Top UN official to depart Myanmar amid controversy over Rakhine

By SEAN GLEESON | FRONTIER

YANGON — Ms Renata Lok-Dessallien, the United Nations resident coordinator in Myanmar, will depart the country at the end of the month after being dogged by allegations she had sought to block action on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.

Lok-Dessallien, who took up the UN’s top Myanmar post in January 2014, was accused of presiding over a “glaringly dysfunctional” in-country mission in an internal memorandum sent to UN Secretary-General Mr Antonio Guterres in April.

The UN’s team in Myanmar has been plagued by tensions since her appointment, with accusations that Lok-Dessallien had prioritised building a strong relationship with the Myanmar government while sidelining human rights concerns in Rakhine State.  

During her tenure, Lok-Dessallien had attempted to stop human rights activists from visiting the Rohingya community and undermined staff who attempted to warn of the imminent risks of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, according to several former UN officials working in Myanmar.

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In one instance, Lok-Dessallien counselled former UN Special Rapporteur Mr Tomas Ojea Quintana to avoid public statements on the Rohingya community and to avoid travelling to Rakhine State during his final visit to Myanmar in 2014.

One former member of the resident coordinator’s office, Ms. Caroline Vandenabeele, told the BBC in September that discussing issues related to the Rohingya community was strongly discouraged under Lok-Dessallien’s tenure.

“You could do it but it had consequences,” she said. “And it had negative consequences, like you were no longer invited to meetings and your travel authorisations were not cleared. Other staff were taken off jobs — and being humiliated in meetings. An atmosphere was created that talking about these issues was simply not on.”

Speaking Friday, resident coordinator’s office spokesman Mr Stanislav Staling said Lok-Dessallien’s departure was first flagged earlier this year, and referred Frontier to a June statement which said she would continue to serve in the role until further notice.

“As stated by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson on June 13, her performance has been constantly appreciated,” the statement read.

Staling would not comment further on whether her departure was the result of her handling of Rakhine State.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, other UN officials told Frontier that the fractious internal culture of the UN team, along with the resident coordinator’s management of ongoing issues in Rakhine State, had prompted the decision to rotate Lok-Dessallien out of Myanmar earlier than the end of what is usually a five-year term.

The UN has proposed upgrading its country chief to the position of assistant secretary-general after Lok-Dessallien’s departure, a move that has been rejected by Myanmar’s government, according to one UN staff member in Myanmar.

On Friday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Mr Jeffrey Feltman will arrive in Myanmar for a five-day visit to discuss the latest conflict in Rakhine State, which has sent more than half a million Rohingya refugees across the border to Bangladesh.

Feltman is expected to discuss the assistant secretary-general post with government leaders during that time.

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