Interview with Professor David Steinberg

Over the coming months, New Mandala plans to publish a series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.

The first in New Mandala‘s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Georgetown University’s Burma expert, Professor David I. Steinberg.   

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Steinberg, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.  In your 1981 book, Burma’s Road Towards Development: Growth and Ideology Under Military Rule, you wrote that Burma has “been considered terra incognita by many scholars, journalists, and development specialists”.  Do think that the state of Burma scholarship and writing has improved since you made this reflection?  How would you characterize scholarly, journalistic and developmental interaction with Burma today?

Professor David Steinberg: There has been a vast change in scholarship on Burma since 1988.  This change indicates a new and more complex set of relationships and scholarship.  Before 1988, Burma was indeed terra incognita, as few scholars were let in, and there seemed no  news, just stagnation, and so media coverage was minimal.  1988 changed all of that.  In spite of a repressive regime, the military since that time has allowed more scholars and journalists into the country, some as academicians and some thinly disguised as tourists, and for a period (perhaps until 2004) there was more access to the leaders, if not at the top then at a senior level (the cabinet, for example).  Journalists and scholars have been attracted to write about the human rights abuses both internally and along the Thai border.  Also there has been the stellar attraction of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.  Even ordinary people who don’t  know where Burma is or its new name know vaguely about her.  There is also a younger cadre of scholars who write about that country and who have revitalized the state of Burmese studies in all disciplines.  In spite of the dire state of Burma, all of this new attention is good.  Burma has become the latest of the morally clean causes, like the Spanish Civil War before World War II, and the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. This increased attention will ultimately improve the state of the art on Burmese studies and offer new and important perspectives on it, but it also has resulted in an almost absolute polarization of views, where objective scholarship has given way to partisanship (and thus made effective policy formation more difficult).  There is now no dialogue, at least in Washington, on Burma policy issues, in contrast to the major world problems (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, etc.).  So although scholarship and increased in quantity (count the number of Ph.D.s on Burma over the past decade and a half with the previous period) and quality, there is more rigidity on both sides between the state and the opposition together with its supporters. Although many in high places in Washington recognize the policy problems of dealing with that country, there is almost no public dialogue on the issues here, alas.  Developmental action by most donors has been set aside partly because of the opprobrium attached to the regime but also because of doubts of its policy and management capacity, but humanitarian concerns have grown, and observers and scholars note the sad state of Burmese development, watch Chinese influence grow, and offer nostrums, ignored by the government, for improving the Burmese economy.

Nicholas Farrelly: By my count you have authored at least 13 books and edited a further 10.  Over many years, you have written widely about different areas of Asia (including South Asia and northeast Asia) but have maintained a predominant focus on Burma.  What motivates you to keep up this output on Burma’s social, political and economic situation?

Professor David Steinberg: I came to study of Asia through my unplanned interest in China in high school, when I asked my history teacher why there was nothing in our history books on China in those, almost medieval, days. He responded positively, and then through the good offices of my Chinese philosophy professor at Dartmouth, I was in the last group of exchange students in China during the revolution (1948-49).  After the Korean War, I returned to Harvard to continue Chinese studies and I was attracted to the Chinese management of the non-Han areas in the Southwest.  So with the GI Bill (education expenses for veterans), I went to London (SOAS) and studied Burmese and Southeast Asia. During my four years residence in Burma (1958-62) with The Asia Foundation, I developed a profound concern about the plight of the diverse Burmese peoples, who by all predictions should have been the best off of all the peoples in Southeast Asia.  That concern is still with me.  When the foundations were expelled from Burma in 1962, I went to Hong Kong, and then to Korea for The Asia Foundation.  In those days, Korea was on the periphery of the American academic screen (compared to China or Japan), and I found niches in which I felt I could make an analytical contribution to knowledge of that society.  My work in the field of development has also prompted me to write more broadly on Asian concerns and in comparative focus.  Today, there is a plethora of scholarship and meetings on Korea, and my potential contribution is far less.  But on Burma, in spite of increased scholarship, there are enormous analytical gaps that need to be worked on if we are to improve the lot of the Burmese people. Unfortunately, in contrast with Korea today, scholars within Burma have no opportunity to write objectively about the problems in their own society, so it falls to Burmese expatriates and foreign observers to try to fill that gap.

