This open letter, sent to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University by 76 scholars and rights activists from around the world, raises concern about a controversial editorial decision to write about the Rohingyas in the Asian History volume.
February 5, 2018
We, the undersigned group of scholars and rights campaigners, are disturbed by the fact that OUP's Oxford Research Encyclopedia (ORE) of Asian History series has commissioned Dr Jacques Leider, head of the Bangkok-based Ecole Française de l' Extrême-Orient (EFEO) and a well-known advisor to the Myanmar military's Armed Forces Historical Museum in Naypyidaw, to write a reference article on the subject of the Rohingya people in the forthcoming series: the ORE Asian History (under "Political", see "Rohingya: Emergence and Vicissitudes of a Communal Muslim Identity in Myanmar (Jacques Leider), forthcoming Jan-Mar 2018", found February 03, 2018 at: http://asianhistory.oxfordre.com/page/forthcoming/).
As you know, the Tatmadaw (the official name of the Myanmar armed forces) has been credibly accused of committing crimes under international law including crimes against humanity and even the crime of all crimes, genocide, against the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas.
As you also know, the Oxford University Press (OUP) has a very well-earned reputation for fairness and authority in the fields in which they publish reference material. Anything published by OUP online about the Rohingya and Myanmar will be given a great deal of credibility by both scholars and the general public and carry a great deal of weight in any ongoing disputes over the exact legal name of the crimes against this world's largest stateless population whose group identity and historical presence is being erased officially and popularly in Myanmar.
We therefore draw your attention to our following concerns regarding your selection of Dr Jacques Leider to write a reference article for the ORE Asian History series:
(1) We find that positions taken by Dr Leider in interviews with the press, in public talks and in published articles raise serious questions about his objectivity regarding the Rohingya and their history. His well-documented pattern of denials that the Myanmar military-directed mass violence and scorched-earth military operations against the Rohingya community - the subject of his ORE article - is challenged by the growing body of legal analyses and human rights research reports which point to the fact that Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya as a group amounts to international crimes including crimes against humanity and genocide.
(2) We believe that televised appearances by Dr Leider with military and government officials condoning state policies against the Rohingya give the appearance to the viewing public that he validates views that underlie the Myanmar military's ousting in 2017 of 680,000 people and the massacre of Rohingya for which the military has recently admitted responsibility. A recent English-Burmese bilingual book entitled Talk on Rakhine Issue: Discussion on Finding Solutions
published by the Ministry of Defence's Myawaddy News Group in Myanmar highlights the fact, in photos and text, that Dr Leider was the only foreign expert to participate in the strategic discussion organized by this official propaganda organ of the Myanmar MOD in the first month of what the United Nations officially described as "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya. On September 7 and 8, 2017, Dr Leider was on stage seated with two ex-Lt-Colonels named Than Aye and Ko Ko Hlaing (respectively, ex-officer-in-charge of the strategic affairs unit and the ex-adviser to the former General and former President Thein Sein 2010-15) in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw at the said invitation-only event billed as "Talk on Rakhine Issue: Discussion on Finding Solutions."
In the introduction of the aforementioned book published by the Myanmar Military, the position of Myanmar regarding the actions taken against the Rohingya - which have been abundantly documented and assessed as egregious human rights violations by six successive UN Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situation in Myanmar since 1992 as well as by the world's leading human rights monitors such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - is presented as a legitimate course of action (that is, by the Myanmar military to defend the country against Islam's attempt to expand its demographic power base and dominate the world; see supra at p. 4 Talk on Rakhine Issues
, Ministry of Defence Myawaddy News Group).
In these strategic discussions, ex-Colonel Ko Ko Hlaing openly singled out Oxford University as a very influential institution which hosted an international conference on the Rohingya where knowledge about the Rohingya (history, identity and repression) was discussed and disseminated. By this, he implied that Oxford University - and other similarly influential entities - is somewhere that the Myanmar military needs to try to make strategic inroads to promote its official denial both of Rohingya identity and history, and of the state-directed terror and expulsion.
