This post is part of New Mandala’s 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 eighth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Professor Robert Taylor.
Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Taylor, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer New Mandala’s questions.
Professor Robert Taylor: Thank you for inviting me. It is an honour and a reminder of how time marches on. I was reading Professor John Cady’s oral history in the Truman Library (on line) the other evening. He gave it in 1974, I believe, and there were so many questions I wanted to ask him as a result of his answers. He, of course, is no longer around to ask.
Nicholas Farrelly: Many New Mandala readers will know of you and the reputation of your many books. But the story of how you first became interested in the study of Southeast Asia and Burma is not widely known. Can you tell us how it all started?
Professor Taylor: Like many things in life and history, I became interested in South East Asia largely by accident and contingency. When I left high school in 1961, I hardly knew where South East Ohio was, let alone South East Asia I wanted to be a lawyer. To do that in the USA in those days, one way was to do a pre-law degree and then do postgraduate legal studies. Most of the people I went to high school with didn’t go to university, but for those few of us who did, we looked to one of the state funded universities, as they were the cheapest and had the easiest admission standards, or at least so we thought. Most of my friends wanted to go to Miami University because it was close to Greenville, or Bowling Green University, because it had a reputation for good parties.
I wanted to get as far from Greenville as possible, and that ruled both of those out. Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was an unknown element but it was hard to get to – it took three buses – and an entire day – and no one else from my class was going to go there. Struck me as near to an ideal result as I could find given my circumstances. So I applied and was admitted to study government and history.
When I got there, I met some wonderful teachers and had a fantastic first year. Roy Fairfield opened my eyes to how we had all been taught a lot of patriotic nonsense and unthinking hagiography in our high school courses and showed us how to begin to try to think critically. Willard Elsbree, who had done his doctorate on the political consequences of the Japanese occupation of South East Asia, taught me comparative politics of Western Europe. Richard Bald, who had grown up in Hitler’s Germany, taught international relations. And in the first year, John Cady taught a survey course on Western civilisation. All of them were great teachers and stimulated my mind no end but Cady was special.
He was older than the rest, having started teaching earlier. He was also the most established scholar. His book on the French in Indochina opened completely new worlds to me. His History of Modern Burma was then just three years old and showed me what a scholar could do. His History of South East Asia was published while I was his student and we were amongst the first persons to read it. All of these men taught me on and off for the next four years and I think I took a course with Professor Cady every year – Japanese history, Chinese history, British history, European history and two semesters of South East Asian history, as I recall. Like all of my outstanding teachers, he was always accessible and I used to go talk to him from time to time about other things, like religion and the kinds of things about which undergraduates like to argue.
The Vietnam War was always a backdrop to my undergraduate education and, indeed, to all my formal education. We used to do Mickey Mouse courses to keep our graduate points up and one was on current affairs —Newsweek one oh one – we called it. Like on our TV screens, the mainland map of South East Asia week after week, or day after day, always had an incomplete, unnamed bit on the left-hand side. Always intrigued by the unknown, I must have filed in the back of my mind that I might study that area.
But other things intervened. The draft mainly. Having abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer in order to become a teacher, I enrolled in a Master’s programme at Antioch College which involved a year of part-time teaching in the Washington, DC, public schools combined with two summer’s worth of seminar work and evening classes and writing a thesis. My teacher Roy Fairfield had set it up. I enrolled and set off to Washington to teach in what would today be euphemistically called a challenged neighbourhood or what we called in those days a black slum school. The kid from Greenville grew up very fast and I learned a lot. I doubt whether I taught my students much, however, but it kept me from being flown to Vietnam with a one-way ticket. Also, I met my first wife and again contingency intervened. She had been in the Peace Corps in Thailand in the same batch as later scholars of South East Asia such as Craig Reynolds.
