Scholar attacked for links to junta

December 1, 2000

Extensive cooperation between the military dictatorship of Burma and a senior London University academic has sparked international controversy over academic ethics.

Elizabeth Moore, head of the arts and archaeology department at the university's School of Oriental and African Studies, has close links with the Burmese government's Office of Strategic Studies. International academics have said her links with a regime notorious for some of the worst human rights abuses and the suppression of dissent or academic freedom raise important questions for scholars.

One London-based Burma specialist said Dr Moore's presence in the country, officially known as Myanmar since 1989, could be considered unethical, with her presence and her work capable of being exploited to "legitimise" and bolster the dictatorship.

The Myanmar regime is led by minister of defence and self-styled prime minister General Than Shwe, despite a 1990 popular vote for democracy. The regime is subject to US sanctions and the withdrawal of trade privileges by the European Union for human rights abuses, including the use of forced labour, which have been condemned by the United Nations as "crimes against humanity".

Dr Moore was formally "received" by the head of the OSS, General Nhin Nyunt, in 1998. Later that year she met the Burmese minister for education, to "discuss cooperation in education and research". She is on a year's sabbatical in Burma and has recently worked on OSS-funded archaeological projects.

"I am surprised Elizabeth Moore should wish to associate herself so closely with the regime," said Gustaaf Houtman, deputy director of the UK's Royal Anthropological Institute and an expert on Burma. "The regime has taken upon itself the right to take over and manage all ancient sites, whatever cultural or religious claims might be made on these by other ethnic groups in dispute with the regime," he said. Some archaeologists do not study in Burma because access to resources is so closely controlled.

Controversy has focused on Dr Moore's work with the OSS on the famous Shwedagon pagoda, where the country's Nobel peace prize-winning democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was incarcerated for five years, launched her political career. In a 1999 paper on the pagoda, Dr Moore wrote: "The support of the Office of Strategic Studies has been invaluable in coordinating this research."

Dr Houtman said: "The regime's pagoda renovation projects serve to bolster its legitimacy and to root out dissent. I believe Dr Moore is involved in what is an unambiguously political project greatly disliked by the Burmese."

An official OSS document proclaims archaeological work "to be of the highest national importance". Because of this the OSS "sponsored and organised scholars and experts of various institutes and departments to undertake research". The same document later describes an OSS team on an excavation that "met and held discussions with Dr Moore".

Georgetown University's David Steinberg, one of the world's leading experts on Burma, avoided direct comment on Dr Moore's activities, but said all academics should be cautious. "There is a legitimate role for appropriate academic interchange of ideas and relations," he said. But such relationships must help build Burmese universities for a future under new leadership. They should develop scholarship of international standing and provide more knowledge of Burma for the external world. "In undertaking such relationships," he said, "each foreign academic and foreign institution should consider whether their actions do this, or whether they support the propaganda mechanisms of the state. This is the critical test."

Donald Seekins, professor of Southeast Asian politics and history at Meio University in Okinawa, Japan, said: "Elizabeth Moore and anyone else is free to publish what they want (most evidently not the case for scholars in Burma). But their audiences should at least be aware of the circumstances under which they obtain their information."

Dr Moore was on a dig in Burma and unobtainable as we went to press. A Soas spokesman said: "Your communication has been brought to the attention of the school secretary and the pro-director for taught courses IThe school is not able to make any comment on the points raised."

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