The audience was mainly composed of officials from the Ministry of Defence. Myanmar's official and popular Islamophobia - whereby Muslims have been scapegoated in the same way as the Jews were in the old Europe - is well-documented in scholarly and human rights literature. These discussions took place at the time Leider's host organization (the Myanmar military) was responsible for the violent deaths of "at least 6,700 Rohingya, in the most conservative estimations […] including at least 730 children below the age of five years," in the first month alone of the military operations conducted in Northern Rakhine state of Myanmar (i.e. from 25 August to 24 September 2017), according to the findings from a limited survey carried out by the international humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) among the survivors of this wave of ethnic cleansing who are now in refugee camps in Chittagong, Bangladesh (see "Myanmar/Bangladesh: MSF surveys estimate that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed during the attacks in Myanmar" http://www.msf.org/en/article/myanmarbangladesh-msf-surveys-estimate-least-6700-rohingya-were-killed-during-attacks ).
(3) Dr Leider's insistence (see "History Behind Rakhine State Conflict" https://www.irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/history-behind-rakhine-state-conflict.html, "The Frictions in the Rakhine State Are Less About Islamophobia Than Rohingya-Phobia" https://thewire.in/182611/frictions-rakhine-state-less-islamophobia-rohingya-phobia/ , and "The Truth About Myanmar's Rohingya
Issue" https://thediplomat.com/2016/03/the-truth-about-myanmars-rohingya-issue/) that Rohingya identity - not Rakhine or the majority Burmese - be critically scrutinized as a political identity born out of political and communal conflict indicates a bias against Rohingya claims of their long documented history of settled existence in Rakhine state. This pronounced bias (in addition to his evident relations with the Myanmar military) should have raised doubts about his appropriateness to write a reference article about the Rohingya. We perceive in Dr Leider's writings and public statements an unconcealed bias against Muslim Rohingyas, which results in his dismissal or willful ignorance of irrefutable (and easily accessible) evidence that effectively undermines his thesis which is that the Rohingya, unlike other "genuinely ethnic identities", were manufactured by Muslim fighters or Mujahideens in the post-independence period of the 1950's. For instance, Dr Leider labels it a "delusion" that the Government of the Union of Burma recognized the Rohingya as a constitutive ethnic group of the Union following the surrender of the separatist Mujahideen in July 1961. The irrefutable fact is this: as late as 1964, the Government of Burma officially included the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Burma in its official Burmese language "Encyclopaedia Myanmar" (V. 9). In addition, the Rohingya were granted a slot on the country's sole broadcasting station known as the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) as an indigenous language program, broadcast three times per week, alongside other indigenous languages such as Shan, Lahu, etc., until the 3rd year (1964) of the military rule of General Ne Win.
The readily accessible official documentation supports the Rohingya's collective claim that they were officially recognized as an ethnic group of the Union of Burma, from which follows the conclusion that it is the State of Myanmar that has embarked on the project of erasing Rohingya ethnic identity, their history and presence which predates the formation of the post-colonial state of the Union of Burma in 1948. Dr Leider's choice to ignore these primary and official sources regarding Rohingya ethnic identity and nationality further reinforces Myanmar's institutionalized propaganda and Fake News that the Rohingya do not exist as an ethnic nationality, while lending a veneer of objective scholarly authority. We observe, further, that there is an alarming parallel between Myanmar's de-nationalization and identity destruction and the German de-nationalization of the Jewish population under Nazi rule.
(4) Genocide denial is a crime in countries such as Germany. Although there is no UK or international law against which the denial of state-directed crimes against humanity, including genocide, of the Rohingya can be judged, the consensus is emerging among the world's leading institutions and scholars in the field of genocide studies - from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yale University Human Rights Law Clinic, the University of Washington Law School, the Queen Mary University of London International State Crimes Initiative to the Russell-Sartre-inspired Permanent Peoples' Tribunal on Myanmar - that Myanmar is responsible for genocide. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressly stated that he is "not ruling out" that genocide is being committed against the Rohingya. Yet, despite the well-publicized findings by world-renowned research institutes and scholars of genocide, Dr Leider dismisses them. He also fails to acknowledge that Myanmar's majoritarian racism among the country's Buddhists is violent. He characterizes Buddhist racism towards the Rohingya as merely "strong sentiment".
