Letter: Ethics and Burma

December 15, 2000

Beverley Drumm (Letters, THES, December 8) made some excellent points. But I disagree on one issue. To imply that to enter a dictatorship on a research visa endorsed by a host government ministry is in itself ethically wrong is not where we should draw the line as a collectivity of scholars.

Area specialties in dozens of universities worldwide have relied on such visas and their output has permitted a much better understanding of countries where dictatorships rule. Their students have gone on to provide invaluable support for efforts in diplomacy, for non-governmental charities and development agencies.

The line must surely be drawn between serious independent academic research and research that demonstrably and directly panders to, cooperates with or is coordinated by authorities in charge of devising inhuman policies; the military, in the Burmese case.

One concrete measure of ethics is that when an academic has overstepped the mark in the eyes of most colleagues, something is wrong. But the visa issue should be a matter for individual conscience.

Younger scholars - in particular those specialising in the refugees on the Thai border who often see no need to conduct research within Burma - can only imagine Burma through their post-1988 experience of it as one big cruel and heartless country. But I entered Burma three times on prolonged research visas well before the 1988 trauma. I did not engage in research on government projects, but I know most civil service and higher education staff are extremely unhappy with this regime and very much want foreign academics to cooperate with them to bring some degree of academic and political freedom to the country, but without endangering their safety and that of relatives and friends.

I have not applied for long-term research visas since my 1982 visit. Since 1988 I have not done so because, as Drumm points out, it would necessitate formal affiliation with a Burmese government department I am not comfortable with. Instead, I applied through the Burmese embassy for, and received, three tourist visas, which I used for one to three weeks in 1997 and 1998. I have not returned since and so do not know whether I have been added to the "blacklist".

I do not ask other academics to subscribe to this caution, but I very much hope that they will also try not to involve themselves in academically legitimising politically repressive projects initiated by the Burmese authorities.

Gustaaf Houtman Editor, Anthropology Today Royal Anthropological Institute

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