Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Burmese Exiles: Credible Agents for Change in Burma?

(This is a leaked 2009 cable of Bangkok US Embassy from WIKILEAKS.)



Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, reason 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. (C) Thailand's Burmese exile community, based in Chiang
Mai and Mae Sot, has undergone drastic changes in recent
years.   Younger members are taking on more grassroots
endeavors aimed at addressing the immediate needs of Burmese
inside Burma and Thailand.  Several prominent exiles have
broken away from traditional political advocacy work and now
focus their energies on crafting grounded, thoughtful
analysis of the current situation in Burma and new options to
facilitate change. The result is that these new leaders often
bump heads with long-standing opposition forces like Maung
Maung and the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB),
whose two-plus decade efforts focus on international
lobbying, fund-raising, and drafting position papers of
questionable use, even as they lose touch with the reality of
changing dynamics inside and outside Burma.  At present, it
is unclear whether the principal leaders of the exile
community in Thailand can act as credible agents for change
in Burma.  End Summary.

2. (C) The Burmese exile community in Thailand is estimated
to consist of more than 200 affiliated organizations.  This
cable provides an overview of the current dynamics of the
Burmese exile community in Thailand, based on numerous
conversations, meetings, and site visits made by political
officers in Bangkok and Chiang Mai over the past several


3. (C) Arriving in Thailand in the late 1980's, leaders of
Burma's pro-democracy movement recognized that Aung San Suu
Kyi (ASSK) would remain the undisputed symbolic and visionary
advocate for positive change in Burma.  The exiles deferred
to ASSK's leadership but sought to reinforce her efforts by
vigorously raising international awareness of the Burmese
regime's brutality.  This was a useful strategy in the
beginning, when the opposition's goal was to cast the Burmese
junta as the worst violators of human rights and impediments
to democracy.  These politically focused, hard-nosed
activists proved capable international lobbyists at raising
awareness about Burma.  Beginning with almost nothing,
figures such as the current General Secretary of the National
Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), Maung Maung, became
particularly skillful at promoting themselves within the
international community.  The international attention they
brought to the situation in Burma resulted in important
diplomatic and financial support for those opposition members
who remained inside Burma, as well as the ongoing efforts of
those working in neighboring Thailand.  More recently, these
connections proved valuable during the September 2007
protests because when the crisis broke, many of these figures
used their long-established networks to pass information to
key international decision makers.

4. (C) However, many exiles now believe that this
antagonizing approach endured longer than it probably should
have.  Vahu Development Institute Director Zaw Oo's
assessment is that the exiled opposition began to internalize
the 'bad cop' role, transforming them from democracy
promoters seeking change to vociferous Burmese regime
opponents, whose position focused principally on casting the
regime in the most negative light possible.  The result is
that many of their efforts today may conflict with the real
purpose of those working for change inside Burma.  Various
members of the exile community we spoke with complained that
Maung Maung and his close-knit champions spend an inordinate
amount of time advocating hard-line views to punish the
regime for its actions rather than engage in constructive
discussions about how to move forward in bringing about
change.  Soe Thinn, currently a journalist trainer with
Internews who used to work for Radio Free Asia and prior to
that for the Burmese Foreign Ministry, said the NCUB and
other exile groups had no sense of responsibility.  "They
(the NCUB and NCGUB) believe democracy is doing what we
want," he said, and they do not understand that "they have to
accept the majority," he added.  Zaw Oo believed that "they
(NCUB) suffer from mental fatigue at this point and many of
their actions actually hurt the movement."

5. (C) Several people we spoke with pointed out that Burmese
Senior General Than Shwe and his subordinates repeatedly use
provocative rhetoric from activists abroad as evidence that
the exiles pose a serious threat to the stability of Burma.
Than Shwe frequently claims that the exile community is
plotting the Burmese junta's overthrow with assistance from
"certain Western powers."  Unfortunately, this sets off a
cyclical response from the hard-line exiles, who take the
statements by the Burmese generals as confirmation that they
must continue their uncompromising position and mobilize even
further efforts to topple the regime using any means

6. (C) The result, according to Zaw Oo, is absolute
polarization of the issue.  Any moderates that may exist
within the Burmese regime or the opposition then face the
difficult task of getting their point of view heard without
it being overtaken by extremists in either camp.  Debbie
Stothard, Coordinator for Thailand-based ALTSEAN-Burma and a
long-time Burma advocate, added that this back and forth
ranting between the junta and the hard-line exiles amounted
to little more than an endless stream of statements that
never produced significant action.  This polarization has
also prevented the hard-line opposition from coming up with
alternative approaches.  More and more Burmese diaspora
academics criticize the exiles' lack of vision about what a
transition would look like and what would happen after a


