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UN under fire over resident coordinator’s advisor on Rakhine

Mr Jacques Leider, an historian from Luxembourg, was hired in late January as a senior consultant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. Photo: Youtube

By Tim McLaughlin
February 13, 2015

The appointment by the United Nations of a controversial academic as an advisor on Rakhine State has been slammed by Rohingya politicians, who allege he is biased in favour of Rakhine Buddhists. 

Jacques Leider, an historian from Luxembourg, was hired in late January as a senior consultant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Ms Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN said in a statement on February 11. 

Dr Leider specialises in the history of the pre-colonial Rakhine kingdom of Mrauk-U, but his stand on Rohingya ethnicity has consistently put him at odds with members of the Rohingya community and some human rights groups. 

Dr Leider has argued that the term Rohingya is a political label, rather than one of ethnicity, that was not popularised until the late 1990s. 

“My answer is that Rohingya is not an ethnic concept,”Dr Leider told The Irrawaddy in a 2012 interview. 

“For me, Rohingya is the term, which is an old word that has been claimed as above all as a political label after the independence of Myanmar,”he told the magazine. 

His appointment as an advisor to Ms Lok-Dessallien comes as the UN has become increasingly drawn into the contentious debate over the term Rohingya, the group’s right to self identify and its citizenship status. The UN has recently tried to distance itself from the debate, with officials stating that the focus on terminology is inhibiting progress in resolving broader issues in Rakhine. 

But doing so has proved challenging. Last year the government launched a pilot citizenship verification program in Rakhine State under which some residents were granted a form of citizenship on condition that they identify as Bengali, rather than Rohingya. The government refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis because it believes they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Dr Leider has also said that the Rakhine Buddhist community has been largely ignored in discussion over the situation in Rakhine State. In an interview with Maw Kun magazine he dismissed as “extreme” claims by groups such as Human Rights Watch that the Rohingya face ethnic cleansing. 

His writings and speeches have been cited by Rakhine groups and hardline monks as evidence to bolster their claims that the Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar and are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Members of the Rohingya community have been sharply critical of Dr Leider’s work, saying that his position on the question of Rohingya ethnicity discredits their standing in Myanmar and allege that he is biased in favour of Rakhine nationalists. 

The decision to hire Dr Leider as an adviser to Ms Lok-Dessallien was roundly denounced by Rohingya politicians on February 12. 

U Khin Maung Myint, a leading member of the National Democratic Party for Development, a Rohingya political party, said the NDPD would consider boycotting the UN over its decision to hire Dr Leider.

“He is biased, he is a Rakhine sympathiser, he has been working hand in hand with Rakhine nationalists,”he said.

His claim that Dr Leider has a pro-Rakhine agenda was shared by other Rohingya politicians, who also expressed concern that his appointment would only increase tensions between the state’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.

U Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, another Rohingya party, said that Dr Leider favoured Rakhine Buddhists and questioned why a historian had been hired for the job.

U Shwe Maung, a Rohingya MP who represents Rakhine’s Buthidaung constituency for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, accused the UN of failing to consult with both Rakhine and Rohingya groups before hiring Dr Leider.

“If the resident coordinator wants to hire an expert she should consult with both communities and find someone without a history of bias,”he said.

Dr Leider has previously worked at the Luxembourg embassy in Bangkok on issues related to political and economic affairs in Myanmar.

The scope of Dr Leider’s work with Ms Lok-Dessallien and the impact it will have on UN policy toward Rakhine remains unclear.

Rakhine Buddhist groups have regularly protested against the UN’s humanitarian work in the Western state since the outbreak of sectarian unrest there in 2012, alleging that it favours the Rohingya community.

“For the United Nations 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 UN statement said.

“The United Nations therefore works in consultation with all knowledgeable persons on Rakhine State in informing itself to this end. Dr Leider’s expertise has been sought by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in this regard.”

A UN spokesperson in Yangon referred further questions to Dr Leider, who said he was travelling to Rakhine and would be unavailable to comment on his position until the end of the month.

Since his appointment, Dr Leider has briefed diplomats in Yangon on the situation in Rakhine, including at the US embassy on February 2.

A US embassy spokesperson confirmed that the briefing was attended by ambassadors and diplomats from other embassies.

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