New Labour’ politicians who want to go back to just adopting most of the Conservatives’ policies.

One of the few exceptions is Clive Lewis, whose main policy differences with Corbyn are on Trident (which he wants to renew) and NATO (which he wants the UK to remain in). On other policy issues though he is on the left. And given his positions on defence on his military service in Afghanistan, it would be difficult for the Conservatives to paint him as unpatriotic or soft on defence.

One clearer lesson is that economic interests, a desire for more economic equality, and opposition to some of the unintended effects of free trade ‘trump’ (or ‘Sanders’) identity politics.

But does it mean the left should be for leaving the Single Market due to opposition to globalisation? Or will that result in even more jobs being moved out of the UK , higher unemployment and more support for demagogues backed by the far right?

It’s not certain. What we do know is that arguing that free trade deals are always good in themselves, and benefit everyone, is blind ideology. It does nothing to address the people who suffer as a result of them (and there are always losers as well as winners). So if we are to support free trade deals details of them matter – and they require plans to help those who lose their jobs as a result retrain for new ones and/or create new ones. Or else we’ll need to move towards a Universal Basic Income.

This is complicated by Single Market membership also requiring Freedom of Movement for people between all members.

We also know that arguing that all immigration is beneficial is not going to win elections. This is an issue which helps the right, not least due to decades of tabloid propaganda against all immigrants and refugees.

Left wingers should be campaigning on equality, on ending unfairness, increasing wages and benefits for the poorest and capping them for the richest, on regulation, on closing down tax havens and loopholes for big firms and banks. Not getting drawn into focusing the debate on immigration during elections.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep supporting taking in genuine refugees, nor that we should be closing the borders to other immigrants entirely, nor that we shouldn’t challenge actual racism or prejudice. But it does mean discussing immigration calmly when we discuss it at all ; not shouting down anyone who argues for reduced immigration as racist or prejudiced, but arguing our case and hearing voters’ views.

The left also need to motivate the unemployed and people working on low incomes to vote – and to show that it’s going to do something to help them. Too many have got the false impression from the right wing press that Labour and other left wing or liberal parties are only concerned with refugees, immigrants and people who don’t want to work.

(1) = CNN politics Presidential Results , ; (Click on ‘popular vote’)

(2) = Industry Week 32 Feb 2016 ‘Who is Killing American Manufacturing?’,

(3) = Los Angeles Times 19 Dec 2016 ‘These three U.S. companies moved jobs to Mexico. Here's why’,

(4) = 02 May 2016 ‘After the leaks showed what it stands for, could this be the end for TTIP?’,

(5) = 12 Jul 2012 ‘Mexico's 'maquiladora' labor system keeps workers in poverty’,

(6) = Department of Work and Pensions (UK) Research Report No 533 (2008) ‘A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia’ by Richard Crisp and Del Roy Fletcher,

(7) = Texas Observer 13 Dec 2013 ‘Thanks to NAFTA, Conditions for Mexican Factory Workers Like Rosa Moreno Are Getting Worse’,

(8) = CNN politics Presidential Results 2016,

(9) = 21 Dec 2016 ‘Americans beat one voter turnout record — here's how 2016 compares with past elections’,

(10) = CNN 12 Nov 2016 ‘Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016’, ; (the headline is inaccurate as it’s taken from before all votes were counted – it was 60% , but graphs of past election turnouts are accurate)

(11) = USA Today 31 Aug 2016 ‘Poll: Clinton, Trump most unfavorable candidates ever’

(12) = Pew Research Center 07 Jul 2016 ‘2016 Campaign: Strong Interest, Widespread Dissatisfaction - 2. Voter general election preferences’,

(13) = See (12) above

(14) = 04 Dec 2014 ‘'I can't breathe': Eric Garner put in chokehold by NYPD officer – video’,

(15) = CNN politics Presidential Results – Exit Polls ,

(16) = See (15) above

(17) = US Social Security Administration online 30 Dec 2016 ‘Wage Statistics for 2015’,

(18) = See (15) above

(19) = CNN 10 Dec 2012 Presidential results ‘’, (once on page click on exit polls)

(20) = See (15) above

(21) = Bloomberg 22 Dec 2016 ‘Goldman Is Back on Top in the Trump Administration’,

(22) = CNN 13 Dec 2016 ‘Trump Picks Exxon Mobil’s Tillerson as Secretary of State’,

(23) = Stephen J. Lee (1996) ‘Weimar and Nazi Germany’, Heinemann books, section 2.4,

(24) = Lord Ashcroft Polls 24 Jun 2016 ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why’,

(25) = Lord Ashcroft Polls - EU Referendum ‘How Did You Vote’ PollONLINE Fieldwork : 21st-23rd June 2016, (see especially pages 8 to 10)

(26) = National Centre For Social Research / Kirby Swales (2016) ‘Understanding the Leave vote’,

(27) = CNN politics Presidential Results – Exit Polls ,

(28) = See (27) above

(29) = National Centre For Social Research / Kirby Swales (2016) ‘Understanding the Leave vote’,

(30) = 06 Feb 2016 ‘Albright: 'special place in hell' for women who don't support Clinton’,

(31) = IBTimes 09/03/2015 ‘Black Lives Matter Maryland Twitter Threat: 'Kill All The White People' Tweet Results In Arrest’,