7. (C) This circular finger pointing continues today.  Long
time Burma advocate Chalida Tajaroensuk (formerly with Forum
Asia and now Director of People Empowerment) blamed this
failing on the lack of a clear leader within the Burmese
exile community.  "There is no Jose Ramos Horta like East
Timor had," Chalida explained "and while the Burmese may have
Aung San Suu Kyi inside Burma, there is no one outside the
country who can provide a similar rallying point for the
opposition." In the past, entities like the NCUB and the
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)
tried to organize various Burmese opposition members who fled
to Thailand.  But as Chalida and others pointed out, this
self-styled elitist group of exiles never moved beyond its
political and diplomatic circles; it never made much of an
effort to engage in grassroots outreach efforts inside Burma
or even Thailand.  The NCUB and NCGUB's failure to organize
any activities inside Burma to support "vote no" campaigns
for the upcoming referendum exemplifies this limited reach.

8. (C) Stothard stated that Maung Maung and his cohorts took
for granted that high level discussions would trickle down
through the various levels of the organization and result in
action.  Instead, their secretive approach isolated those
outside of their small circle and stunted the development of
new leaders.  Many Burmese exiles lamented that after almost
twenty years of trying to lead an opposition movement, the
NCUB and NCGUB continue with the same faces proffering the
same ideas year after year.  Soe Thinn of Internews described
the stalemate of ideas as creating a situation where
"activism has become a way of life;" the exiles have set up
ever more organizations not because these reflect new
approaches or increase coordination or impact, but
principally in order to attract highly sought-after
international donor support.  Activism is also a means of
funding their own personal sustenance, he added.

9. (C) While recognizing the important historical endeavors
of the NCUB and NCGUB, Chulalongkorn University's Professor
Pornpimol Trichote likened the exiles' situation to that of
Burma's National League for Democracy 'uncles,' who have long
held the torch for their country's democracy movement, but
whose efforts in recent years have been criticized by many
within the opposition movement as insufficient.  She added
that the dynamics of the Burmese exile community have
changed, but that not all of its leaders have changed with
the times.  Leon de Riedmatten, former ICRC Chief in Burma
and liaison between ASSK and the Burmese junta, recently
stated to us that he is convinced Maung Maung and his
colleagues do not grasp the reality of the current situation
in Burma and therefore are not in a position to bring about


10. (C) Over the years, continual international lobbying
efforts -- through the release of statements and papers,
meetings with government officials, and various fundraising
activities --  have resulted in these border organizations
capturing the bulk of international community support for
democracy in Burma, financially and emotionally.  Recognizing
the difficulties of operating programs and facilitating
communication inside Burma, many members of the old school
exile community have successfully made the Thai border area
the nexus of the Burmese democracy movement, at least in
terms of the destination for international funding.  There
are some exceptions, however.  The Norwegian Government -- an
ardent moral and financial supporter of the Burmese democracy
movement for many years -- refuses to fund either the NCUB or
its sister labor organization, the Federal Trade Union of
Burma (FTUB).

11. (C) From their position on the Thai-Burma border, notes
Human Rights Watch Burma consultant David Mathieson,
organizations such as the NCUB claim close connections to
groups and individuals working inside Burma.  The exiles cite
these connections as evidence of their ability to influence
the situation in Burma.  Donors facing challenges funneling
money inside Burma turn to such exile groups as a logical
alternative, recognizing that they are not ideal recipients
but nevertheless provide a viable option.  The danger, cites
Mathieson, is that in order to justify long-term financial
support from the donor community, many exile groups overstate
their ability to connect with democracy activists inside
Burma, particularly those working in urban areas.  Despite
these limitations, it appears to us that some resources from
the Thai-based groups reaches Rangoon, as well as many areas
along the border.


