There are 45 parliamentary seats at stake in Sunday’s by-elections in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. Also at stake is the government’s continued effort to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
And as it does, slowly, gain legitimacy, long-time opponents of the government are having to reconsider their place in a changing Burma. One such group of opponents is the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). The NCGUB’s current headquarters are in a low, gray, unremarkable office building facing the parking lot of a metrorail stop in Rockville, Maryland, right outside of Washington, DC.
It’s a long way from their first headquarters in Manerplaw—a tiny outpost on the Thai-Burma border. In the early 1990s, Manerplaw was home to a rebel army that had been battling Burma’s central government for decades. The rebels sheltered the NCGUB.
In 1990, NCGUB’s members were part of a wave of opposition politicians who won parliamentary seats in a nationwide election. But the military government ignored the results and cracked down on the opposition, including its standard-bearer Aung San Suu Kyi.
A handful of would-be Members of Parliament fled to Burma’s border with Thailand to start a government-in-exile. Sein Win, Suu Kyi’s first cousin and Prime Minster of the NCGUB, was among them.
“You have to go on foot, and then climb the mountains, and pass the streams and this kind of things, you know. And I got sick!” he remembers, laughing. He made the last part of the 10-day journey in a stretcher.
The exile government’s first order of business was to let the world know what was happening in Burma. They found an early ally in the government of Norway.
Jan Egeland was a Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister at the time—he’s since held posts at the UN and is currently Europe director for Human Rights Watch.
“They were robbed from an election victory, as easy as that,” he says. “You instantly felt an enormous sympathy for these very low-key, nice people who had this tremendous story of injustice in their country.”
In 1992, the Norwegian government gave the NCGUB money and technology to set up the Democratic Voice of Burma—a short-wave radio station that broadcast into the closed off country. Early on it was mostly a way to get the exile government’s message into Burma. In the last decade, it’s become a more serious journalistic enterprise.
Sein Win and other NCGUB members also started traveling from country to country, trying to keep Burma issues on the radar. They were regular visitors to the UN General Assembly, and helped shape a series of Burma resolutions passed by that body.
“They were very instrumental in insuring that the resolutions talked about democracy, human rights, tri-partite dialogue–all of the key issues that are now sort of the conventional and widely accepted talking points on Burma,” says Brian Joseph, a Burma expert at the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-government-funded foundation that is a main supporter of the NCGUB.
Joseph says that, with the opposition inside Burma muzzled—and, often, imprisoned–the exile government became an important conduit. “Its role really was as a spokes organization and a way for people inside Burma to speak to the international community through these surrogates,” Joseph says.
Now, as the Burmese government reforms, and the NCGUB’s colleagues in Burma seem poised to pick up many of the parliamentary seats at play in Sunday’s election, such surrogacy is becoming less necessary. And that means the NCGUB has some decisions to make.
If elections go smoothly, the NCGUB will vote on whether to disband. Their funders are already focusing more on groups working in the country; Sein Win says his group’s budget is a quarter of what it was five years ago.
The changes in Burma also raise some personal questions for the group’s members. Burmese President Thein Sein has publicly invited exiles to return. Some have accepted the invitation, but so far the NCGUB members are staying put.
For one thing, Sein Win doesn’t want to go back on these terms. “If you go back to Burma, you have to go back because it is our country. I was born there, I am a citizen, I have the right! Not that because the president say you can come,” he says.
Tint Swe, another NCGUB member, was a physician in Burma. He won a parliamentary seat in 1990, and escaped to India during the government crackdown. “I have been sentenced to 25 years when I fled to India,” he says. “That order is still valid there. And my house and clinic have been sealed since then. And my doctors license has been revoked. So how can I go back?”
And, like many people who have watched Burma for a while, they’re hesitant to trust the government. Sein Win points out that the constitution the government wrote in 2008 leaves the generals a lot of power, among other things reserving a quarter of the parliamentary seats for members of the military. Their hesitance may not be that surprising—they’ve seen the Burmese government change its mind before.