To make a longer story short, I taught in Washington two years and got married. My then wife had a job in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with Antioch College, and I took a job teaching political science at Wilberforce University as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society bonanza. After two years, my first child was born, and I was free from the threat of the draft and decided to try to do a PhD. Cornell admitted me under circumstances that would, if explained, embarrass both them and me and the rest is history, as they say.
Nicholas Farrelly: The bulk of your academic career was spent at the School of Oriental and African Studies. What were the highlights of your work there?
Professor Taylor: I was 16 years at SOAS and there were many things of great interest, so it is difficult to point to one or two particular highlights. I had a number of administrative jobs that I never found particularly onerous. I had a number of very convivial and supporting colleagues. And I suppose the most satisfying part of it all was the research and publications I did while I was there as well as the students. We had wonderful students for the most part in those days. Classes were relatively small, certainly by comparison with the USA or Australia where I had previously taught or by the standards of the UK today. The bean counters had not taken over university life and one had lots of time and space to teach and write in relative leisure, albeit in genteel poverty.
Nicholas Farrelly: Over your career, what have you found is the hardest thing about seriously studying Burma? How would you characterise scholarly, journalistic and developmental interaction with Burma today? Is it better than in previous decades?
Professor Taylor: When I started seriously studying Myanmar or Burma as it then was referred to in the Anglo-Saxon world, there were many problems one had to overcome. The field has been transformed in recent years, largely to the good in terms of scholarship and the availability of support for scholarly activities. Language teaching has improved immensely and there are many more quality teaching and learning aids available thanks largely to the splendid work of John Okell. Access was another problem. When I started my doctorate work, you could only get a 24-hour visa to visit Myanmar. Hardly worth it and I was one of the few, if not the only, PhD from Cornell in South East Asian Studies who had never been to South East Asia when I received my degree. Eventually access became easier but once in the country, finding sources and gaining access to them was very difficult. The lack of much official support from either one’s embassy, with the partial exception of the Australians when I was an Australian citizen, or from universities and institutions in Myanmar which were barred from receiving foreigners, made the work quite solitary much of the time.
Now there are a number of bright and able graduate students who are able to undertake language studies and other research in the country. There are a lot more foreigners around and life is much easier. When I used to be the only foreign student at Yangon University, it was chalk and cheese to the experience of living in Yangon today. The field has grown and there is a lot more scholarly and journalistic interest in the country; however, much of the journalism is poorly informed and repeats a number of half-truths and misconstructions rather like a catechism. Democratisation has replaced security as the central focus of attention and prevailing Western political interests tend now, as in the past, to distort scholarship for other ideological agendas. That is just an unpleasant fact we have to live with.
Nicholas Farrelly: In your final academic position you were Vice-Chancellor and Professor of International Studies at the University of Buckingham. According to the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, the University of Buckingham “was created to be Britain’s only independent university because we believed that only by being independent of government could we put the student first, second and third”. There are relatively few other Southeast Asia experts who have held such a significant University-wide appointment. In this role, did you have any opportunities to increase the profile of Southeast Asia at the University?
Professor Taylor: No, during my time at Buckingham I was mainly concerned about keeping the institution alive in the face of great odds. The government had created overnight an entirely different world with which Buckingham had to cope. The institution did survive and now thrives but it was touch and go at some points. Trying to maintain a quality educational experience for students in a world where you have 100 highly subsidised rivals ain’t easy. However, like SOAS, Buckingham really looks beyond England for its students and staff, and that made it a fascinating place to spend some years outside the state driven university sector.
Nicholas Farrelly: Now we might turn more directly to Burma. In the eyes of some of your detractors, one of the most controversial associations you forged was with Premier Oil. From 2001-2003 you worked for them as a consultant on Burma affairs. The company – which was then Britain’s biggest investor in the country – pulled out of Burma in 2002. It would be helpful if you could say more about what you did for them. Did you find the work satisfying? Do you feel that your consultancy led to any positive outcomes?
