Fighting to Govern Myanmar, From a Teeny Office in Washington

Three blocks from the White House, at the end of a fluorescent-lit hallway on the sixth floor of a co-working space for “business nomads, freelancers and energetic entrepreneurs,” sits the American headquarters of the National Unity Government of Myanmar.

This pro-democracy government was formed after a military coup in Myanmar deposed civilian authorities in 2021. Although Western nations condemned the putsch — and the massacres and mass arrests that followed — no national government has formally recognized the N.U.G. as the legitimate leadership of Myanmar.

But Washington attracts political refugees from all over the world who hope proximity to power will draw attention to their national plights. Ma Aye Chan Mon and U Moe Zaw Oo of the N.U.G. remain optimistic they can get the world to care about Myanmar, despite the destructive forces of apathy and ignorance.

“They don’t even know how to pronounce Myanmar,” said Ms. Aye Chan Mon, about the reception she often receives in Washington. “They think it’s Yemen.”

“It’s not Yemen,” she added.

Fortified by her mother’s curries — enlivened with roselle leaves and shrimp paste — Ms. Aye Chan Mon, 26, spends her days trying to arrange meetings with anyone willing to listen to her recount her homeland’s desperate present situation and its history of military tyranny and civil war. In September, she testified before Congress.

“They don’t even know how to pronounce Myanmar,” said Ma Aye Chan Mon about the reception she often receives as she tries to tell her country’s story in Washington. “They think it’s Yemen.”Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Last December, President Biden signed the BURMA Act, which refers to Myanmar by a name discarded by military rulers. The legislation calls for sanctions on those who quashed Myanmar’s reforms and for nonlethal aid for pro-democracy forces. Its passage was a triumph for the N.U.G.’s Washington representatives. In late October, the United States announced targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s state-run oil and gas enterprise.

But any actual spending for Myanmar must be authorized though separate appropriation bills.

“After the BURMA Act was enacted, the people of our country and the resistance movement had very high expectations,” said Mr. Moe Zaw Oo, who is the N.U.G.’s deputy foreign minister. “But we have not seen any tangible results.”

Myanmar has never been a foreign policy priority for the United States.

During the Obama administration, the Southeast Asian nation of slightly over 50 million people seemed to offer a hopeful narrative: a military dictatorship peacefully giving way to an elected government. Mr. Obama visited twice. That gauzy tale, though, proved a mirage. The military never relinquished true power. Its soldiers continued to persecute ethnic minorities.

Mr. Moe Zaw Oo after attending a congressional meeting in Washington, in July. “After the BURMA Act was enacted, the people of our country and the resistance movement had very high expectations,” he said. “But we have not seen any tangible results.”Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate turned civilian leader, declined to forcefully condemn the army’s brutality against Rohingya Muslims. The United States soured on her and labeled anti-Rohingya violence, which reached a frenzy in 2017, ethnic cleansing.

Now, she and nearly her entire cabinet are imprisoned. Vast tracts of the country are at war, as civilians refuse to submit to the junta and armed ethnic groups expand their territory. At least 1.7 million people are internally displaced, the United Nations says, with another million or so having fled the country.

The N.U.G. Washington office opened a year ago, joining branches in six other countries, including the Czech Republic and Japan. Almost all its meetings are virtual.

“Sometimes we joke that meetings online are good because we are not facing each other, so we can argue without the threat of a physical fight,” Mr. Moe Zaw Oo said.

The entire office is barely larger than a cubicle. There’s little else besides a sign proclaiming the government’s name — strategically placed as a backdrop for online meetings — plus four portraits of N.U.G. leaders (two of whom are imprisoned in Myanmar) and three tables. Cappuccinos for visitors are sourced from a nearby cafe. An unplugged air freshener occupies one corner.

Mr. Moe Zaw Oo bought the air freshener, and Ms. Aye Chan Mon chose its floral scent, although she says no bottle compares to Myanmar’s tropical bouquet: the night jasmine or the golden padauk of the hot season.

“I can get everything here, like beautiful clothes and food and a car,” she said, of Washington. “But it’s not home.”

Those in exile from Myanmar have faced numerous hardships.

Mr. Moe Zaw Oo, left, and Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, center, at the Washington offices of the National Unity Government of Myanmar.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

U Kyaw Moe Tun was Myanmar’s envoy to the United Nations at the time of the coup. He refused to submit to the military and kept control over his post. In July, a Myanmar man was convicted in a New York court of conspiring to injure or kill the ambassador on behalf of Myanmar’s military leaders. Lead in the paint of the ambassador’s residence has poisoned his son, causing developmental delays, Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun said. But the family remains so as not to relinquish a valuable asset to the junta.

“Every one of us here in the United States for the Myanmar resistance, we are fighting our own wars,” Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun said.

The N.U.G.’s ranks include members of the ousted government, activists who campaigned against that government and ethnic minorities who have fought for autonomy for decades. Ms. Aye Chan Mon’s father, a once-imprisoned poet, serves as the N.U.G.’s defense minister. There is an N.U.G. deputy minister who is Rohingya. There is also a humanitarian affairs minister who, while serving in the previous government, refused to use the word “Rohingya” lest it legitimize the Muslim group.

That cabinet minister, Dr. Win Myat Aye, now says he was misinformed by his military counterparts about their persecution of the Rohingya.

“If I could know what was really happening at that time, I would not tolerate their inhumane crimes on the Rohingya community,” he said.

An image of Myanmar’s civilian leaders, who were deposed in the 2021 coup. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now imprisoned, is second from left.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

When he was a minister for social welfare in the ousted government, Dr. Win Myat Aye had a staff of 6,000 and a swanky office. Today, he is often on the move: sheltering in safe houses in Myanmar’s borderlands and eating uninspiring pan-Asian takeout in Washington.

“I am getting more and more energized with the moral standing of the right side,” he said.

Most days in Washington, Mr. Moe Zaw Oo, the deputy foreign minister, works from an oval table in the middle of the tiny work space. Ms. Aye Chan Mon sits at a little desk to the side, fixing his schedule and battling the printer, which, like printers everywhere, needs coaxing to do its job. She checks Facebook to see friends in the jungle fighting for democracy, as part of a loose coalition even more loosely affiliated with the N.U.G.

“We had dreams,” she said. “They were crushed.”

In some parts of Myanmar that are successfully resisting army rule — and such areas are growing with recent battlefield gains — the N.U.G. is providing health and education services, supplementing what ethnic armed groups have done for years. Funding comes from housekeepers in Bangkok, sushi sous-chefs in New York and tech entrepreneurs in Singapore, among others.

Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, the N.U.G.’s health and education minister, oversees schools and clinics, some camouflaged with foliage to avoid airstrikes. Once an orthopedic surgeon for Myanmar’s top generals, Dr. Zaw Wai Soe now dispenses telemedicine to N.U.G. fighters in the forest, squinting at the screen to examine war wounds.

“I was very rich,” he said. “Now, I know, we have to try something new. We need federal democracy. Otherwise, we cannot live together.”

A pair of owls in the small office of Mr. Moe Zaw Oo. Owls are believed to bring good luck in Myanmar. Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

But the N.U.G., working with other groups, has yet to produce a federal constitution to protect Myanmar’s diverse ethnicities. Various drafters have walked away from the process.

The billions of dollars in American aid and weapons dispatched to Ukraine — and now promised to Israel — is almost inconceivable to the N.U.G.’s leaders. .

“As a refugee, I stand with the people of Ukraine,” Ms. Aye Chan Mon said. “But sometimes I think, if we got even a little bit of the money Ukraine gets from the U.S., then our revolution in Myanmar would succeed.”

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