Why I believe academics should be wary of dealing with repressive regimes

December 1, 2000

On its website, the Burmese regime describes Burma as "historical", with a civilisation dating back many centuries, and stresses its own role in uncovering Burmese history. Over the past decade it has rebuilt all the Burmese palaces (but not, of course, those of the Shan and other ethnic groups), restored all major pagodas that symbolise the wealth of the kings and built about two dozen new museums.

It also draws attention to primate fossils found in the Pondaung region of central Burma, suggesting that these "may qualify Myanmar as the region where mankind originated" and that they "indicate the existence of Myanmar culture and traditions since time immemorial".

This urge to historicise Burma by reducing its civilisation and culture to a series of historical objects is a result of the generals' difficult relationship with the peoples of Burma (there are more than 135 ethnic groups). Historical figures, including Aung San, the father of Burmese independence and of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are much harder to control than inanimate objects.

In 1962, Burma came under the yoke of military socialism. This lasted until the 1990 elections, which were won decisively by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, but the military refused to cede power.

Today, having ditched socialism, it is still desperately seeking some sort of legitimacy to retain power. The answer, since 1997, has been not only to rebuild pagodas and palaces, but to delve into Burma's past.

Imagine the delight of General Khin Nyunt, de facto chief of government, at learning of the discovery of some extremely useful fossils in 1997. An archaeology department was set up and several international teams were attracted to validate the discovery. However, the 40 million-year-old primate fossils, older than the most ancient Egyptian fossils, have been taken well beyond the realms of science by the regime and are routinely used to support its ideology and achievements.

Some national scientific bodies have said they "lend support to the idea that the ancestor of all monkeys and apes lived in Asia instead of Africa", which could mean that "anthropoids migrated from Asia to Africa at some point". These bodies say the fossils could also "mean that the anthropoid group has its roots stretching far back into time, possibly even into the late Paleocene period (58-55 million years ago)". They conclude that the whole story of mankind's origins may need to be reviewed as a result.

However, much more work is needed to back this up and the generals might be better off paying attention to the enormous economic and social difficulties faced by living Burmese people rather than to dead fossils.

Archaeology seems to have given the military a new lease of life. Some scholars, delighted at the invitation to do research in a country that has been closed for 30 years, are clambering on the bandwagon and giving the regime the credibility it craves.

Unfortunately, it tends to be those who have most to gain who pander to the regime. But even if the more responsible foreign palaeontologists exercise some caution when writing about the origin of anthropoids in Asia, their work can still be manipulated by the regime.

Of course, this balancing of access to material and political manipulation happens elsewhere - for example, in China. However, scholars from all disciplines should be aware of the ludicrous use to which their discoveries may be put. Academics who fall for the temptations of being showered with privileges by repressive heads of state should be forced to hang their heads in shame.

Gustaaf Houtman
Editor of Anthropology Today and deputy director of
the Royal Anthropological Institute

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