Professor Taylor: I was always been rather proud to have been affiliated with Premier Oil. It is and was then a highly ethical and principled business concern that did much good for Myanmar and some of its citizens as well as for one or two British citizens. My role was actually quite marginal in all of that. I wrote occasional memos to senior officials in the company surveying social, economic and political developments and giving occasional prognostications. I think some of the criticism of my work with Premier is derived from an underlying antagonism toward business and capitalism in many academics’ minds. Actually, some of the most enlightened, broadminded and intelligent people I have worked with during my career have not been academics who can often be quite blinkered ideologically, but business people.
Whether my consultancy work had a positive outcome is perhaps not for me to say. The Company sold its interests in Myanmar to Petronas for reasons having nothing to do with Myanmar as such and I regret their going. They were doing good work and were an influence for change and high standards which is now gone and cannot be replaced in the current atmosphere. As Western companies have left Myanmar for various reasons over the years, Western influence and Western expectations have lost out to largely Indian, Chinese and Malaysian interests. As a European who believes that the West should and could have a positive role to play in Myanmar, I think this is regrettable.
Nicholas Farrelly: Once, when I was browsing the exhibits at the Defence Services Museum in Rangoon, I came across a picture of you, as I recall, meeting with Burmese Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan. Over the years I understand that you have had many opportunities to meet with senior government officials. How would you characterise your interactions with the Burmese government and its senior members? Are these meetings courtesy calls or are they opportunities for serious and substantive discussion?
Professor Taylor: Varied. It depends on how well we have come to know each other, how much we trust each other, what the topics are to be discussed, how often we have met, etc. Certainly they have been more frequent since 1988. Certainly for me, after 1988 ministers and officials were much more open and accessible than before. Before 1988 I had had tea with the Minister of Education in 1978, coffee with the Chairman of the Council of People’s Attorneys in 1982 and drink in London with the Foreign Minister in I believe 1987 and that was it. After 1988, ministers wanted to talk with foreigners and if you were willing to talk to them, they wanted to talk. Many have had little opportunity to visit the West or meet with Europeans, so they seemed to be interested often in how we view the world and Myanmar in particular. But mainly they are chances for me to try to understand why the government does what it does without being drawn on my own views on such matters. Some of the meetings have proved fruitful, however, as with Mary Callahan getting access to the military archives for her thesis and eventual book. I was glad to have been able to have been of assistance.
Nicholas Farrelly: In January 2006 it was reported in Burma’s state-run media that you were in Burma to observe the plenary session of the National Convention. This session was part of a process that has been widely criticised by those who oppose the military government. As an “eyewitness” to proceedings, what can you tell us about the National Convention that is not widely known? Is it all an elaborate fa├зade? Or is there more to it than that?
Professor Taylor: I have a great deal of curiosity about the institutions of government in Myanmar. The chance to see anything is always enlightening in some way. You never know who you will meet and what you might learn. A two hour visit to the National Convention did not provide huge insights but I felt I had at least seen it and met with some of the delegates, many of whom I had already met in their academic, political party or ceasefire group roles. I think the convention process is not just an elaborate fa├зade. On certain bottom line issues, clearly the army is not going to give way through the convention process on its interests and its understanding of its historical role. However, on things which are not fundamental to the army leadership, and on which understandings can be reached, there has been some give and take. I think the convention has also been thought of by some as an educational experience. Myanmar has been divided and fragmented for years. Many of the Wa or Kachin or Shan or other border region leaders have never met with urban academics or lawyers or farmers or with each other. The convention gave these people a chance to discuss informally a number of things and that perhaps created some degree of community where one previously didn’t exist. I often criticised the process for being very slow, but seen in that light, the length of the process might have been part of the desired outcome in itself.
