For Britain, sorry seems to be the hardest word

22940589530_faaf663bec_kOn a chair opposite the Japanese Embassy in Seol, South Korea sits a statue. A life-sized figure of a young woman symbolizing the innocence that was violated by Japan when it forced 200,000 women from Korea and beyond to become sex slaves for their soldiers during WWII.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has just offered his “most sincere apologies” on behalf of his country and agreed to pay into a fund to support the survivors of the atrocity. He is now hoping that the statue – a source of great embarrassment to his country – will be removed.

Meanwhile, the British establishment is huffing and puffing at student calls for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College, Oxford, on the grounds that it perpetuates a colonialist, Eurocentric view of the world. Or, to use the words of a Radio 4 Any Questions listener, because he was a “vicious, exploitative racist”.

Should countries apologise and pay reparations for the sins of their forebears like Japan has just done? Or should they shrug and leave tributes to their Empire-makers standing as proud testaments to their history, warts and all?

While Any Questions panellist Bernard Jenkins said if we start taking down statues of unpleasant people from our history “where will it end?!”, Labour MP, Kate Hoey, dismissed the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, calling the University “pathetic” for seriously considering the students’ calls. “I was a student demonstrator over apartheid,” she said,  “I was involved in all sorts of sit-ins… and when I look back I wonder what on earth we sat in for because I don’t think we actually got anything.” More troubling than the apparent shallowness of her convictions that this comment reveals, is the brushing over of the important role that international support did play in ending apartheid.

There are worse legacies of the British Empire than statues. The tea plantations of the Indian sub-continent, for example, where historic hierarchies and exploitative practices have been preserved and hardened. While statues may cause offence, these tea plantations continue to cause suffering to living human beings by paying poverty wages – lower than the national minimum wage – and providing substandard benefits for hard and dangerous physical work.

Despite Cecil Rhodes’ contention that “we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,” there is no escaping the fact that economic exploitation was in fact the Empire’s primary aim, with the betterment of the human race as a nice bonus thrown in. Brits may or may not have done their exploiting in a more gentlemanly manner than other colonisers, but exploit they did. As Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, said when he apologised for London’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, “You can look across [towards the financial district] to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery”. And every time we buy a cheap pack of tea bags we are benefiting from the exploitation of tea workers.

So let us by all means debate whether the statues of vicious, exploitative racist Empire builders should remain standing, but in the meantime, let us call for the dismantling of the living monuments to human exploitation our forebears set up in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

And once it has ended, let us have the courage and decency to apologise for it, as Japan has done for the exploitation of those Korean women. Or like the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, did when he expressed “sincere regret” for the British torture and abuse of Kenyans in the 1950s. Or as Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia did in 2008 for the “profound grief, suffering and loss” it had inflicted on Australia’s aboriginal people, or then Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in the same year to Canada’s aboriginal peoples for the abuses they suffered at the residential schools they were forced to attend.

Ken Livingstone ended his speech with the words “Slavery was not abolished as an act of good will by the slave owners, it was defeated by the resistance of the slaves.” The resistance of India’s tea plantation workers is in its infancy and needs our support. If student protests played even the smallest role in helping to end apartheid, perhaps they – and the rest of us – can also play a part in helping to end the continued exploitation of millions of tea plantation workers.

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