The genocidal killings and suppression of the Rohingya people in Burma (also known as Myanmar) has drawn the world’s attention to what the Economist has called the “most persecuted people in the world.” Because deep knowledge about the Rohingya is often sparse, it is crucial that reputable sources cover what is going on in Burma with accuracy and objectivity. Now a group of academics and human rights workers has issued a strong letter to the Oxford University Press, arguing that its choice of an author to write on the Rohingya is deeply flawed and could have wide-ranging consequences. The Press has commissioned Jacques Leider, whom the letter identifies as the head of the Bangkok-based École française d’Extrême-Orient and an adviser to the Burma military’s Armed Forces Historical Museum, to write the reference article on the Rohingya for its Oxford Research Encyclopedias.
This is not the first time Leider’s appointment as an expert on the Rohingya has been a matter of debate. In January 2015, the UN hired him as a senior consultant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma, Renata Lok-Dessallien. Rohingya leaders protested the nomination because at that time Leider had described claims by Human Rights Watch that the Rohingya were facing ethnic cleansing as “extreme.” Later, in October 2017, The Guardian reported that Lok-Dessallien’s office was accused of suppressing a UN report warning of an imminent crisis in Rakhine State and urging immediate action to forestall a human rights crisis amongst the Rohingya population. It predicted that state security forces would be “heavy-handed and indiscriminate” in dealing with the Rohingya. According to The Guardian, “Lok-Dessallien faces fresh charges that she undermined attempts to publicly promote the rights of the Rohingya, the stateless Muslim minority. Aid workers said the UN prioritized good relations with the Burma government over humanitarian and human rights advocacy.”
In response to this criticism, the UN has said that “the focus on terminology is inhibiting progress in resolving broader issues in Rakhine.” And this is precisely Leider’s take on the situation. In a YouTube video, he argues that international sympathy has been extended to only one of the two groups in the conflict — the Rohingya — while the other group, the Rakhine Buddhists, are ignored. He claims the Rohingya narrative now occupies the “moral high ground,” arguing that it has become “politically correct” to side with the Rohingya, and that this has created a dangerous situation for free speech. He argues for a set of quite different terms from the ones used by most international human rights organizations to describe the situation of the Rohingya. While he does not deny that the Rohingya are suffering, Leider says the Rakhine Buddhists are suffering as well, and equally so. He claims both groups are being “manipulated” by the government.
While it is true that in 2016 the government began cracking down on a Buddhist nationalist group, the Ma Ba Tha, many see this as a temporary political maneuver to deflect international protest. In actuality, Reuters notes: “The [Buddhist nationalist] 969 movement now enjoys support from senior government officials, establishment monks and even some members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.”
And whatever constraint the government is placing on the Buddhist nationalists, the magnitude and nature of its suppression of and attacks on the Rohingya have no counterpart with regard to the Rakhine Buddhists.
Leider’s written work for the popular press contains the same kind of sentiments, downplaying the immense disproportion of violence and suffering that has been set upon the Rohingya by a constellation of actors, not the least of which is the Burma government. Leider dismisses the claim that the state favors the Rakhine Buddhists, saying that’s “easy to argue” (as if that fact makes the argument incorrect). In fact, as we will see below, there is considerable evidence, gathered by neutral international rights organizations, that the Burma military is aiding the Rakhine Buddhists in attacking and killing Rohingya.
Among his other denials, Leider rejects the perception that the Rakhine Buddhists harbor “racist” feelings toward the Rohingya — he claims instead they have an “extremely strong … emotional reaction.” Yet, a report entitled “How Myanmar’s Buddhists Actually Feel About the Rohingya” claims, “There appears to be little sympathy for the Muslim minority in a country where there has been an upsurge in Buddhist nationalism…. Prejudice against the Rohingya, who are not seen as citizens of Burma, is long held and people aren’t shy to share their views.”
Leider dismisses as well the notion that “Rohingya” is a meaningful ethnic name, saying that it’s a recent political appropriation of an old term. Yet, his denial of Rohingya identity is part of the government’s strategy of denying the Rohingya rights and citizenship. Quartz notes, “The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Burma at the center of a humanitarian catastrophe. But the Burma government won’t even use the word ‘Rohingya,’ let alone admit they’re being persecuted. Instead, the government calls them Bengalis, foreigners, or worse, terrorists.”
Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, Leider vehemently denies that anything like genocide is being committed against the Rohingya, saying, “That is … way beyond anything that matches reality.”
Most international human rights organizations beg to differ. In surveys conducted by Doctors Without Borders, in a one-month period this fall, at least 9,000 Rohingya died “when the Burma military, police and local militias launched the latest ‘clearance operations’ in Rakhine in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA].” Since then, more than 647,000 Rohingya have fled the country. To put this in perspective, a BBC report described an attack by ARSA in which its members were armed mostly with “knives and home-made bombs,” certainly nothing to compare with the combined force of the army, security police and armed vigilantes. Contrary to Leider’s claim that the conflict is between two equal groups, the state being “neutral,” Human Rights Watch reports that:
For months, local Arakanese political party officials and senior Buddhist monks publicly vilified the Rohingya population and described them as a threat to Arakan State. On October 23, thousands of Arakanese men armed with machetes, swords, homemade guns, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons descended upon and attacked Muslim villages in nine townships throughout the state. State security forces either failed to intervene or participated directly in the violence …
In the deadliest incident, on October 23 at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a massacre in Yan Thei village in Mrauk-U Township. Despite advance warning of the attack, only a small number of riot police, local police, and army soldiers were on duty to provide security. Instead of preventing the attack by the Arakanese mob or escorting the villagers to safety, they assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves.
