The Washington Diplomat / July 2008
By Larry Luxner
In a suburban office building that houses mostly law firms and real-estate agencies, Room 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 waits patiently for democracy to return to the poverty-stricken country now known as Myanmar.
Heading the NCGUB office is chairman Sein Win, a 63-year-old retired math professor, though the organization's public face is finance committee chairman Bo Hla-Tint. The two men, along with five more 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 captured 83% 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 explained.
"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. The remainder were arrested, and 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," he told the Diplomat. "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 condeming the Burmese ruling junta.
"We had no way to go back to Thailand, so we came down here," said Bo, who emigrated here 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 or even spoken to.
"They would be in deep trouble if they met with us," even if those officials secretly disagreed with the regime in Rangoon, he said. "At least one intelligence officer is assigned to every Burmese embassy, so nobody makes any funny business. They don't dare."
Bo said the "Burma Fund" is actually a think tank associated with his organization that allows the NCGUB to qualify for Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. "We need that status to operate independently and within the law," he told the Diplomat."The Burma Fund is an office of the government in exile."
The NCGUB's Rockville office oversees branches in New York, Bangkok and New Delhi. The organization's total budget is $1 million a year, with money coming mainly from the U.S. taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy, the Soros Foundation, the 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 mousepad imprinted with the message: "Totalitarian Oil: Fuelling the Oppression in Burma." And above his head is a large black-and-white portrait of Suu Kyi, the words "FREE BURMA" and her famous declaration of 1995: "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 shelf in a library — a haunting sculpture of Suu Kyi made of Burmese clay by Jim McNalis, a well-known artist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Of immediate concern to the NCGUB is the suffering in Burma following Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into the country's southern Irriwaddy 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 $3 billion, the Burmese generals should, in fact, be doing a lot more for the people instead of relying on foreign help," according to a position paper issued on June 20 by the NCGUB.
"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% 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 a Canadian mother).
In fact, says the group, 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 the 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," he said. "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."