Guest Column

Myanmar’s History of Governments in Exile

By David I. Steinberg 25 February 2023

Exiles, alas, are all too common in today’s disrupted world. Myanmar has a variety of them. Some are driven into exile by ethnic cleansing, such as the Rohingya. Some seek safety individually, like the anti-military dissidents since 2001. And millions go overseas to seek employment, especially in Thailand.

Governments in exile are also not an uncommon worldwide political phenomenon. But to have two in one generation in one country not only exceeds the norm, but may be unique in the modern era. Although two can hardly be called a pattern, lessons and expectations, both realistic and illusionary, from these experiences in Myanmar may help enlighten the future and help guide internal and foreign policies.

On 14 February 2023, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, met Daw Zin Mar Aung, the National Unity Government’s (NUG) foreign minister, at the newly established, Washington-based headquarters of the NUG. Founded on 16 April 2021, the NUG is composed of members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the parliament elected in November 2020 but ousted by a Myanmar military coup before it could take office on 1 February 2021, as well as representatives of ethnic minority groups and other anti-coup players.

Wendy Sherman’s visit, and other extensive legislative and executive actions by the US, provides the NUG with the moral imprimatur, if not the diplomatic stamp of approval. Although formal diplomatic ties remain with the military regime, ambassadorial replacements between the states have not been approved. Together with an intense lobbying effort by the NUG, extensive economic, political, and social sanctions have been imposed on both military-supported institutions and individual military officials. With widespread Western opprobrium of any actions seen as supportive of the military, US dialogue with the Myanmar military is absent.

For the few foreigners who trace modern Myanmar history, the plot seems to be a replay of an older scenario. But there are critical differences between the four coups that have dominated Myanmar’s history since independence in 1948. The three coups of 1962, 1988, and 2021 were all designed to perpetuate military control over political, economic, and social elements of the then Burma and Myanmar. The 1988 and 2021 coups have similarly resulted in governments in exile, but their effects and expectations are likely to be quite different.

A generation ago, following the coup of 1988, the military promised that it would hold elections that would result in a multi-party “discipline-flourishing democracy.” It did hold such elections in May 1990, which the opposition National League for Democracy swept and the military blatantly ignored. Escaping arrest by the military, some members of the newly elected but unseated legislature formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) on 18 December 1990 in territory not yet controlled by the military, and then shifted to Thailand.

It lobbied for diplomatic recognition, never granted by the US, but it focused attention on the political plight of the civilian population and engendered widespread international sympathy. In May 1995, the NCGUB held a meeting in Bommersvik Sweden, and Sein Win, a first cousin of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected as its prime minister in exile. In essence, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, or what was purported to be her views since she was under house arrest, made US policy.

The NCGUB moved its offices to the Washington DC area for more effective lobbying. It had remarkable access throughout the Washington power structure. But as the military began the slow, incomplete but encouraging, pattern of reform, and as the US responded to such quiet signals from the military, relations began to improve. In the aftermath of these changes, the NCGUB was dissolved on 14 September 2012.

There are significant differences between 1988 and 2021 both in military promises and actions and in the public’s response. In 2021, the military promised initially that there would be national elections in 2023. Because of the widespread disdain, indeed revolution, against the junta’s rule and national civil unrest, these elections have now been promised for later in 2023 or 2024.

But just as the controlled and manipulated elections of 2010 allowed the military to maintain power through the political process, so there is every indication that the current military regime plans a similar response in the forthcoming political arena. Even if there are significant alterations to the 2008 military-drafted constitution that the military had sworn to uphold unchanged, but is now prepared to modify to ensure continuing military dominance of the political processes, any such changes will attempt to solidify the military’s critical role in Myanmar society.

One overarching commonality of the 1988 and 2021 coups is the clear determination to ensure that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, through imprisonment, house arrest, or simply age, no longer plays a role in Myanmar’s politics. A major difference is that Suu Kyi advocated political change through peaceful means. Whether that was practical in the Myanmar context may be disputed, but on 7 September 2021 the NUG declared war on the Myanmar military. Although the military’s criminal and rapacious actions far outstrip the violence perpetrated by the NUG and its diverse opposition groups, the moral high ground has at least partly been ceded.

The popular reaction to the 2021 coup has been unprecedented in modern Myanmar. Coupled with the ongoing struggle of ethnic minorities for autonomy, and the exposure of youth to the liberalization of the past decade, tolerance of military atrocities seems to have ended. Anti-military rebellion is apparent even in Bamar areas that were never previously restive, and military violence against the population is unprecedented.

From 2012 until the coup, the country’s youth experienced a degree of freedom, while incomplete, far greater than at any time since the 1962 coup. They do not seem to be willing to settle for less under praetorian rule. The NUG has tried to placate ethnic dissatisfaction with more ethnically diverse leadership, but generations of suspicions abound and are exceedingly difficult to overcome. Throughout the country People’s Defense Forces have been formed and fight military authority, but they lack coordination and the arms necessary for effective resistance.

But the military’s plans for a rigged election that would provide titular legitimacy from their vantage point may be based in part on illusion. Senior military officers have long felt that that they don’t need the West, because of a combination of the state’s natural resources and friendly relations with Russia and China, who protect Myanmar in the United Nations through their veto power and supply the regime with sophisticated weaponry, along with the clear reluctance of Japan, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to impose sanctions.

The generals may be preparing to sit out a decade of Western isolation, after which some US administration will likely make some concessions in response to political face-saving changes within the Myanmar regime. The dilemma is that much of the backbone of state administration is in the hands of retired military, as well as those on active duty. The military‘s future role in Myanmar will exceed what is regarded as normal in modern Western states.

We are witnessing a period of intense propaganda from all sides. Claims for areas and populations controlled, casualties inflicted, and economic conditions are widely promulgated but are in dispute. Yet policy decisions by the internal actors and foreigners are being made based on dubious data and are likely to exacerbate the crises.

Some foreign observers are now rethinking their positions. Some advocate the diplomatic recognition of the NUG, which would entail the closing of Western embassies in Myanmar, and likely either covert or overt arming of the opposition. This would increase the polarization of Russian and Chinese antagonism with the West. Some call for positive reconsideration of the breakup of the state, long advocated by some ethnic groups, to alleviate some of these pressures. That would likely to produce a ‘Balkanized’ regional set of insecurities compounding the myriad dilemmas facing the country and the region.

There is no silver bullet that will solve Myanmar’s multiple dilemmas and foreign response to them without a clear reorganization of the military control system and changes in its leadership. As much as they are needed, such changes seem, alas, a bridge too far. Unfortunately, the next few years are likely to be even worse than the previous two.

David Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University