Nicholas Farrelly: In Justin Wintle’s 2007 biography, Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes, “In due course Suu Kyi chose to follow [her husband] Michael [Aris’s] path and apply to SOAS, to write a doctoral thesis on Burmese political history. She wanted to write a full-scale, scholarly biography of her father, to augment the sketch she had already published. To her chagrin, her application was rejected. Her assessors, among them Professor [Robert] Taylor, doubted that her poor undergraduate degree in PPE [Politics, Philosophy and Economics] had given her sufficient grasp of political theory to become a college teacher – the endgame for most doctoral candidates. Some while later she found herself at a dinner party where Taylor was present. Such was Suu Kyi’s anger with him that she left the table and sat smouldering in a corner, leaving it to Dr Aris to continue the conversation as best he could”. Can you tell us more about this series of incidents from your perspective? Later, Aung San Suu Kyi was, of course, admitted to SOAS for doctoral study. Was she simply not good enough to be admitted on the first try? Or was the bigger concern that her proposed biographical research was too personal, too emotional?
Professor Taylor: I am afraid Justin Wintle’s book is badly flawed, not least at the points where my name occurs. He and I met on three occasions, each of which in a bar and he did not take notes or, to best of my knowledge, record our conversation. What he describes is a badly garbled account of reality. He has conflated a number of separate encounters and events. I first met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. I went up some time in the first half of the 1980s to give a paper on Thein Pe Myint and his writings including his book that I translated as War Time Traveller. She was the discussant. Afterwards we had a cup of tea and I returned to London. A few years later she gave a paper, which was subsequently published in India, comparing the intellectual and political evolution of Indian and Burmese nationalism in a comparative perspective. She advanced a thesis about the incomplete nature of the Burmese nationalist experience in terms of its “modernisation” that I did not share. I explained my criticisms as the discussant to her paper. She did not like what I had to say and at a dinner which followed her seminar in honour of Sir Lesley Glass who had just published his memoirs on Burma, she refused to speak to me or, as I recall, anyone else all evening. Michael, her husband, seemed most embarrassed about it but I thought little of it.
Subsequently, she applied to do a PhD at SOAS in politics. As I recall, I was head of department at the time and she wanted to do a topic on Myanmar, so I would obviously have been one of her supervisors. SOAS’s Political Studies Department had a requirement at that time that if you didn’t have a first degree in politics or a cognate subject at 2.1 or better standard, you had first to do a Masters course and satisfy the requirements of that programme – three examined courses and a 10,000 word thesis – over one year prior to enrolling in the PhD programme. This she did not wish to do, perhaps because it would entail her travelling to London two or three days a week. Perhaps her family commitments would not permit her to do so.
Somewhat later, she enrolled in the PhD programme in Burmese literature in the South East Asian Language and Literature Department. They had different entrance requirements to those that prevailed in Politics.
Nicholas Farrelly: You make another appearance in the book. According to Wintle, “She [Aung San Suu Kyi] did not…take it kindly when Professor Robert Taylor, a Burma specialist, jokingly compared Aung San to Elvis Presley: both had made ‘a good career move by dying young’”. One gets the impression that, well before she became a figure of worldwide renown, you had a series of tense interactions with Aung San Suu Kyi. Is this a fair portrayal of the personal history? In your experience, was she an easy person to get along with?
Professor Taylor: While I may have made a not-so-wise-crack at some point about Elvis Presley and Bogyoke Aung San, I would not have been crass enough to say that to his daughter. I can explicitly remember telling Mr. Wintle that I did not say it to her. His book has a number of flaws of which those that concern me are only a small part.
I have met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi probably five times in my life. Most of the exchanges I would describe as professional and businesslike. Only after the seminar at which I criticised her argument did relations get rather difficult. I would say that we were never particularly chummy, but pleasant enough. She wrote a fair review of my book on the state in the TLS about which I could quibble but that is what scholars do – quibble. When I last saw her, on the day she was placed under house arrest in July 1989, she asked me to join her movement or words something to that effect. I explained to her that I did not think that her rather confrontational approach to the generals was likely to be successful and we disagreed. But clearly, with her house surrounded by troops and concerns about her supporters, she had many things on her mind that morning now more than 17 years ago.