Nicholas Farrelly: In an earlier part of your career you worked for the United States government as a senior officer in its development assistance program.  How would you characterise the work that you did?  Have those experiences of public service greatly influenced your academic research and writing?

Professor David Steinberg: I sometimes refer to myself as marginal in a number of ways. I came to academia late and never planned on an academic career, left the non-profit field for government, and felt that government approaches to policy and developmental practice were insufficient grounded in understanding complex societies. I wanted to know more about developing societies and problems than most of my colleagues in USAID because I felt the work was too important to be left to the vagaries of bureaucracies (U.S. and foreign) where financial commitment was often more important than positively affecting people.  This led, when I was director of technical assistance for Asia and the Middle East, to slowing the process of project approval as I sought more information from the academic literature and (at least on Asia) discussed issues with my academic friends.  I would characterize my work as trying to bridge the gaps between official policies, the academic community, and the non-profit field.  So those in each sector would probably complain that I am not sufficiently committed to their approach (either theory or practice).  I firmly believe that these three sectors can enrich each other and their programs.  Unfortunately, as academic disciplines become more specialized and narrow, so too there is too little interchange across the unfenced boundaries of government, academia, and the NGO field.

Nicholas Farrelly: Among professional Burma watchers, you are often classified as a  pro-engagement voice.  Is this a fair assessment of your position?

Professor David Steinberg: I am pro-engagement, whether it is Burma, North Korea, or Iran (the current catalogue of U.S. problems). Our objectives in the case of Burma, I believe, are closely related if not completely coterminous with long-range U.S. objectives and those of the Burmese people. If we engage, we should not insult those with whom we try to negotiate even if we profoundly dislike their policies, and we should understand that although in Burma we tend to regard the military as singular, as we do grammatically, they are in fact plural.  There are those in the military who idealistically (but often incorrectly assess the objective facts) believe in their public statements, but to denigrate the whole group is to give up on those who some day may help reform the state.  We obviously should deal with the opposition as well.  But we should not let any one group or individual in any country determine U.S. policy, as has been the case in Burma. To date, there is substantial evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi, or more accurately those who purport to speak from abroad for her, determines U.S. approaches to that country, and as a matter of policy in any situation that is unsound. Since she has been again held under house arrest since 2003, and without contact with the outside world, all of us are unsure of her present positions.

Nicholas Farrelly: Back in 2004 there was some controversy when a statement that you made about Aung San Suu Kyi was taken out of context.  You subsequently clarified that your full comment was actually that ”many observers, including former NLD [National League for Democracy] members, find Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership rigid and uncompromising in negotiations with the military”.  If you were in a position to advise the NLD on their future strategies, what would you say to them?  Are there alternatives to such rigidity in negotiations with the military?

Professor David Steinberg: I have talked with as many of the NLD leadership as I have had opportunity, and perhaps they have relied on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership too much, and since they do not have access to her, their policies have been stuck in aspic.  I have great respect for Aung San Suu Kyi since I first met her in Kyoto about 1985, and I knew her husband and son when he was at Georgetown.  The problems transcend her and the NLD.  I know I will be controversial, but the same characteristics of the Burmese political culture that permeate the military also affect the opposition and the expatriate community.  This culture is not immutable, and other societies have changed, but Burmese politics is now heavily hierarchical, power is personalized, information is controlled, and entourages and factionalism endemic.  So in all the above cases (to quote President Bush), you are considered either with us or against us, and a loyal opposition is an oxymoron.  I have been accused publicly of the sin of attempted objectivity, in Burmese having been characterized as carrying fire and water on my shoulders.  But I have said that although there is an important role for cheerleaders, that is not how I see my modest contribution to the Burmese scene. My function is analysis, and we may disagree how accurate or effective that may have been, and whether I have been right or wrong, but we should be able to distinguish between both, important functions.

