I write with regard to New Mandala‘s interview with Professor Robert [H.] Taylor, dated November 7th and posted on the Internet.
Professor Taylor says apropos Perfect Hostage, my biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, that it is ‘badly flawed’. Naturally I wish to counter this prejudicial allegation. Before so doing, however, I would point out areas of overlap between Professor Taylor and myself. Like him, though for perhaps different reasons, I am sceptical about sanctions as applied by the Western camp against Burma / Myanmar. I have no objection to sanctions in principle — they are instruments of policy that can have both positive and negative effects — but the blunt truth is that apropos Burma / Myanmar they haven’t worked, nor can they without the close but improbable co-operation of China, India, ASEAN and maybe Russia. Even then. there would be problems with rogue trading patterns in that neck of the global wood. And when something fails it makes sense to at least contemplate an alternative tack.
I also broadly agree with Taylor’s assessment of Premier Oil, having met some of the individuals involved.
The field of Burmese studies and commentary is (to put it mildly) notoriously fractious. No two individuals will be found who agree on all points, just as no two individuals will disagree about everything. Too often, however, the upshot of disagreement, healthy in itself, becomes venomous in the extreme.
Professor Taylor recalls three meetings with myself, ‘each of which [was] in a bar and he did not take notes or, to the best of my knowledge, record our conversation.’ That is not my recollection. We have had only two meaningful conversations, the first at his London club, the second at mine. There has in addition been a limited exchange of e-mails. On the first occasion I had a notepad at the ready, but did not take many notes, since Taylor was (and remained) reticent about his encounters with Aung San Suu Kyi, for whatever reason. This was over a cup of tea, nothing stronger. We did however repair to a nearby pub in St James’s immediately afterwards. There we discovered a mutual penchant for fantasy operas, and an entertaining conversation ensued. Taylor’s opera was to be set on the shores of Rangoon’s (Yangon’s) Inya Lake, while mine resorted to the Potala in Lhasa. (Oh yeah — in the closing scene of my opera a chorus of Tibetan llamas magically transform into a troupe of Chinese acrobats….)
On the second and equally convivial occasion we met, at the Frontline Club in Paddington. Others were present, and a notepad would have been singularly malapropos. Subsequently, at the same venue, there was a ‘Burma discussion night’, which we both attended, but we did not indulge in any further meaningful, or even meaningless, conversation.
And so to the defence. New Mandala‘s well-prepared interviewer (Nicholas Farrelly) offers Taylor two passages from my book for comment and response. The first concerns Aung San Suu Kyi’s SOAS history. Taylor was not forthcoming with me about this, so I had of necessity to depend on other informants. I believe however I have got that part of Suu Kyi’s career substantially right — and what Professor Taylor now says about it does not contradict the line taken by myself. One of my sources was a distinguished member of the SOAS staff. While I am not at liberty to publicly divulge his (or her) identity, should Professor Taylor care to ring me (he has my number) then I will happily talk to him on a basis of complete confidentiality.
The second passage from Perfect Hostage lobbed in Professor Taylor’s direction by Mr Farrelly concerns his well-known and rather humorous remark that, like Elvis Presley, General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) made an astute career move by dying young. ‘I would not have been crass enough’, Taylor asserts, ‘to say that to his daughter.’ I believe him. But if Professor Taylor reads my text carefully, he will find that I do not write that he made his quip in front of Suu Kyi’s face. Rather, she got to hear of it, and (predictably) was not remotely amused.
Where I make factual errors (and in a book of the length and scope of Perfect Hostage there were always bound to be some), then I am always willing to amend my text, as the forthcoming Arrow paperback edition will demonstrate. Some readers usefully queried some details, and details only, and where corrections are in order they have been made — and that is perfectly normal. Professor Taylor could have done the same, but didn’t I am, however, slightly hesitant to take his word as gospel when (in the New Mandala interview) by his own admission he acknowledges he is capable of ‘garbled utterances’.
