In Washington, Myanmar democracy advocates push for a breakthrough

National Unity Government officials are struggling to win more U.S. support for the fight against a military dictatorship back home.

March 26, 2024

By Jim Snyder and Gemunu Amarasinghe for RFA

As deputy foreign minister for Myanmar’s shadow government, Moe Zaw Oo wanders Washington’s corridors of power asking anyone who will listen to pay attention to the plight of his country. It is no easy task.

When he learned in February that Congress agreed to create a special caucus for Myanmar, the ordinarily placid diplomat took a small jump in excitement.

The show of relief reflects the difficulty that representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG) have had in securing the backing they need from global capitals more focused on other crises, like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“Sometimes I feel frustrated about the assistance from the international community,” said Moe Zaw Oo, who in his 20s spent nine years in prison for supporting an opposition party that ran afoul of a previous military regime.

“Because, yes, of course, they did a lot of things. But I think it is not enough.”

nug-washington-02.jpg NUG officials Moe Zaw Oo and Zin Mar Aung walk in the Rayburn House Office Building in January.
nug-washington-04 Moe Zaw Oo, Zin Mar Aung and NUG press aide Aye Chan Mon wait to meet with Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan in Washington. They have had a hard time winning sufficient support from the U.S. to oust the military dictatorship ruling Myanmar.
nug-washington-05 National Unity Government Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung shakes hands with Senate Appropriations Committee aide Paul Grove before a meeting this February, as NUG Deputy Foreign Minister Moe Zaw Oo looks on.

Since it came to power in a February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military junta has devastated the country. More than 6,000 civilians have been killed through an indiscriminate campaign of aerial and ground attacks that have displaced nearly 2 million.

The NUG was formed from the remnants of Myanmar’s ousted civilian administration. Since then, it has established offices in several foreign capitals, including London and Canberra. But no foreign nation has yet to recognize the body as the official representative of the Myanmar people.

This leaves diplomats like Moe Zaw Oo, 55, and his colleagues in a strange, liminal space: welcomed and yet ignored.

uyghur-mother_07 Moe Zaw Oo at the NUG’s office at a coworking space in downtown Washington.
nug-washington-08.jpg Aye Chan Mon with her mother at their home in suburban Maryland. Living with her mom has helped ease her homesickness. But she constantly worries about friends and family back home, including her father, who is the NUG defense minister.
nug-washington-08.jpg Aye Chan Mon, who is a doctor in Myanmar, drives to her second job as a pharmacy technician at a Giant grocery store. Her modest NUG salary requires a supplemental income.

A new role

Since 2022, Moe Zaw Oo and NUG press aide Aye Chan Mon, 27, have run the NUG’s lobbying efforts out of a tiny office in a workshare space near the White House.

While Moe Zaw Oo has a background in government, having served as an adviser to Aung San Sui Kyi, the imprisoned former leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy party, Aye Chan Mon has little training as a communications professional.

She treated Covid patients as a doctor before the coup, but she signed up to help stop the military “brutally oppressing our people.”

“I promised myself to try as best as I can, as much as I can,” she said.

While still learning English, Aye Chan Mon told a congressional panel in September a story about a nurse she knew who had been burned alive after caring for people displaced by fighting – just one example of the atrocities that have engulfed the country over the past three years.

Like the nurse, Aye Chan Mon joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide strike by professionals against the junta, in the harrowing weeks following the takeover. She spent months in hiding before fleeing to the U.S. in December 2021 where she and her mother share a home in suburban Washington with another family and a dog and a cat.

But most of her friends and family remain in Myanmar, including her father, Yee Mon, a poet and democracy advocate who is now the NUG defense minister.

“I don’t have freedom right now because my mind and thoughts are always in my country,” Aye Chan Mon said.

Moe Zaw Oo uses the Washington Metro to commute to the NUG office downtown.

A need for naps

Moe Zaw Oo also spent months on the run. Summoned by the Myanmar intelligence bureau for questioning immediately after the coup, he was released after a few days on the condition he’d return. But he figured he had pressed his case enough and fled.

“I had to move from one place to another for hiding,” he said “because since then they were chasing me.”

Moe Zaw Oo had already spent nine years in prison, when a previous military regime allowed the NLD to operate only to imprison hundreds of its leaders in the wake of its ballot success in 1990.

Now settled in suburban Washington with his wife, Moe Zaw Oo gets up at 5 a.m. to join online strategy sessions with NUG officials back home, who work half-a-day ahead, and then again at 9 p.m.

He lives in two worlds – a virtual world at the start and end of the day and a physical one in between.

