SAC-M appears in Foreign Policy
Exiled officials are trying to keep the flame of democracy alive from afar.
19 June 2023
On the sixth floor of a nondescript office building on K Street in Washington, D.C., nestled between a Subway and a Starbucks, Moe Zaw Oo is waging a rearguard political war to keep the remnants of democracy alive in his home country of Myanmar.
His formal title is deputy foreign minister of the National Unity Government (NUG), a role he has held since the shadow regime was formed more than two years ago. His calendar is packed with Zoom meetings, a condition of compulsory telework across multiple time zones, as many of his counterparts are in exile elsewhere in the world.
The 54-year-old career politician helped run Myanmar’s civilian-led government, ultimately serving as chief of staff to the now-imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader charged with overseeing the country’s transition from rule under a brutal military junta to a civilian-led democracy.
Now, after a military coup in February 2021, he helps run what is effectively a shadow government, whose members are imprisoned, in hiding, or in exile. Its ranks are filled with a hodgepodge of pre-coup officials scattered around the world, based in France, the Czech Republic, Australia, and elsewhere. Some of his colleagues are still in Myanmar, but he said he can’t know their whereabouts for their own safety.
His main task now is trying to keep Myanmar, its brutal civil conflict, and the push to oust the junta from power on the foreign policy-agenda in a Washington otherwise consumed by geopolitical competition with China and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Since last year, especially after the war in Ukraine, a lot of the air in the room has been sucked [out],” Moe Zaw Oo said, a matter that has sapped international attention from the crisis in his own country.
The deputy minister’s illustrious job title belies what the job currently entails. He says his commute to the office, out of which he works two or three days a week, takes about 30 minutes, and his wife packs his lunch. “We do not enjoy very much the American food,” he said. “Sorry,” he added, laughing.
Myanmar’s transition to democracy came to a screeching halt with the 2021 coup, in which the military arrested top members of the democratic government and forced Moe Zaw Oo into hiding for a month. He had to move constantly to evade the junta’s authorities as it sought to round up and imprison former government officials and pro-democracy activists. He eventually smuggled himself across the border to Thailand and made his way to the United States.
The coup sparked a furious backlash of popular pro-democracy uprisings and clashes between the military and ethnic armed militias, fueling one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises and transforming parts of the country into war zones.
The NUG is seen as the most legitimate governmental entity abroad by Western governments and experts. “The NUG is quite critical. It’s seen as a much more legitimate democratic governance entity than the junta at this point,” said Jason Tower, an expert on Myanmar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Tower said there are numerous other local governmental structures springing up in the country, however, that are viewed as critical to the future governance of Myanmar if and when the junta is ousted, including local council organizations.
Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, urged U.N. member states in January to recognize the NUG as the legitimate representative government and provide it support. The United States hasn’t officially recognized the NUG as Myanmar’s government, but senior U.S. officials, including soon-to-retire Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, have met with NUG officials numerous times.
Moe Zaw Oo’s current battle station—a sparsely decorated single-office room tucked into the corner of a co-working space next to real estate companies and local nonprofits—is Washington’s window on the most coherent and organized democratic opposition movement to the junta from abroad.
If he’s successful at his job, the outpost in Washington could be something of a model for other shadow governments and exiled democratic movements in countries whose paths to democracy have otherwise derailed—from Afghanistan to Sudan. If his compatriots at home are successful at theirs, he could one day return to his home country and take part in a transition to democratic rule (again).
Myanmar is locked in a fierce conflict that has displaced over a million people internally. A network of opposition groups across the country have taken up arms to oppose the junta, and the junta itself has publicly admitted that it has control over only about half of the country’s territory.
Myanmar has a geopolitically important position in Southeast Asia, and the conflict has transformed it into a locus of instability just as geopolitical competition in the region heats up. Major U.S. rivals such as Russia and China have stepped in to shore up the junta’s increasingly perilous hold on power, even as the broader international community seeks to isolate the junta for its brutal repression and atrocities carried out against the civilian population.
“We’re talking about a major space of instability right at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Myanmar is in a very strategic position between India, China, and Southeast Asia,” Tower said. “The level of atrocities and violence going on in the country is really atrocious, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”
Nearly 4,000 people had been killed by the junta as of May, according to the Burma Human Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy organization that tracks the conflict. Around 1.5 million people remained internally displaced at the end of 2022, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which operates as part of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“The state of humanitarian conditions in [Myanmar] is deplorable at this point,” Tower said. “The military junta is weaponizing assistance, more or less dictating that all assistance goes through the military itself.”
The junta’s blocking of humanitarian relief to communities devastated by Cyclone Mocha, which barreled through Myanmar in May and left hundreds of thousands of people in need of aid, is the latest example of that decades-old strategy, according to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an independent advocacy group formed after the military coup to support the democratic movement. “Attempting to channel aid primarily through the junta and acquiescing to the junta’s demands enables this strategy and will only result in the prolonged suffering of those in dire need,” the council said in a statement.
Despite Moe Zaw Oo’s proximity to the White House—which he can see from the window in his office—long-standing requests have gone unmet. For years, human rights advocates and democracy activists have pushed the United States and other Western powers to levy sanctions against the lucrative Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, the main funding arm for the junta. But neighboring Thailand relies on piped gas from Myanmar for energy, and the United States has so far been reluctant to cut off a potential ally against China from key energy supply lines amid its balancing game in Asia.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency continues to look for ways to promote accountability for the coup and related violence, including efforts to block revenue to the regime.
Moe Zaw Oo said having a physical office space has allowed him to meet with members of Congress, civil society, and Biden administration officials, including Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s top envoy for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
His other main task is to engage with Myanmar’s diaspora in the United States. There are around 230,000 Burmese Americans, according to recent figures, primarily concentrated in Indiana, Kentucky, New York, and Los Angeles.
In the meantime, he mans his outpost in Washington, often working odd hours to lay the groundwork for when, or if, the day comes that he can return to Myanmar and help start another transition to democracy. “Sometimes I sleep by installment,” he said, recalling one particularly long day as he worked with his counterparts abroad to finalize the Federal Democracy Charter, which lays out a road map for establishing a federal government in Myanmar after resistance groups defeat the junta. “Two hours I slept, and then I got up and attended the meeting, and then I slept again and got up and attended another meeting.”
Moe Zaw Oo is also waging another battle against U.S. bureaucracy while in Washington. He has filed paperwork applying for asylum in the United States but said he doesn’t know where his application stands. Consequently, he can’t travel outside the country now. But it’s clear he’s homesick. He said he still yearns for the scenic four-hour drive from his home in the southern city of Yangon to the capital of Naypyidaw.
He can’t say when the conflict in his home country might end, even as the junta is facing waning support among citizens and from its short list of allies, including Russia. And he remains hopeful about reconciliation among the country’s disparate ethnic groups, one of the biggest challenges in rebuilding Myanmar’s democracy.
“I’ve always stayed optimistic. Yes, there are a lot of things that seem to be very negative for our country. But at the same time, we’ve got a lot of chances to rebuild,” he said.