For Burmese Exiles, Hope Amid Turmoil

Aung Sein from Fort Wayne, Ind., holding a portrait of Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, marches Friday with about 300 protesters from the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar to the Chinese Embassy in Washington. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

From his spartan office suite in Rockville, the headquarters of Burma's democratic opposition in exile, Bo Hla Tint has spent years fruitlessly pressing for international attention on the plight of his impoverished, oppressed and nearly invisible country in Southeast Asia.

Last week, with Burma erupting in bloody protests against military rule, Tint's moment seems to have come. All day Friday, the opposition spokesman's phone was busy with requests for media interviews, plans for meetings on Capitol Hill and long-distance rumors of military splits and diplomatic maneuvering in Rangoon or Mandalay.

"Every day for 17 years I am walking and talking Burma. Now people are listening," said Tint, 63, a man with a polite but harassed air. His office is miles from the District embassy where Rangoon's military regime, which renamed the country Myanmar in 1990, is officially ensconced. Under U.S. laws, Tint's organization occupies a niche somewhere among foreign agent, political party and nonprofit foundation.

"Legally, we don't really exist," Tint said. "Our key leaders are inside the country, not outside," he said, explaining that his group backs Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been under house arrest in Rangoon for most of the past 18 years.

His organization, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, has never asked for diplomatic recognition, but it also has offices in New York, Bangkok and New Delhi. The local office moved to Rockville after several years in Washington.

At the Burma-America Buddhist Association in Silver Spring, TV crews set up Friday on the lawn outside a modest, wood-framed temple decorated with golden roof trim. Ashin Asabhacara, a shy, red-robed monk, struggled to explain in English why tens of thousands of fellow monks in his homeland, sworn to lives of spiritual meditation, have felt compelled to join the massive street demonstrations in the past two weeks.

"We do not like to participate in worldly affairs. Our duty is to pray and chant about loving kindness," said Asabhacara, 50, squinting in the midday sun. "But the citizens are scared of beating and torture and prison, so the monks cannot keep silent any longer. We have no choice but to step in to save our country."

In the Washington area, which is home to about 500 Burmese families and several sympathetic groups, activism has galvanized. On Friday, about 300 Burmese and American protesters marched to the embassies of Myanmar and China, the country's powerful neighbor and economic ally. Asabhacara and other monks led the march, hoisting banners and leading chants for peace.

After nearly four decades of military control, the outbreak of Burma's largest protests in 15 years has rekindled hope among longtime exiled activists in the Washington region. They have seen protests quashed many times, with hundreds of civilians killed while the world's democratic powers responded with tepid concern or pragmatic deference to China.

But now, they said, there are several key differences. One is the digital revolution, which has enabled information and images to leak out of the tightly controlled country and flood the world media. Another is the massive public participation of monks, who are revered in Burmese society. A third is the pent-up anger of Burma's citizens, long inured to military rule but newly outraged at huge price increases in fuel and other staples.

"I have very high hopes this time. There is a very real potential for change," said Tin Maung Thaw of Ashburn, vice president of the Burma-America Buddhist Association, who fled to the United States in 1978 and worked for a time on Capitol Hill. "In 1988, there was no Internet in Burma, and the military could hide the atrocities. Now they can't," he said. "This time, everyone knows what's going on."

Thaw's childhood memories include the 1962 suppression of a student revolt in Rangoon soon after the army seized power for the first time. At dawn, he said, his family was sleeping when security forces bombed a university building. "I was in seventh grade, and we lived near the campus," he recalled. "Early in the morning, we felt the earth shake and saw the sky full of dark clouds."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company