Letter: Burmese daze

December 8, 2000

As a School of Oriental and African Studies PhD student conducting research on Burma, I read your December 1 issue with interest. Phil Baty's article ("Scholar attacked for links to junta", about the work of Elizabeth Moore) and Gustaaf Houtman's "Why I" letter raise important questions about research ethics and scholarship on Burma.

The Burmese junta is violent, illegitimate and corrupt. Its systematic denial of human rights has been well documented - including the killing of protesting students in 1988 and the closure of schools and universities. What's more, it uses "cultural preservation" (which extends to archaeology) to justify violence against opponents.

Moore has been granted an entry visa, but visas have been denied to scholars concerned with the present, journalists and the UN human rights rapporteur. We are not told what Moore's research is about, and we cannot speculate about her motives. But she must have been aware that doing archaeological research in Burma with the blessing of its Office for Strategic Studies leaves her open to accusations of moral indifference, or even, indirectly supporting the regime.

But before joining that bandwagon, consider three factors. First, other scholars, including Houtman, have done field research in Burma with official approval. But most of them, like Houtman, criticised the regime in their publications. Second, it would be wrong to assume that all officials back the regime. Third, in raising these issues, we must not be as censorious as the junta.

Talking to and working with dictators is not necessarily bad: no conflict will be resolved without dialogue. But to be effective, participants must express their beliefs with honesty and integrity.

To me, the ethics of Moore's work seem questionable. Without a statement to the contrary, her work is likely to be interpreted locally within a national cultural policy, which is newspeak for violent tyranny.

Beverley Drumm
Charlottesville, Virginia, US

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