Is Oxford University becoming complicit in Suu Kyi's Genocide?

When a reality goes off the chart of what is thinkable, fiction is no match.

That Oxford University’s most iconic graduate alive, Aung San Suu Kyi may find herself at the International Criminal Court for her “complicity of silence in crimes against humanity” and even a genocide, will go down in history as one such extraordinary tale. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar Professor Yanghee Lee made this unequivocally clear in her six minutes interview with UK’s Channel 4 News on 14 February.

This is no hyperbole.

In the eyes of many conscientious people, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former icon of freedom, human rights and democracy has lost any of her hard-earned moral authority and the image as the “Queen of Democracy” for her role in what UN officially calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of nearly 700,000 Rohingyas of Myanmar in the last six months.

The finger pointing at the Oxford-educated Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate comes not from her old nemesis, the Burmese generals, who had routinely vilified her in their state-controlled media for several decades during her 15-years of house arrest. Quite the opposite: her admirers and supporters the likes of Sir Geoffrey Nice - former Deputy Prosecutor of Milosevic in the Yugoslavia Tribunal, the outgoing Chief of UN Human Rights Council Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein and the Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar Professor Yanghee Lee of the Republic of Korea.

In an alarming parallel, both Aung San Suu Kyi and Oxford University show indifference to concerns regarding the subject of Rohingya identity, persecution and history.

A letter of concern

In her internal memo to the UN Secretary General Antonia Gunterres, Pramila Patten, U.N. envoy on sexual violence in conflict reportedly wrote the “meeting with the state counselor was a cordial courtesy call of approximately 45 minutes that was, unfortunately, not substantive in nature.”  Besides Suu Kyi expressed the “belief” that those (688,000 Rohingyas) who fled did so due to an affiliation with terrorist groups, and did so to evade law enforcement,” according to The Guardian.

In fact, Suu Kyi’s government issues routinely blanket denials in response to any credible findings about its mass graves of Rohingyas executed in cold-blood, systematic and pervasive use of rape against Rohingya women and girls, or destruction of over 340 Rohingya villages in an area stretching 100 Kilometre.

Over 80 scholars, activists and public intellectuals including the iconic names in the Ivory Tower (such as Gayatri Spivak, Noam Chomsky, Johan Galtung, Gregory Stanton, Barbara Harrel-Bond, and so on) publicly sent a letter of concern to the University’s Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson, regarding Oxford University Press’s choice of expert – Dr Jacques Leider - on the victims of Burmese genocide which Suu Kyi is accused of ‘presiding over’, ‘whitewashing’ and ‘denying’.

A chorus of over 1,500 on-line citizens worldwide, who have signed the on-line petition to Vice Chancellor Richardson, echo the concern of the scholars and public intellectuals, towards the roles both Oxford University and Suu Kyi are playing in the still on-going genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

One would expect a bit more truthful reply from the Office of Vice Chancellor, which has the ultimate administrative authority over Oxford University Press, when it was informed of the collective concern about the OUP’s commissioning of Dr Jacques Leider, the well-known adviser to Myanmar military who denies Rohingya identity, historical existence and the crime of genocide the group has been subjected to for decades. The Vice Chancellor and her executive team have chosen not to even acknowledge the receipt of the letter of concerns. Additionally, it did not respond to the genuine offer of assistance made in writing by the renowned post-colonial scholar Gayatri Spivak of Columbia University in selecting a scholar who will meet the standards of scholarly integrity regarding Rohingya history and identity. 

As a follow-up to the letter to VC, Professor Spivak wrote, “I did indeed insist that future readers of the Oxford history not read a biased account of the Rohingya. The UN considers the Rohingya situation to be certainly ethnic cleansing and even genocide…. Professor Amartya Sen has called it a slow genocide.  It is not necessary to take any political position in a scholarly entry.  But the account must be impartial. I strongly recommend that the Press locate an impartial scholar to write the entry.  I am in Calcutta, away from my desk.  I will, however, be happy to help you in this matter if necessary.”

Just as Suu Kyi and her office have consistently dismissed allegations and findings of Myanmar’s international human rights crimes against the Rohingya as “Fake News” designed to tarnish the image of Myanmar, the University apparently considers the concerns about the role of Oxford University Press in Myanmar’s ongoing campaign of genocidal destruction of Rohingya people as primarily “public relations” issue.  The written response from Oxford University Press On-line Editor Louis Gulino to a group of East Oxford residents and the Vicar of Cowley St John’s Parish who also wrote to the Vice Chancellor, urged any future correspondence be directed at the publicity office of the OUP.

'A publishing matter (?)'