Nicholas Farrelly: Some of your other comments about recent developments in Burmese politics have been similarly striking.  In 2006, for example, you reflected that “The National Convention, as you know, is heavily scripted. The government will get whatever it wants, it will finish whenever it wants to, and at some point in the future, they’ll hold a referendum that they’ll win and an election, which they’ll also win, and the military will still be in control”.  With what is reportedly the final session of the National Convention now underway, do you foresee any major changes to the trajectory that you have already outlined?  In ten years time do you think “the military will still be in control”?

Professor David Steinberg: I still think that is the military’s plan.  Governance is likely to evolve over time, with a military dominated government in the next phase evolving into a civilianized administration and then further evolving as non-military play a greater role and as the new military leadership recognizes the past deficiencies of their previous administration.  It is a slow process.  I hope there will be important roles for members of the opposition and the minorities, but it is likely to be slow with uneven progress, so that the dualistic question of whether Burma will still be ruled by the military in ten years or not should be modified.  But I do think the military will have veto power over issues they regard as critical over the next decade even if the regime is civilianized.  Of course, authoritarian and hierarchical governments can fall because of the egregious mistakes of some low-level functionaries trying to please their superiors (Syngman Rhee in Korea, almost in Burma in 1988 with the suffocation of those in the police van), and this should never be ruled out.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a letter to The Irrawaddy in 2005, Myint Thein described you as ”the leading apologist of the Burmese military regime”.  And then in 2006 you were listed on an eclectic list of 568  “enemies of the Burmese Revolution”.   At number 392 on the list you were described as “Prof. David I. Steinberg, Burma expert, Director of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA, Activity: Anti-Aung San Suu Kyi’s sanction policy”.  Many other barbs have, over your long career, been thrown in your direction.  How do you respond to these criticisms?  Do you see yourself as an “enemy of the Burmese revolution”?

Professor David Steinberg: One sympathizes with the opposition and expatriate community’s frustration about the state of Burma, and one must have empathy for those who have left their homeland and long to return under better conditions.  That, however, is not an excuse for shoddy scholarship and moral vilification. That comment can be characterized as simply inane. Myint Thein obviously has not read what I have written. He and other dissidents so characterize anyone who is against sanctions as pro-regime, which is about as simplistic and misleading as one can imagine and indicates a complete lack of capacity to formulate policy.  One must point out that the military itself had its own enemies list (“traitorous minions”); that elements of the opposition do the same demonstrate, alas, the continuity of some political traits. I was and am against economic sanctions (I am still in favor of the U.S. 1988 sanctions against military sales and against economic-in contrast to humanitarian– assistance) because I recognized that they would not work, and obviously they have not in many parts of the world.  Sanctions are, as I have written, the moral high ground, and they are easy to impose but exceedingly difficult to eliminate because of the various interest groups that become involved. Sanctions invite, even demand, a nationalistic response from those so affected, and this has been so obviously apparent in the Burmese case. This makes internal change even more difficult.  That I am an enemy of the revolution is simply silly.  If the opposition and the expatriate community so easily defame someone who has, for about fifty years, tried to better the Burmese condition, then they simply illustrate their intellectual vacuity and policy ineptness.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, following this question, do you have any advice for young scholars wading into the world of Burma studies for the first time?

Professor David Steinberg: In whatever field you are in, think what your research and study might contribute, directly or indirectly, to increased understanding of the myriad problems facing the people of that country, and thus in internal and external capacities to mitigate their sorry state.  There are good theoretical and intellectual reasons for studying Burma, but the needs in that society seem paramount to me at this stage.