Just a few days ago, on March 12, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Yanghee Lee, told the Human Rights Council she was “increasingly of the opinion that the events in Rakhine State bear the hallmarks of genocide and called in the strongest terms for accountability.”
That same day, experts of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Burma issued a report that listed eight major findings in relation to allegations in Rakhine State of so-called “clearance operations” of the Burma security forces: “Credible accounts are rife of the State’s various security forces having committed gross human rights violations in the course of these operations…. People died from gunshot wounds, often due to indiscriminate shooting at fleeing villagers. Some were burned alive in their homes — often the elderly, disabled and young children. Others were hacked to death.”
Besides the UN, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the International State Crime Initiative are among the organizations and groups that have found evidence of genocide against the Rohingya.
Amnesty International has called the system the Rohingya lived under “apartheid”: “This system appears designed to make Rohingyas’ lives as hopeless and humiliating as possible. The security forces’ brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing … is just another manifestation of this appalling attitude,” according to a report from the organization.
There is certainly enough evidence that a significant number of researchers and scholars — armed with masses of data — have a very different view from that of Jacques Leider so as to make his selection as the author of an encyclopedia entry on the Rohingya more than problematic.
Oxford University Press has assured those mounting the protest that it will vigorously vet what Leider submits for publication, but the very fact he was invited in the first place, by one of the premier academic publishing houses in the world, raises huge questions, for a narrative established in such an august and authoritative publication may be applied in all sorts of ways.
Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the signatories of the letter to Oxford University Press, told Truthout that Leider’s appointment continues a colonial project with deep economic interests. “European knowledge management authorities subsidize histories that establish a new colonial bias supporting (sometimes unwittingly) Burma’s entry into the global scene — a new stock exchange with immense investments by India, China, and general nation state investors,” she said. “Jacques Leider’s colonial bias — masquerading as ‘objectivity’ —- comes in useful here. This is how historical accounts are put to use in the interests of an economic growth that has little to do with social inclusion.”
Moreover, the dismissal and distortion of the actual realities surrounding the Rohingya feeds into a broader anti-Muslim framework. Leider denies that the violence against the Rohingya is motivated by Islamophobia — but Islamophobic venues such as The Muslim Issue are quick to use his dismissal of the Rohingya as a way to dismiss the issue of Palestine with claims such as these:
Dr Jacques Leider clarifies that the Rohingya was not even known as Rohingya until the 1990’s (this again is similar to the “Palestinians” who never called themselves so until 1972) and that they are painting a victimhood narrative…. All of this originates from the Islamic nationalism to create yet one more Islamic state out of [Burma]. All these conflicts originate from the “Palestinian” conflict which encouraged muslims [sic] a lot to infiltrate through immigration to take possession of a nation.
It is precisely because the connection between the Rohingya and the Palestinians has been made so prominent that denying the suffering of the Rohingya has implications beyond Burma. As the Christian Science Monitor notes: “the state-driven violence in Myanmar (Burma), which reportedly has killed more than 1,000 people and driven 370,000 Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, has caught the attention of the Arab world, promoting a rare outpouring of support, solidarity, and activism.” And Foreign Policy declared, “The Rohingya are the New Palestinians,” noting:
Both groups became disenfranchised in the aftermath of colonial rule and imperial collapse, and both the Burma and Israeli governments have attempted to relocate them from their territory, portraying them as foreigners with no claim to the land. In both Israel and Burma, there have been attempts to rewrite the history of the two persecuted groups, claiming that neither constitute a “real” ethnic group and are thus interlopers and invaders.
It is precisely in this last sense — of rewriting history — that Jacques Leider’s appointment is suspect. Professor Richard Falk, former Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on Occupied Palestinian Territories and a signatory of the protest letter, told Truthout: “As someone who has long experienced media and publishing efforts to obscure and minimize the severe crimes experienced by the Palestinian people, I regard the Oxford University Press choice of Leider to assess the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Burma government to be similarly indefensible.”
In response to Truthout’s request for comment, Leider stated, “I did the job that I was asked to do. Now I am looking forward to seeing my essay published by OUP. As the publication is under their responsibility and yet unfinished business, it’s not the best moment to make personal statements.”
In sum, the issue is not, contrary to what Leider says, a matter of free speech. As the letter-writers note: “We do not deny that Dr. Leider, like anyone else, has a right to comment on the Rohingya or any other topic, but when someone takes such a strong position against the historicity of one group’s claims regarding ethnicity/identity (and only one group’s in a context of conflict between two or more groups), it seems unfair that they should be commissioned for a project to write an article on the ethnic group in question that seeks to present itself as a fair and unbiased reference source.”