Nicholas Farrelly: In a 2004 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, you said “I don’t think the NLD really has much of a future, and nor do I think Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to be released from house arrest in the near future. And the fact is, she may be held under house arrest for a very long time to come. And particularly after Khin Nyunt’s departure, even more so, I would argue that would be the case”. What are the prospects for the NLD now? In your view, does Aung Suu Kyi stand in the way of political change?
Professor Taylor: At the current time, early November 2007 while Professor Ibrahim Gambari is in Myanmar trying to develop some sort of modus vivendi between the SPDC and the NLD, it would look to me as if this might be one of the occasional opportunities that have occurred in the last 17 years when the NLD might be able to do a deal. However, for something to be achieved, the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have to make concessions. She and her party’s negotiating position is now very weak, though this often does not seem so from the outside. If she were to accept the government’s conditions for talks between her and the Senior General, she would have to turn her back on her position of the past 19 years. That is asking a lot from someone in her position. If she were to do that, then she would have to be more willing to accept the government’s terms on other things like the road map and a role for the army in any future government largely on army terms. Will she? I don’t know. It is not that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is an obstacle to political change. You can just as easily argue that the Senior General is an obstacle to political change. Political change requires give and take, compromise, and eventual willingness to live and let live. All of those things are scarce commodities in Myanmar and have been for far too long.
Nicholas Farrelly: In another 2004 interview, this time with The Irrawaddy, you were asked for your reaction to the accusation that you are “an apologist for the SPDC’s policies”. You replied, “Well, I’ve never liked being accused of that, I’ve never felt it was fair, I’ve often thought people have their own motivations for these things. There’s a lot of emotion in politics, and I realize that there’s a lot of emotion, and I sometimes say things people don’t like because it doesn’t fit their own view of what they would like to see happen. When we don’t like to see things happen, we have to think about how we can make them not happen. Because I try to suggest that there might be another strategy besides sanctions and condemning the SPDC, that’s not welcome. That’s a politically incorrect, politically unpopular view these days”. Given the events of September and October 2007, what do you propose is a better strategy for dealing with the Burmese leadership? Is there any chance that the strategy you advocate will be implemented?
Professor Taylor: That was one of my more garbled utterances but I guess I know what I was trying to say. To paraphrase the Irish farmer when asked how to get to Dublin, “I won’t start from here.” Eighteen years of ever tightening ‘Western’ sanctions, and repeated condemnations, sinking to name calling and other childish stunts, have hardly created an atmosphere in which anyone in Naypyitaw expects much to come from doing things to please the outside world and change course. If it were possible, then one has to find a way to encourage structural change within the Myanmar economy and within the Myanmar governing institutions and ultimately within individuals. That would be a long-term strategy and our politicians and media do not like long-term strategies. I don’t think anyone would listen to my ideas. No one has done so for the past 18 years. I see no reason to think anything much has changed. Just as there is a shortage of trust and compromise within Myanmar, so also this is in the prevailing situation in terms of external relations. You cannot overcome years of history in a twinkling of an eye unless you are Charles Dickens or Walt Disney.
Nicholas Farrelly: Finally, it would be good to hear about your plans for the coming year. What will you be up to? Trips to Burma? New books? I’m sure many New Mandala readers would be delighted to learn about your upcoming activities.
Professor Taylor: It is starting to get cold in London and the days are drawing in. It is time to go to warmer and sunnier climes, so I am off to Yangon for four months at the end of November. I will be doing a bit of reading, some writing, some eating and some drinking. If I can find the will, I will try to complete a second edition of the now entitled State in Myanmar and I have one or two other projects on the go. I hope also to do a bit more teaching in Yangon. The devil makes work for idle hands.
Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Taylor, thank you for taking the time to answer New Mandala’s questions.
Professor Taylor: My pleasure.