Nicholas Farrelly: Many New Mandala readers will know that in the past you have been pictured meeting with senior members of Burma’s military government (in 2003, with General Khin Nyunt, for example) and in 2006 you met with Minister for Information, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan.  How would you characterize your interactions with the Burmese government and its senior members?  Are these meetings  courtesy calls or are they generally opportunities for substantive discussion? 

Professor David Steinberg: I have had frank and serious discussions with members of the leadership (SLORC, SPDC, cabinet officials, retired military, etc.) and I have been able to have had undiplomatic frank exchanges with them. I think this is because of several reasons.  The first is that they have files on me and know that I have been involved with that country for fifty years in a broad array of incarnations, and feel something for the people. Perhaps more importantly, I am old, and there is some deference to age so that I may be able to say things a younger person might not.  Also, for the most part they do not read carefully what I write.  They would be more concerned if I were a journalist and write for the media.  I also do not reveal my sources public or private. I also have no policy agenda other than my own.  They know I disagree with their policies, some of those of the NLD , the U.S. and Japanese positions, etc. In my first private conversation with General Khin Nyunt, I was given what we call the “Myanmar 101” course as he listed all the accomplishments of the regime. After that, there was real give and take, and even equal time. In one meeting with a minister, the note taker said they had never had such a frank conversation with a foreigner. In another case with a different minister, I privately asked the note taker after the meeting why he surreptitiously smiled while I was talking, and he said that it was good to hear the truth sometimes.  I am not sure that I change attitudes, but I approach these meetings with candor.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a 2003 interview with The Irrawaddy you commented on the poor quality of the Burmese media and highlighted The New Light of Myanmar as particularly abysmal.  In that interview you said that you ”have told the government [that The New Light of Myanmar] may be one of the worst papers in the world”.  How do the officials you meet with react to this type of judgement?  How frank can you be in your conversations with senior members of the military government?  Do you think they care, for example, about how you judge their media?

Professor David Steinberg: When I told a senior military intelligence official that, he responded,  “It is your fault.” “My fault?” I replied. The U.S. fault, he said, “You cut us off and so we train our journalists in China, and what do you expect, anyway?” A cute, but not accurate, answer.  I really don’t think they care.  I told the minister of information that he was the most powerful person in the cabinet because he controlled what the Senior General Than Shwe read or saw on television, but with that went more responsibility.  I was trying to get the regime to open its media, but of course he does not really make the fundamental policy decisions that would change the system.  I have no access to the senior general, and it is his views that currently count.  We have a nest of problems concerning the media on Burmese issues. Primary is that of the internal Burmese censorship and control.  Second is the paucity of in-depth reporting on Burma by the international media and their simplistic approaches to Burmese issues.  Third is the lack of balance and objectivity in the Burmese expatriate community (with a few exceptions).  So our information is partly based on propaganda, hyperbole, and inattention in varying degrees.  This makes policy dialogue exceedingly difficult.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, finally, after vetoing the United Nations Security Council resolution on Burma in January 2007, China’s U.N. envoy Wang Guangya said that ”of course there are problems in Myanmar. But we believe these problems do not constitute a threat to regional or international peace and security”.  As a veteran Burma-watcher and commentator, how do you react to that kind of comment?  Do you agree with China’s  Ambassador that Burma does not constitute a threat to regional or international peace and security?

Professor David Steinberg: Burma is a regional problem: illegal migration, trafficking, spread of drugs and disease, strategic issues with India and China, and the next door neighbor (Thailand) as a U.S. treaty ally. But it is not a threat. The essential criterion for discussing a threat to international or regional peace and security in the UN Security Council is whether the surrounding states agree with that characterization.  In this case, none did. So the real issues should have been discussed in other UN fora.  This was theatre, not policy, designed to placate certain members of the U.S. Congress.  That China and Russia would veto it was apparent before it was introduced.  This was grandstanding, as we call it, appealing to the crowd but not effective policy.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.  New Mandala readers with their own thoughts, comments, questions and ideas are, as always, encouraged to join the conversation.

About Nicholas Farrelly