BOOK REVIEW Regrettable apology for Myanmar Promoting Human Rights in Burma by Morten B Pedersen
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
This book patently fails to shed light on any certain period in Myanmar's
history, nor does it explain the background to any important current event.
Rather, it is a book that makes one point: Western-led trade, investment and
financial sanctions against Myanmar, first imposed in earnest in 1997 and most
recently expanded last year, are not working.
But even the arguments Danish academic Morten B Pedersen puts forward are
flawed and it is questionable whether the book should have been published in
its current form in light of the
monk-led protests of August and September 2007. Pedersen dismisses the Buddhist
clergy as a political force and in one throwaway passage refers to "the near
disappearance of open opposition by the monkhood".
Of course the anti-government street marches which began in August and ended
last September were often led by the clergy, which emerged as the most potent
force to oppose the military regime in recent years. Despite that analytical
blind spot, Pedersen, like so many other Western academics who have
concentrated on Myanmar, believes he has an important story to tell.
Pedersen is among the many proponents of "constructive engagement" with
Myanmar's ruling junta, based on the often simplistic argument that over a
decade of Western-led economic sanctions have failed to dislodge the brutal
regime from power and have only hurt the already suffering general population.
In his prescriptive book, Pedersen clearly overestimates the degree of
influence his or any other academic's advice may have on the ruling generals,
who history shows nearly never take on outside Western counsel in running their
Moreover, the book contains a number of factual errors which could have been
avoided with some very basic fact-checking. For instance, the book's claim on
page 138 that former student leader Min Ko Naing set up the "old All-Burma
Federation of Students' Unions" in August 1989 is wholly inaccurate. The ABFSU
was in reality formed in August 1988 and by August 1989 Min Ko Naing had been
arrested and was languishing in solitary confinement in jail.
The interview with Min Ko Naing which Pedersen refers to in a footnote to
chapter three on page 171 did not appear in the "28 October 1989" issue of
Asiaweek, but rather on 28 October 1988. Nor did the International Herald
Tribune "in 1988 [break] the news that - mistakenly as it were - that the UN
and the World Bank were offering the Myanmar government [US]$1 billion in
financial assistance in return for political reforms" as stated on page 222.
That was 10 years later, in 1998.
Pedersen's arguments for "promoting human rights" are also hard to swallow.
While admitting that the junta's commitments to a number of international human
rights conventions it has signed "still lack substance", he seems to believe
that "they provide access points for international dialogue and
capacity-building, and may begin to build a constituency for change within the
military state itself as military and government officials assume formal
responsibility for human rights issues".
The junta's long history of brutal crackdowns and last year's opening fire on
street protestors makes this a remarkably naive if not disingenuous statement,
particularly considering the author has claimed to have spent considerable time
in Myanmar. While Pedersen argues that the junta may reform itself by assuming
more responsibility for human rights, he controversially writes on page 51 that
the many Thailand-based human-rights organizations have little or no
credibility because their "reports often are used to advance a broader
This raises the overarching question of just what kind of human rights Pedersen
is supposedly "promoting", as the title of the book suggests - just those
cataloguing atrocities without addressing the underlying causes for the
repression, in this case the incorrigible behavior of one of the world's most
brutal military regimes?
Pedersen also bizarrely takes issue with the Free Burma Movement's having
"engaged directly in lobbying governments and international organizations to
condemn or impose sanctions on the military government". Through its umbrella
organization, the Free Burma Coalition, the pro-democracy movement has over the
years helped to persuade about 40 multinational companies to divest from
Myanmar, including ARCO, Texaco and PepsiCo.
By taking critical aim at the Free Burma Movement's efforts to urge the
international community to condemn human-rights violations in Myanmar, Pedersen
raises hard questions about his credibility as a neutral critical observer.
That's particularly true considering that the military regime has in the past
paid several Western lobbyists to improve its battered and bruised
Those multi-million dollar efforts have so far failed to sway Western
governments, including perhaps most crucially in Washington DC. In April 2005,
Pedersen and another academic apologist for the junta, Robert Taylor, attended
a "Burma Day" organized in Brussels by the European Commission - and were met
by angry Myanmar demonstrators who reportedly shouted "shame on you" at them.
The duo had just jointly authored a report criticizing sanctions and advocating
more financial assistance to the junta's various "social projects".
The controversial report caused "great irritation" within the European Union
and the choice of Taylor and Pedersen to write it was later questioned at high
levels inside the EU, according to the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine,
which quoted a diplomatic source in April 2005. The magazine also reported that
an outspoken British member of the European Parliament, Glenys Kinnock, said,
"I am dismayed that a small and unrepresentative band of anti-sanctions
lobbyists have been given reign" at a meeting in Brussels.
This book is not going to enhance Pedersen's reputation among Myanmar citizens
who favor a return to democracy over the continuation of corrupt and inept
military rule. His arguments and conclusions are also likely to be severely
criticized by international human-rights organizations for is grossly
misleading title. Indeed, the book's title fails to live up to its billing: how
does cozying up to one of the world's most brutal regimes precisely act to
promote human rights?
Promoting Human Rights in Burma: A Critique of Western Sanctions Policy by
Morten B Pedersen. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2007. ISBN-10:
0742555593. Price US$75, 297 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.