OUP’s apparent concern about its public relations is understandable in light of the fact that shady ties between the Gaddafi regime of Libya and the London School of Economics (LSE). The controversial dealings had eventually blown up in the latter’s face, having resulted in the resignation of the LSE Director and the collapse of the Centre for the Study of Global Government, which collaborated with Gaddifi regime in training civil servants for a half-million US$.

As expected, Ella Percival, Communications Manager, emailed this response on 8 February, framed in the language of a-moral and purely technical process: “As this is a publishing matter, the first stage of this process is for Oxford University Press to follow these review procedures and, if necessary, implement a more detailed review. If the article does not meet our strict standards of scholarly integrity, it will, of course, not be published. Please rest assured that this decision is currently being considered.  We are very aware that the history of the Rohingya is a complex and contentious area of research and, as always, the goal of the Press is to represent this history with accuracy, balance, and sensitivity.”

Here, OUP has attempted to suggest that without fail they follow a strict refereeing process that ensures fairness and accuracy. This does not appear to have been the case with the commissioning of the article in the first place. The fact that only Rohingya communalism was made the focus of an article suggests that there is at least tacit acceptance of the claim made by the opposing Buddhist community of its own authenticity as an ethnic group. Given the controversy over the history and ethnic “indigeneity” within Rakhine, which OUP apparently believes, it would be necessary to commission and publish an equivalent piece examining Rakhine Buddhist communalism  simultaneously with the article on the Rohingya. By failing to do so, the OUP has in effect taken sides by focusing on the Rohingya in this controversy for unclear reasons and has decided not to be a neutral party. Moreover, at no point did OUP consult one of the only historians of Rakhine religious communalism as a referee, Professor Michael Charney of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, whose University of Michigan doctoral thesis (1999) focused on the subject of religious communalism in Rakhine up through the colonial period. Since then, Professor Charney has continued to write on the region. So far, this has been one sad string of failures by OUP.

Besides these strings of professional failures by the OUP editors, what the non-responses from the Vice Chancellor and the press office’s spins indicate is this:  the leaders and managers of the University show no appreciation of our concerns which rest on both the ethical considerations and the intrinsically intellectual issues.

Intellectual and conceptual flaws

The choice of the Rohingya in the OUP’s Asia History on-line reference series is intellectually problematic in and of itself. For Rohingya group identity is being suggested by the category and the announced title as a group identity born out of a communal conflict in Western Myanmar whereas the other party in this communal conflict, namely Buddhist Rakhine, is not subject to scholarly examination. In his numerous interviews – made available in Burmese translation to the Burmese readership inside Myanmar, and public events including the ones sponsored by the Burmese military, the commissioned expert, Dr Jacques Leider, has repeatedly said Rakhine identity is a “real ethnic identity” whereas Rohingya group identity as an “invented political identity” by the politically motivated Muslims in the 1950’s. He has further asserted that the circulation of latter's group identity has been revived only in the 1990’s, in spite of all available historical and official evidence to the contrary.

Furthermore, in the social sciences, it has been firmly established, since the publication of the late Benedict Anderson’s influential work “Imagined Communities”, nations, national sentiments and national identities are all products of collective imaginations. They are social invention. This in fact is Sociology of Identity 101 in any undergraduate degree programs. It is deeply lamentable that the Editors of the world’s largest, respectable university publishing house have overlooked not only the moral dimensions of its choice of Dr Leider as the commissioned expert on Rohingya, but fails to recognize the inherent intellectual and conceptual flaw in subjecting only the identity of the Rohingya to scholarly scrutiny while leaving out the Buddhist Rakhines, as if the group’s identity is aprior “real ethnic” as Dr Leiders falsely argues.

Morally, OUP’s selection of a French-educated expert on Myanmar with known ties to military, from amongst the myriad of qualified scholars to write an authoritative reference for its Asia History Online Reference Education series is just one of three specific ways in which the University is involved with Myanmar government.

The other two are Oxford University’s institutional ties with Yangon University, which is known to be a platform for propagating justifications for the Burmese genocide, and Oxford based or trained Burmese who openly espouse anti-Rohingya racism in their Burmese-language social media posts such as Facebook, the most widely used medium for the incitement to commit genocide against Rohingya. This is in addition to spreading intentional misinformation disparaging Rohingyas and their claims of extreme repression and persecution.

In response to Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal or “challenge” made during her visit to Oxford in 2012, during which she was conferred an Honorary Doctorate,  the University – then under the vice-chancellorship of John Hood – established an institutional link with Yangon University with the aim of revamping the higher education in a country reeling from 50-years of intellectual isolation and absence of academic freedom. The British Government is said to have footed the bill of 4 million GBP.  Who indeed would object to a western university of Oxford’s calibre helping to improve the quality of Burmese university education?

