By Thomas Kean | Monday, 16 February 2015
The United Nations resident coordinator in Myanmar has appointed a prominent historian to provide advice on UN activities in Rakhine State, in a move some say could backfire due to the way his research has in the past been used by Rakhine nationalists.
A UN spokesperson said Jacques Leider, an academic from Luxembourg who has been researching Rakhine State for 25 years, had been recently appointed by resident coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien to improve understanding of the dynamics in Rakhine State.
“For the UN to continue to work effectively for all the peoples in the Rakhine State, it is necessary to gain a thorough understanding of the context in which it operates,” the spokesperson said.
“The United Nations therefore works in consultation with all knowledgeable persons on Rakhine State in informing itself to this end. Mr Leider’s expertise has been sought by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in this regard.”
Mr Leider declined to comment when contacted by The Myanmar Times last week. One of his first duties in the new role was to hold a briefing for members of the Yangon diplomatic community about the history of the Rakhine conflict on February 10.
One diplomat who attended the briefing said Mr Leider emphasised the long history of diversity in Rakhine State and described the current state of tensions as a relatively contemporary phenomenon.
While this could perhaps offer hope for reconciliation between the two communities, the diplomat said that “from a realist point of view it’s quite difficult to see it happening because at this stage things have gone beyond rationality”.
“I must give the UN resident coordinator credit for trying a new way to approach the issue but ... the feeling among those who attended seemed to be that it would be difficult for this approach to have much impact.”
However, others have been less positive about the appointment, particularly because Mr Leider’s work is often used by anti-Rohingya nationalists to justify the denial of citizenship and other rights to Muslims.
Mr Leider argues that Muslims in Rakhine State have only adopted the Rohingya name since the 1950s in order to advance claims that they are a culturally distinct and separate ethnic group.
“Rohingyas conflate the history of all Muslims in Rakhine’s past with their own condition in Myanmar today and they hold the belief that ‘Rohingyas’ have existed in Rakhine for many generations,” he wrote in a paper for the Myanmar Peace Center in 2013.
Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said Mr Leider’s research was “famous in circles that have participated in deadly violence against Rohingya”.
“I know this because I’ve had discussions about his positions with people who perpetrated violence in Sittwe in 2012,” he said.
Mr Smith said it was difficult to see the wisdom of hiring such a polarising figure, and questioned the timing so shortly after Rakhine political leaders had declared they would no longer coordinate with the UN.
“Advancing a narrative that discounts Rohingya ethnicity-claims would not only be unwise, but would further entrench the situation. It doesn’t strike me as clever,” he said.
However, a number of people interviewed for this article spoke highly of Mr Leider’s knowledge and understanding of Rakhine State.
“I have formed the highest opinion of his intellectual integrity and historical knowledge,” said one regular writer on Rakhine issues, who asked not to be named. “I welcome his appointment, because he knows the facts, so far as they are known.”
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project described Mr Leider as “a well-known, balanced and respected scholar”.
“He challenges some of the historical myths propagated by both sides in Arakan,” she said. “More academics like him are needed to conduct unbiased and fact-based research in the field of anthropology and history.”