All around the world, corrupt governments murder political dissidents, deny freedom of speech and commit genocide. We know this corruption all too well at Harvard, from reading about it in newspapers and studying it in our classes. Yet, Harvard is actually aiding and abetting one of the most egregious of these corrupt governments.
This week’s expedition to Burma, hosted by the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), stands as a symbol of Harvard’s complacency and ignorance in response to the numerous and excessive human rights abuses of the Burmese military dictatorship, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
The government of Burma—which arbitrarily renamed the country Myanmar in 1989—has long been considered a human rights pariah within the international community. Burma seized the world’s attention in 1988 when the dictatorship massacred thousands of peaceful protesters demonstrating for democracy. In a further display of contempt for democratic ideals, the SPDC held free elections in 1990, naively believing that it would win. When the opposition won all but 10 out of 485 seats in the People’s Assembly, however, the SPDC imprisoned or killed members and supporters of the democratically-elected party.
The SPDC’s human rights abuses continue to this day. Amnesty International believes that at least 1,200 political prisoners remain in detention, where they are denied adequate food, medical care and sanitation. The SPDC has been especially brutal in its persecution of ethnic minorities; needing land and labor, the SPDC has forcibly displaced members of these minority groups from their homes and compelled them to work without pay on construction projects or as porters for the army. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Shan Women’s Action Network have revealed that the SPDC uses systematic rape as a weapon of war against insurgent ethnic minority groups. The SPDC continues its dictatorial hold over Burma, denying recognition of the results of the 1990 elections and refusing to hold any elections since.
The HMNH has shown itself to be complicit in this situation, especially since tourism almost exclusively benefits the SPDC and impedes progress towards democracy and human rights in Burma. Most of the products sold in Burma are produced by industries tied to the SPDC, and their purchase directly finances the government’s human rights abuses, because the SPDC uses much of its hard currency to purchase arms. As a tourist in Burma, it is impossible to avoid financing the corrupt, fiscally-strapped military regime. The entry certificates paid by the 500,000 visitors to Burma each year supply the SPDC with roughly $41 million annually.
The HMNH justifies its trip by claiming “openness” benefits the Burmese inhabitants economically and socially. But numerous reports, such as one by the U.N. in 1995 and another by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1998, have demonstrated that foreign tourism leads to increases in forced labor, which is used for construction around historical sites that host tourists. For these reasons, the democratically-elected government of Burma has expressed that it does not support tourism.
The international community has followed suit, deciding that constructive engagement with a regime as corrupt as the SPDC is pointless. Great Britain and the E.U. oppose tourism in Burma. President Bush recently signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which bans goods made in Burma from the U.S. market, freezes the overseas assets of senior SPDC officials and prevents the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank from issuing loans and grants for the regime. “By denying these rulers the hard currency they use to fund their repression,” the law states, “we are providing strong incentives for democratic change and human rights in Burma.” Japan has also suspended aid to Burma, and the E.U. has sanctions in place.
By continuing to hold this tourist expedition to Burma, the HMNH provides the SPDC with hard currency and an appearance of legitimacy that it does not deserve. Despite almost universal condemnation, the junta will be quick to point out that Harvard, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, sees no problem with its corrupt policies. This situation brings with it some amount of irony, since in 1996, Harvard came to the forefront of the pro-democracy boycott of Burmese products, when it cancelled a million-dollar contract with PepsiCo, then operating in Burma. Harvard’s protest led not only to PepsiCo’s withdrawal from Burma, but the precedent it created also encouraged many major U.S.-owned corporations to follow suit. In light of Harvard’s previous support for democracy and human rights in Burma, it is astounding that HMNH—which has not responded to repeated e-mail requests on behalf of the Harvard Burma Action Movement to discuss this issue in person—is continuing to support the oppressive Myanmar regime.
Mamie M. Thant ’04 is a chemistry concentrator in Cabot House and president of the Harvard Burma Action Movement.