“I have to take some naps,” he said.

nug-washington-12.jpg Kyaw Moe Tun, NUG’s ambassador to the United Nations, greets former exiled government leader Sein Win and wife, Si Si Thwe, at the 76th Chin National Day celebration in Beltsville, Md., in February.
nug-washington-13.jpg Zin Mar Aung and Moe Zaw Oo meet with Rep. Huizenga. The Republican congressman agreed to help create the Congressional Burma Caucus, a win for the NUG’s lobbying efforts.

The NUG relies on donations to fund its operations – which include providing health care and educational services in areas it controls and arming pro-democracy militias known as People’s Defense Forces.

But it remains resource-poor. Part of what excited Moe Zaw Oo about the creation of the Congressional Caucus for Burma, Myanmar’s old name before it was changed by a previous military regime, is that it represents another platform from which it can “raise awareness for our country and our movement,” he said.

He’s hoping diaspora communities pressure their representatives to join the caucus to expand its base of support – a key in any democracy.

“There are a lot of problems in the United States of course,” he said. “But people continue to talk to each other to solve these problems. What is difficult in our country is that people couldn’t practice democracy very well. Now, the military tries to use force to solve every problem.”

The U.S. has sanctioned military leaders and their enablers, and targeted a major source of revenue for the junta in the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.

While NUG officials say they are grateful for that, they also want the U.S. to pressure allies like Thailand and India to help. And they want money from Congress to implement the Burma Act, which was passed in 2022 and promised broad support.

nug-washington-14.jpg Members of the Myanmar diaspora listen to Zin Mar Aung at an NUG town hall in Washington in January. The NUG relies on donations from the diaspora for its operations.
nug-washington-15.jpg Leaders of Myanmar’s National Unity Government listen to criticism of NUG activities during the town hall. Moe Zaw Oo said it is important for all members of Myanmar’s various ethnic groups to feel like they would have a seat at the table in a new government.
nug-washington-16.jpg Moe Zaw Oo, Zin Mar Aung and Aye Chan Mon outside the U.S. Capitol after meeting with lawmakers in January.

A durable democracy

When they are not working with Washington’s power brokers, much of Moe Zaw Oo and Aye Chan Mon’s time is spent convincing potential backers in the U.S. that the NUG is a viable government.

In February, they hosted a town hall at their workshare space. Officials including Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung and U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who has defied the junta by keeping his post and was the target of an assassination plot, answered questions about rumors of corruption and the NUG’s support of grassroots groups within Myanmar.

A few weeks later Kyaw Moe Tun, Moe Zaw Oo and Aye Chan Mon watched ethnic Chin dancers perform at a high school auditorium in a Maryland suburb as part of the group’s national day.

A chief aim of their mission is to build a framework for a more durable democracy back home by reassuring Myanmar’s ethnic minorities living in the U.S. that they’ll have a seat at the table in a new government.

“We have to reach out to all of these communities and try to build trust and relationships with them, because that will become our power base back in our country as well,” Moe Zaw Oo said.

With 135 recognized ethnic groups and more unrecognized, Myanmar has long been riven by ethnic tensions. Parts of the country have been embroiled in civil war for decades.

nug-washington-17.jpg Moe Zaw Oo and Kyaw Moe Tun observe a moment of silence at the 76th Chin National Day in memory of fellow Myanmar citizens killed by Myanmar military forces.
nug-washington-18.jpg Aye Chan Mon tries to work from home as her cat tries to intervene. Despite the distractions offered by life in the U.S., her thoughts are never far from the turmoil that has engulfed Myanmar. “I don’t have freedom right now because my mind and thoughts are always in my country,” she said.

Bound by suffering

The NLD government was often criticized for ignoring the military’s abuses. Aung San Sui Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her advocacy for democracy, but her reputation nosedived in the West when she refused to condemn horrific attacks on Rohingya Muslims by military forces.

More than 700,000 Rohingya were forced from their homes in 2017, in an act the U.S. termed a genocide. Most fled into neighboring Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands remain in squalid conditions.

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya activist who serves as the NUG’s deputy minister for human rights, said the organization’s cabinet is the most diverse in Myanmar’s history. It also isn’t enough for ethnic groups.

"There is a lot still to be done in terms of ensuring everyone is on board," he said in an interview. "The inclusion of one Rohingya member should not be the end of the game."

In January, the NUG issued a joint statement with three ethnic minority groups pledging to back a federal democracy should the military be removed from power.

The NLD, when it shared power with the military, did not express support for such a union. Moe Zaw Oo said that was because its main objective was to survive, to perpetuate the fledgling democracy.

Now, Aye Chan Mon said Myanmar’s diverse population is now bound by a collective misery, as violence has spread from the border areas populated by ethnic minorities to the central regions where the Burmese majority live.

“We understand how they have suffered,” she said.

Photos by Gemunu Amarasinghe
Edited by Boer Deng, Abby Seiff
Produced by Gemunu Amarasinghe, Charlie Dharapak, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
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