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. The ORE is certainly not an appropriate vehicle in which to publish such views. Indeed, OUP should have nothing to do with them.
We note also that OUP appears only to have commissioned an article on the Rohingya and not on the Rakhine Buddhist community whose ethnic claims, we understand, are no stronger than those of the Rohingya. It is hard to interpret this as other than OUP's taking a stand in favor of the Myanmar military and against the Rohingya for reasons unclear and that OUP supports, at least indirectly, the current ethnic cleansing which Dr Leider's writings and media appearances are used to deny.
Finally, it needs to be stressed that there is something more consequential than our objection per se to OUP's commissioning a reference article by Dr Leider on the target of the Myanmar military's repression. That is the question whether Western educational institutions of worldwide influence should allow themselves, wittingly or not, to be used as a platform by illiberal regimes through academics and scholars whom the regimes view as supporters of their views (and hence as, in effect, their proxies for propaganda). The well-reported cases of Cambridge University Press and China, or the LSE and the Ghaddafi regime, spring to mind.
It is worth quoting the recent words of Ruth Barnett, a Jewish Kindertransport survivor in Britain:
"'Never Again' is unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime but it is we who need to make an effective input towards making it happen. Each and every one of us can do something. It is essential to learn to contain our own violent impulses so that we can talk and negotiate instead of exacerbating and increasing the violence of others.
"Perhaps the most poisonous factor is the toleration and cover-up of denial. Denial opens the door for others to commit crimes against humanity, as we clearly see others getting away with it. We need to enthuse and stimulate curiosity and an insistence to expose the truth.
"We live with so much denial that many people can no longer distinguish between misinformation, disinformation and truth."
(Ruth Barnett, 27 January 2018, "I Survived The Holocaust. Merely Remembering It Is No Longer Good Enough", RightsInfo.org, https://rightsinfo.org/why-remembering-the-holocaust-isnt-enough/ )
We sincerely urge OUP to reconsider your editorial decision to commission Dr Leider to write a reference article on the subject of the Rohingya. We ask that if this article goes ahead, it includes a clear disclaimer that Dr Leider is not a distant observer and that the article should be considered as an opinion piece, not as an unbiased reference source, regarding a controversial subject which has already been documented by MSF to have caused the deaths of over 6,700 Rohingya in the first month of Myanmar's 2017 military attack and the flight of 680,000 refugees over several months.
There are a total of 76 signatories to the letter. Following is a list of 16 of them:
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor and a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University, USA
- Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, National Coordinator of Indonesia Legal Aid Association for Women, Indonesia
- Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher and activist (Institute Professor, MIT), USA
- Mofidul Hoque, author and activist, Director, Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice, Liberation War Museum, Bangladesh
- Tapan Bose, filmmaker, human rights defender, India
- Richard Falk, Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University, USA
- Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE. Emerita Professor and Founding Director of The Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford 1982-1996, UK
- Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Oxford University Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, UK
- Ritu Dewan, Vice President, Indian Society of Labour Economics. Director, Centre for Development Research and Action Executive Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. President, Indian Association for Women's Studies (2014-17)
- Prof. Gregory Stanton, Founding Chairman, Genocide Watch & George Mason University. Arlington, Virginia, USA
- Johan Galtung, Founder, Peace Studies
- Youk Chhang, Chairman, Genocide Documentation Center of Camboda/The Sleuk Rith Institute, Cambodia
- Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair Emeritus Parliament of the World's Religions
- Karen Jungblut, Director of Global Initiatives, USC Shoah Foundation, USA
- María do Mar Castro Varela, Professor of Pedagogy and Social Work and activist, Alice Salomon University, Berlin, Germany
- C Abrar, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh