In a suburban office building that houses mostly law firms and real estate agencies, Suite 308 is an anomaly. The plaque on the front door simply says “The Burma Fund,” but this is no venture-capital outfit investing in Burmese infrastructure projects. On the contrary — the folks who work here try as hard as they can to discourage foreign investment in their homeland.
From this nondescript rented suite across the street from the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville, Md., the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) waits patiently for democracy to return to their poverty-stricken homeland, which was renamed Myanmar by a military junta that has maintained iron-fisted control of the country for nearly 50 years.
Heading the NCGUB office is its chairman, Sein Win, a 63-year-old retired math professor, although the organization’s public face is its finance committee chairman, Bo Hla-Tint.The two men, along with five staffers, occupy this 1,200-square-foot office whose very existence is dedicated to the release of pro-democracy activist and 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sein Win is the first cousin of Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party captured more than 80 percent of the seats in a 1990 parliamentary election that was later annulled by Burma’s military dictatorship. Bo Hla-Tint, 51, runs the day-to-day affairs of NCGUB, which consists of leaders of the NLD and four other opposition parties that banded together after most opposition figures were jailed, murdered or forced out of the country.
“We fully respect the legitimacy of the NLD, which won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections. So we don’t claim recognition, but rather we work on the party’s behalf,” Bo told The Washington Diplomat. “Because Burma has never gotten much attention, as responsible members of the government in exile our main objective is to let people around the world know what the real situation is inside Burma, and to lobby governments, political parties and the United Nations for international support for our positions.”
After the 1990 elections were annulled, only eight elected lawmakers in the Burmese opposition managed to sneak out of the country, while the remainder were arrested. Since that time, more than 100 have died, 14 are still under detention, and 33 — including Bo — now live abroad.
“When I left Burma in late 1990, my wife was two months pregnant,” Bo recalled.“I didn’t see my son for another six years. But in 1996, with the military getting richer and gaining more confidence, they paid less attention and so my family was able to escape across the Thai border.”
Eventually, the family ended up in New York, where Bo campaigned relentlessly for passage of various United Nations resolutions condemning the Burmese ruling junta.
“We had no way to go back to Thailand, so we came down here,” said Bo, who immigrated to Maryland with his wife, Hnin, and son Thuta, now 17 and a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. “One of our friends lived in Rockville, so we stayed at his home for two months and started an underground movement with a telephone line and five people in a basement.”
The NCGUB grew out of a 1995 convention in Bommersvik, Sweden, that brought together various political parties united in their opposition to the military regime in Burma. Outlawed back home, the group has absolutely nothing to do with the Embassy of Burma in Washington, whose officials Bo has never seen let alone spoken to.
“They would be in deep trouble if they met with us,” Bo said.“At least one intelligence officer is assigned to every Burmese embassy, so nobody makes any funny business.They don’t dare.”
Bo noted that the Burma Fund is actually a think tank associated with his organization that allows the NCGUB to qualify for nonprofit status. “We need that status to operate independently and within the law,” he said. “The Burma Fund is an office of the government in exile.”
The NCGUB’s Rockville office over-sees branches in New York, Bangkok and New Delhi.The organization’s total budget is class=”import-text”>2008July.Burma.txt million a year, with money coming mainly from the U.S. taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy, the Soros Foundation, Open Society Institute, and the governments of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The NCGUB also receives donations from the 100,000 or so Burmese immigrants living in the United States (including 500 to 700 families in the Washington, D.C., area).
Next to the computer where Bo sits is a mouse pad imprinted with the message “Totalitarian Oil: Fueling the Oppression in Burma.”And above his head is a large black-and-white portrait of Suu Kyi, alongside the words “FREE BURMA” and her famous 1995 declaration: “Until we have a system that guarantees rule of law and basic democratic institutions, no amount of aid and investment will benefit our people.”
Besides the Nobel Prize, Suu Kyi has won at least 80 international awards, honors and honorary degrees. Some of them are displayed in Bo’s office, including a plaque from the City of Belfast and a bronze bust from the Greek government. But neither of these compares to the artifact sitting high on a library shelf: a haunting sculpture of Suu Kyi made of Burmese clay by Jim McNalis, a well-known artist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Suu Kyi herself remains under house arrest in Burma, where on June 19 she marked another birthday in detention. “Aung San Suu Kyi will spend yet another birthday in custody, denied her liberty and fundamental political and civil rights by Burma’s military rulers,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a recent statement, adding that this regime “not only continues to keep this distinguished Nobel laureate under house arrest, but there are nearly 2,000 other political prisoners currently in custody.”
In addition to advocating for greater international access to Suu Kyi, the NCGUB’s other urgent concern is the suffering in Burma following Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into the country’s southern Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, killing an estimated 134,000 people.
Bo said his organization disagrees with the prevailing belief that Burma is struggling financially to pay for relief efforts.“Given the steady revenue from daily natural gas sales and a comfortable balance of payment surplus of around billion, the Burmese generals should, in fact, be doing a lot more for the people instead of relying on foreign help,” argues the NCGUB in a position paper issued on June 20.
The report added: “Although Cyclone Nargis has been a disaster on a national scale for most people, it is a boon for cronies of the junta, which stand to profit if the international community is willing to come up with the billions of dollars the generals are seeking for reconstruction of the disaster areas.”
The NCGUB has also vigorously condemned the country’s May 10 constitutional referendum as a sham.The regime claims that 92.4 percent of the population voted in favor of the new constitution, which specifically excludes people who are married to foreigners from holding public office (such as Suu Kyi, whose late husband was the son of a British father and Canadian mother).
In fact, according to the NCGUB, the plebiscite was rigged from the beginning by uniformed officers who intimidated villagers and uneducated people into voting yes. “The military regime pretends that the referendum is a step towards democracy,” wrote Sein Win in a recent opinion piece for the International Herald Tribune. “It is in reality a massive and comprehensive denial of the democratic and political rights of the Burmese people. It is essential that the international community recognizes this fake referendum for what it is.”
In August, the NCGUB will take the lead in organizing U.S. protests marking the 20th anniversary of the bloody “8-8-88 uprising.” On Aug. 8, 1988, police fired on Burmese university students, monks and other civilians taking part in a massive yet peaceful anti-government demonstration. More than 3,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence.
Coincidentally, the event’s 20th anniversary falls on the same day as the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Bo says this confluence of events will only highlight China’s continuing support of the Burmese military junta led by Gen.Than Shwe.
“This will be the 20th anniversary of the people’s power movement in Burma,” Bo told The Diplomat. “Everybody knows that China is the one which collaborates with the military junta. So our movement — the political leadership, elected members of parliament and grass-roots activists — are calling for China to show leadership and convince the Burmese military to listen to international opinion and allow a smooth transition to democracy.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.