Professor Silverstein “was no run-of-the-mill Western expert or academic,” Maung Zarni, a Burmese educator, academic and human rights activist, wrote in an appreciation published online this month. Rather, he said, the professor was part of a breed of international scholars who “chose to forego access to the countries and peoples they studied — and cared about — as they endured under murderous military dictatorships.”
After a coup in 1962, when the military, led by Gen. Ne Win, replaced the civilian government, Myanmar, then known as Burma, shut itself off from the outside world to pursue what Ne Win called a “Burmese way to socialism.” Many, including Professor Silverstein, found the policy to be economically disastrous.
“Josef Silverstein was one of the few Western academics who really knew and spoke out about what was going on in Myanmar and the terrible toll the military continued to inflict,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “For that, he earned admirers among the Burmese people and their advocates around the world, and the deep hatred of the country’s military dictators.”
His insights helped keep many journalists on track through the twists and turns of Myanmar’s turmoil, including the military massacres of protesters in 1988 and the more recent slaughter of Rohingya Muslims.
“When we, at The Associated Press, were pressed for some intelligent, insightful comment on developments in Burma, someone in our bureau would say, ‘Let’s contact Josef,’” Denis Gray, the news agency’s longtime Bangkok bureau chief, wrote in an email. “And he always came through.”