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Maoist sect scrutinized in wake of UK slavery case

Sunday - 12/1/2013, 4:00pm  ET

SYLVIA HUI
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- When Sian Davies died after mysteriously falling out of a window in a south London house 16 years ago, her family was stunned -- they had not seen her for two decades.

Davies had moved to London as a young woman pursuing a master's degree, but soon she cut off virtually all contact with her family and disappeared from sight. Her relatives gathered that she had gotten tangled up with a cult -- a secretive, closely-knit Maoist group whose members lived together in a communist collective. The family knew little else, and was none the wiser even after her death.

"We kept saying she would come back. But of course she never did," said Eleri Morgan, a cousin of Davies'. In the end, Morgan only got to see her estranged cousin in the morgue.

The disappearance and unexplained death of Davies raised a few murmurs about the nature and work of the far-left group she was involved in. But it wasn't until this month, when it emerged that the same collective allegedly held three women against their will for 30 years, that the obscure group came under full scrutiny.

The revelation that the women could be held enslaved for so long in a London house, in what police described as the largest ever case of modern-day slavery in Britain, sent shockwaves across the country. The captive women, police say, were cut off from the outside world by "invisible handcuffs" and brainwashing. They also appeared to have fallen into the arrangement through some shared political ideology.

Those allegations have raised dozens of questions about the Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought, a tiny sect with just a handful of members that split from Britain's many leftist groups in the 1970s.

Steve Rayner, a University of Oxford professor who spent time studying the Maoist group in the late 1970s, said the Workers Institute was a small, secretive band headed by a man called Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73, known as "Comrade Bala."

According to Rayner the group's core consisted of just about 13 people living as a "communist collective" in south London's Brixton area. Its members wore Mao badges, shared earnings, and were fiercely exclusive. They rejected all alliances with other leftwing groups, and denounced the government and all of its institutions as fascist. Indeed, when a TV crew pursued the members for an interview after Davies' death in 1997, one of the women freed repeatedly called the journalists lackeys of the "fascist state" and shut the door in their faces.

The fanatical devotees of Mao believed the Chinese People's Liberation Army would take over the world by the end of 1977, Rayner added.

The Workers' Institute may sound like an extreme outlier, but it was just one of the many revolutionary groups that thrived in the political and cultural ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s.

At the time, Mao's ideas were seen as appealing to some in Europe who believed his revolution had brought China a more equal society.

"It was all about challenging the authority," said Michel Hockx, director of the China Institute at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

It was in this environment that Davies, an intelligent, fun loving young woman who had moved from Wales to London after completing a law degree, got caught up in Comrade Bala's cult.

Her cousin, Morgan, told The Associated Press that they used to go out together on weekends, but the two grew apart as the Maoist collective gained influence.

Soon, all contact was lost.

"She was a very bright girl from a good family," she said. "I'm shocked that she would go and follow a man like that."

Ian Haworth, founder of Britain's Cult Information Center, said brainwashing techniques appear to have been used to keep the three freed women in the group. Experts in cult strategies have often studied the way the Chinese government used such techniques during Mao's reign, he said.

"The woman saying, 'you're part of the fascist state' again and again -- I would simply say that whatever combinations of techniques are being employed are clearly working," he said. "The idea of them being psychologically held for 30 years makes a great deal of sense to me."

Hockx, the professor of Chinese studies, said Maoism should not be blamed for the London cult. But he acknowledged that extreme propaganda -- bombarding people with slogans until they are afraid of being caught not repeating them -- was a key feature during the height of China's Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.

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