Neither passage cited by Mr Farrelly, however, contains what may be the real trigger to Professor Taylor’s aspersions. In Perfect Hostage Taylor makes a third appearance — understandably overlooked by Mr Farrelly since it occurs in the descriptive bibliography at the end of the book. There, I comment on Taylor’s own publication, The State in Burma. In full: ‘The State in Burma(1987) offers a narrative of the changing structures of government in Burma from the early nineteenth century up until the eve of 1988. A comparison of “state-building” among other South-East nations might have spared Taylor’s blushes when the meltdown occurred shortly after publication, but the early chapters are good.’
Word has it Professor Taylor took deep umbrage at this criticism. But I stick by it. His account of the regime instituted by General Ne Win in 1962 is curiously bloodless. One way of assessing the efficacy of ‘state-building’ is to enquire as to the benefits (or otherwise) it confers on the civilian population at large. Asked to assess, say, a bridge, it is not enough to say it is a good bridge simply because it successfully connects one riverbank with its opposite number. If the same bridge regularly deposits some of those crossing it into the boiling waters below then in all probability it is not a very good bridge. In Burma / Myanmar healthcare and educational provision are generally abysmal. In recent years especially there has been a flood of human rights reports condemning the activities of the Burmese military regime. While some of these doubtless have a hidden agenda — including the aspirations of some ethnic minority separatists — reports issued by such bodies as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are hard to argue with, given their rigorous research standards, and the cautiousness of their conclusions. And if anyone doubts their findings, they should visit Burma / Myanmar to see conditions for themselves (as Professor Taylor does on what appears a very regular basis).
That is not to say that the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) is exclusively responsible for the woes that have engulfed, and continue to engulf, that country — far from it, and another instance where Professor Taylor and I overlap to some degree. But, reading the whole of this interview, I am
troubled by at least two elements of Taylor’s take on Burma / Myanmar.
Apropos the National Convention — widely perceived as a long drawn-out exercise in appeasing the so-called ‘international community’ — Taylor sails uncomfortably close to the regimist wind. Declining the majority verdict on the Convention as a public relations sham, he tells us that it has offered its participants unique bonding opportunities, through its ‘informal’ discussions. There may be some truth in that, just as there is some truth to the view that some ethnic minority leaders are prepared to accept the outcome of the NC (a constitution that resolutely guarantees the overarching authority of the Tatmadaw) as ‘the best on offer’, and a marginal improvement on the current status quo. But with regard to national cohesion, and by the same token, how much more bonding might have been achieved had the junta accepted the outcome of the 1990 election and enabled a democratically responsive national assembly to convene?
Then there is Taylor on Aung San Suu Kyi herself. While clearly there is no love lost between them, it is disappointing that our amiable and vastly clubbable professor should ungallantly espouse the regimist view that she has been too ‘confrontational’ for her own or her country’s good.
As it happens, when Aung San’s daughter first appeared on the public stage in August 1988, she bent over backwards to accommodate the Burmese army. ‘National reconciliation’ was on her mind and on her lips years before it became a commonplace of political discourse. But in the months that followed her maiden speeches, she was relentlessly harried and harassed by SLORC (State Law and order Restoration Council, as the junta then called itself), as detailed in chapters XXIII through XXIX of my book. At Danubyu she narrowly escaped assassination by an impromptu firing squad, before finally being placed under house arrest. To pretend that it was her style, and not the regime’s, that was confrontational is (in my view) an instance of cognitive dissonance run riot.
It is because Professor Taylor indulges in this kind of commentary that he is regarded as a regime apologist in some quarters. Ironically, it is arguable that Aung San Suu Kyi’s insistence on non-violence (which by definition is non-confrontational) has hindered political development in Burma / Myanmar. (On this topic, see my article ‘September of Her Days’ in the current, November issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review.) But when it comes to being ‘badly flawed’, I do seriously wonder whether Taylor arrives at that view of my book because I am not inclined to repeat parrot-fashion allegations made against Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese state media.
Word also has it that among Professor Taylor’s ‘other projects’ is a biography of the dictator General Ne Win. Will Senior General Than Shwe furnish a Preface one wonders? Conceivably Taylor is playing a magnificent long game, preparing a book that will finally take the lid of the inner workings of the Burmese ‘state’ and stun us all. On this performance, though, I much doubt it.
For now I would urge subscribers to New Mandala to read what I have written, and what Professor Taylor has written, and a dozen other books besides, and decide for themselves where the bad flaw lies.