Technically, Oxford University is collaborating with Yangon University, and this is a tie between two institutions of higher learning. On the surface.

But the problem is, in spite of the talks of democratic transition, the repressive character of higher education sector in Burma has not changed: recent news report indicates that Yangon University still does not have any administrative or intellectual autonomy from the Ministry of Education. Recently, the same Ministry expelled over three dozen students for holding a protest demanding an increase in educational budget for universities, as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar Professor Yanghee Lee pointed out in her Final Statement on Myanmar.

Even the transition itself has reportedly gone off the rail as Suu Kyi’s own government itself stands accused of resorting to the pattern of old repressive tactics” in the face of allegations of its criminal responsibility in the case of “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya, to borrow the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Most troublingly, Yangon University website openly echoes  the government’s blatant denial that the Rohingya did not exist, despite all historical and official evidence to the contrary.  And many of its recent graduates join the loud chorus of Burmese voices which deny any wrong-doing by Myanmar, both the government and the country’s above-the-law military.

Any scholar of genocides knows that denial and dismissal of any allegations of international state crimes including crimes against humanity and genocide is a common feature of systematic destruction of peoples and communities, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, from Indonesia genocide of the Chinese to Bosnia and South Sudan. The fact that Yangon University, its faculty and graduates are engaged in this classic denial of atrocities, should be a serious concern for Oxford University administration.

Undermining standards of excellence

Finally, some of the well-known Burmese researchers who are brought to Oxford University for research and academic residency are known to be spreading  the verifiable misinformation or “Fake News” in today’s parlance, such as “Bengali”, (a Burmese racial slur in reference to the Rohingya), burned their own homes. Dr Khin Mar Mar Kyi - Aung San Suu Kyi Gender Scholar - based at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, was caught sharing, approvingly, the official Myanmar Government propaganda on her Facebook page. Similarly, another Burmese/Rakhine researcher named Aye Thein, who is part of Yangon-Oxford educational arrangement, was airing in Burmese language writing extremely racist and disparaging views about the Rohingyas, the victims of Burmese genocide.

Yesterday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was seen on Britain’s Channel 4 News directly confronting Dr Win Myat Aye, the Minister for Social Welfare and Aung San Suu Kyi’s point man on the humanitarian crisis, during a visit to the affected Rohingya region of Western Myanmar.  Win Myat Aye was caught on camera repeating the official lie that “they (688,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh as the result of Myanmar military’s scorched earth “security clearance operations” since August) torched (their own villages)”. Johnson’s incredulous and instant response was, “why would they do that”? Subsequently, the Foreign Secretary told the media that Myanmar was putting out these “farcical tales” in order to cover up its “industrial scale ethnic cleansing”.

When it comes to standards of truth, politicians, government officials and political leaders are the last the world would turn to. In sharp contrast, Oxford University which is seen globally as a standard bearer in academic knowledge production is expected to uphold high standards of excellence in research, scholarship and publishing of which intellectual integrity, factual accuracy and fairness in interpretation. The choice of Rohingya identity and history to be subject to scholarly scrutiny while giving the group in the horizontal conflict a pass, calls into question the professional judgment of the Asia History Series, besides OUP hand-picking the European scholar who advisers Myanmar military openly in the midst of the latter’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

On 29 January, the student-run Oxford Union devoted an evening of discussion on the subject of genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, South Sudan and Myanmar with four scholars and practitioners of international law and activism against genocides. As the Burmese panelist, I thanked the Union and its bright and internationally interested student members in the audience for organizing and attending in large number and specifically called their attention to the complicity of Oxford University in my country’s on-going genocide of the Rohingya people.

Oxford students have indeed shown humanistic concerns and intellectual curiosity about genocides, past and present.

It is high time that the leadership of the University reviews its institutional ties to Myanmar’s higher education sector. Further, the University ought to stop letting itself be used, wittingly or not, by individual scholars and experts whose denialist stance on the Rohingya, their identity, history and sufferings should be ground for withdrawal of commissioned work, professional ties, and support.

By all indications, Aung San Suu Kyi will be unable to salvage her condemned name at the 11th hour of her political career. But the administration of the University of Oxford still have a chance to do the right thing and avoid being recorded in history of genocides as a by-stander at best and complicit at worst, in the Burmese genocide.



Maung Zarni, a fellow with the Genocide Documentation Center of Cambodia, is a former Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Department of International Development.  He co-authored, "The Slow Burning Genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar", the first academic study that looks at the plight of the Rohingya using the genocide framework.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.