Wilson Center Experts

Kenton Clymer

Fellow
Asia Program

Expertise:
History
;
Diplomatic History
;
International Development
;
U.S. Politics
;
U.S. Domestic Policy
;
U.S. Foreign Policy
;
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Distinguished Research Professor, Department of History, Northern Illinois University
Wilson Center Project(s):
“The United States and Burma: A History”
Term:
Sep 06, 2011
-
May 25, 2012

My teaching and scholarship have focused primarily on American relations with South and Southeast Asia.  My first book was about John Hay, secretary of state when the United States annexed the Philippines.  While many American historians had explored the annexation, few had examined American colonial rule.  Therefore I decided to research the attitudes and ideas of one important group of Americans colonialists:  the first American Protestant missionaries.  After that I returned to more mainstream writing about American diplomatic concerns, first American policy toward India’s independence, and then with a two volume history of American relations with Cambodia.

My interest in now writing about American relations with Burma is both personal and professional.  On the personal side, an unexpected encounter in 1987 with Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris, aroused my interest in Burma.  I met Michael and Suu Kyi when I was in India researching my book on India’s independence; the final month was spent at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Simla.  Aris, a leading Himalayan scholar from Oxford University, was one of the few foreigners at the Institute, and we soon became good friends.  A few days after my arrival in Simla Michael’s wife arrived, and our families became well acquainted.

Aung San Suu Kyi understood that, due in part to her family’s heritage, she would play some as yet undefined leadership role in the nascent democratic reform movement in Burma.  Her father, Aung San, Burma’s “George Washington,” had been assassinated in 1947, shortly before Burma’s independence.  It was therefore not at all surprising that Suu Kyi was soon back in Burma and quickly became famous as the leader of the democratic opposition.  In 1990 her party won the election, only to see the military regime quash the results.  Aung San Suu Kyi subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but during the past two decades she has spent most of her time in Rangoon under house arrest.  She was released in 2010, but her freedom remains tenuous.  While Suu Kyi was in Burma, I continued to keep up with Michael and organized his entire American tour of many universities and other institutions in February and March 1989 during which he discussed the plight of the democratic forces in Burma.  When he died prematurely in 1999 at the age of 53, my wife and I represented my university at his memorial service in Oxford.  As a result of these experiences I resolved that I would eventually write a history of United States relations with Burma.

Aside from my personal interest in the subject, a study of American-Burmese relations in historical perspective is justified from a scholarly perspective.  In recent decades American relations with many Southeast Asia countries have been the subject of important historical scholarship--perhaps the only positive outcome of the war in Vietnam; but the relationship with Burma is largely unexplored territory.

Education

B.A. (1965) Grinnell College; M.A.(1966), Ph.D. (1970) University of Michigan
 

Project Summary

My project is to complete a book about the history of American relations with Burma.  Much of the book will focus on the years since Burma’s independence in 1948 from Great Britain, years which coincided with the Cold War.  Although the United States would later become obsessed with Vietnam, early on the Americans were at least as concerned about possible communist advances in Burma.  But the book will attempt to be comprehensive, and I envision two chapters on the pre-independence period with attention primarily on the American Baptist missionaries who entered Burma in 1813 and had a significant influence, especially among Burma’s minority groups.  It will also examine the American response to the devastating uprising of 1988 and the rise and repression of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  One of the major policy issues that I will examine at the Wilson Center is the efficacy of economic sanctions that the United States has imposed on the Burmese regime and the more general question about how the United States should deal with a brutal and illegitimate regime.

Major Publications

  • John Hay:  The Gentleman as Diplomat. Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1975.
  • Protestant Missionaries in the Philippines, 1898-1916:  An inquiry into the American Colonial Mentality. Champaign:  University of Illinois Press, 1986.
  • Quest for Freedom:  The United States and the Independence of India.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1995.  Indian edition, New Delhi: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
  • The United States and Cambodia, 1870-1969: From Curiosity to Confrontation.  London and New York: Routledge, 2004) [Together with the following book, winner of the Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize for 2005 from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.]    
  • The United States and Cambodia, 1969-2000: A Troubled Relationship.  London and New York: Routledge, 2004) [Together with the previous book, winner of the Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize for 2005 from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.
  • Troubled Relations: The United States and Cambodia since 1870.  DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007.
  • “The Trial for High Treason of the ‘Burma Surgeon,’ Gordon S. Seagrave,” Pacific Historical Review (forthcoming 2012)  

     

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