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Wilson Center awards historian Kenton Clymer with fellowship for Burma book project

April 27, 2011

Kenton Clymer’s intense interest in Burma was kindled in 1987 while he was in India, where he struck up a friendship with two young scholars, Michael Aris and his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Kenton Clymer and his wife, Marlee.

Kenton Clymer and his wife, Marlee.

Suu Kyi would later become famous the world over, her name a symbol of courage, peace and resilience. Risking her life, she played a leading role in Burma’s pro-democratic movement and won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She also has spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, detained by the military-led government.

Along the way, Clymer, a Distinguished Research Professor in the NIU Department of History, resolved to write a book detailing the history of U.S. relations with the country of Burma, known officially as Myanmar.

Now the book project, which he began three years ago, is receiving a ringing endorsement from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which has awarded Clymer with one of its prestigious fellowships.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan center, engaged in the study of national and world affairs, annually awards just 20 to 25 fellowships to senior scholars. The fellowships bring pre-eminent thinkers from across the world to Washington for extended periods to conduct research and interact with policymakers.

Clymer will spend the coming academic year in residence at the Wilson Center.

“There has been only one other serious attempt at a comprehensive history of American relations with Burma,” he says. “That book is more than three decades old and is more an interpretative essay of Burma’s history, values and culture than it is an exploration of American diplomatic relations with the country.”

As a Wilson Center fellow, Clymer will have an office in the heart of the nation’s capital. The center provides access to numerous resources, including the Library of Congress and other special libraries and research facilities.

Clymer says his book will chronicle American involvement in Burma dating to the early part of the 19th century, when Baptist missionaries arrived in the country.

But a major thrust of his work will be dedicated to the period from 1945 to the present. The Burmese achieved their independence from British colonial rule in 1948. During the Cold War, the country became central in American efforts to keep communist influences out of South and Southeast Asia.

While the book focuses on the past, it’s also quite timely as history continues to unfold.

The international community began imposing sanctions on Burma in the late 1980s, after several thousand people died in the wake of army suppression of pro-democratic movements. It wasn’t until November 2010 that Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, having been detained by the military-led government for 15 of the last 21 years.

“The book will reflect on how to deal with a rogue regime like Burma and examine the effectiveness of sanctions,” Clymer says.

Clymer is a leading scholar in the history of U.S. relations with South and Southeast Asia. He has traveled to many countries and has taught in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Germany. It was in 1987, while doing research for another project in India, that he first met Aris and Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, had served as a commander of the Burma Independence Army and was considered the “George Washington” of Burma. He was assassinated in 1947. Her mother had served as Burma’s ambassador to India.

“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,” Clymer says. “So it was no surprise that soon after we left India, Suu Kyi was back in Burma and quickly became famous as the leader of the democratic movement.”

In 1989, Clymer organized Aris’s speaking tour across the United States, where he discussed events in Burma. Even after Suu Kyi’s arrest, Clymer continued to stay in touch with Aris until his death from cancer in 1999. Because of her detainment in Burma, Aris had not seen his wife since 1995. 

Clymer intends to have his book nearly completed by the end of his stay at the Wilson Center.

He has already visited national archives in Australia and in Burma. He also intends to interview former ambassadors to Burma and other key officials who played roles in American-Burmese relations.

It’s also possible, he adds, that he might reunite with an old friend for an interview—if she remains free.