In March 1997, Chris Wemmer, a biologist with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC, received an alarming fax. It was an article from the British Observer newspaper accusing him of colluding with the Burmese junta in committing human rights abuses in the country now known as Myanmar.
The article, headlined “Save the rhino, kill the people”, implicated Wemmer’s organization in the murder and forced removal of ethnic Karen people to make way for a huge wildlife park, called the Myinmoletkhat Reserve. It criticized the Smithsonian Institution for being one of the first Western organizations to work with the regime “since it massacred 3,000 demonstrators in 1988”.
Wemmer still fumes about the article, which he claims misrepresented the Smithsonian’s involvement in this secretive southeast Asian nation. That the institution’s project, in a wildlife park called Chatthin, headed by a Karen warden, was based 1,200 kilometres north of the site of the atrocities described in the piece didn’t seem to matter, he complains: “We were guilty by association.”