12. (C) Exiles do appear to maintain varying levels of
contact with Burma-based associates.  The Open Society
Institute's Liz Tydeman described meeting with activists in
Thailand's Mae Sot in the midst of Burma's September 2007
protests.  Repeatedly throughout their meeting, her contacts
made and received multiple calls to activists in Rangoon and
Tydeman overheard them discussing strategy, locations of
colleagues, and exit options.  However, as far as we can
determine these contacts appear to be based on personal
connections and do not translate into or reflect formal
organizational ties, or a chain of command in the democracy

13. (C) In early October 2007, the NCUB took credit for
organizing the protests that occurred inside Burma the
previous month, stating that the protests were a part of a
long term strategy the NCUB had organized to put pressure on
the Burmese regime (ref A).  While many of our contacts agree
that the NCUB helped place communication equipment in Burma
that aided in alerting the world to and detailing the Burmese
junta's violent crackdown of the protests, Embassy Rangoon's
contacts repeatedly state that the protests were only loosely
organized by scattered groups in and around Rangoon.  In a
November 2007 meeting with Chiang Mai Poloff, the Political
Defiance Committee also claimed credit for the September 2007
uprising in Burma (ref B).  When asked whom these groups work
with inside Burma, Committee members are quick to respond "we
have our network, but we will not give specifics."  In the
absence of at least some specifics, it is difficult to accept
their statements at face value, particularly in light of the
conflicting statements from activists working inside Burma.

14. (C) Democracy activists inside Burma recognize the value
of the exile community's efforts to raise international
awareness of Burma's political impasse, according to Embassy
Rangoon.  They especially appreciate the exile media, which
broadcasts daily news into Burma.  However, they do not see
the exile organizations as a central component to Burma's
pro-democracy movement, which is led by the activists inside,
despite what some of the exiles claim.  Since many of the
exiles left 20 years ago, they have lost touch with the
ever-changing dynamics inside Burma, both within the
pro-democracy movement and Burmese society in general.  This
is the feeling of the overwhelming majority of Burmese whom
Embassy Rangoon comes into contact with, including the NLD,
88 Generation, younger activists, community leaders,
church-based leaders, and ordinary citizens.  It was
reinforced by the cool welcome the Thailand based-exiles gave
those fleeing the September 2007 crackdown in Burma (ref C).

15. (C) One recent example of the disconnect between exiles
and their Burma-based counterparts was NCUB's February 15
release of an alternative constitution for Burma (just days
after the junta's announcement of the completion of the
drafting of its constitution).  The NCUB publicized its
constitution as an inclusive document approved by a broad
spectrum of civil society groups focused on Burma, including
ethnic nationalities and women's organizations.  However,
when pressed by an international journalist, the NCUB
conceded that the drafting and approval of the document had
been completed by a relatively small group of Burmese living
outside the country, who had no legitimate basis to claim it
reflected the views of the 55 million Burmese living inside
the country, or even the more than 1 million Burmese migrant
workers and refugees living in Thailand.  We have repeatedly
been unable to extract from our exile contacts a reasonable
explanation for their confidence that their views represent
those of the Burmese people, much less a credible plan for
action to turn their vision into reality.


16. (C) The hard-line approach take by some exile groups has
also contributed to th opposition movement's loss of
credibility amongASEAN governments over time.  Vehement,
hard-lin tactics tend to alienate ASEAN governments that
generally adhere to foreign policies promoting consensus and
non-intervention in the domestic affairs of their neighbors.
The result is that many governments in the region are
unwilling to work with the Burmese opposition and are
uninterested in what these groups have to say.  According to
Asda Jayanama, a former Thai Ambassador to the UN, the
Burmese junta has successfully pressed other ASEAN
governments to distance themselves from the opposition, in
part by playing on fear of instability in the region, citing
the harsh rhetoric of Burmese exiles.  An important exception
to this disconnect is the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar
Caucus (AIPMC), whose members (elected legislators from
various ASEAN member countries) include many long-time Burma
advocates.  The AIPMC supports democratic change in Burma
within their respective governments and has collaborated with
the exile community in the past.  Unfortunately, Thailand's
AIPMC members -- currently opposition MPs Kraisak Choonhaven
(recently appointed president of AIPMC) and Alongkorn
Polabutr -- have not been able to successfully move the Burma
issue forward within the RTG.


17. (C) While there may be growing skepticism among some
members of the exile community about the value of
international lobbying, efforts geared towards action on the
ground are gaining momentum along the border.  Many newer
Burmese groups in Thailand employ a more grassroots approach
that focuses on community development for Burmese on the
border and those inside Burma. According to Zaw Oo, the best
examples of this new area of activity in the Burmese exile
community come from some of the women's and ethnic groups
that have appeared in the past decade.  (see Ref D for some
detail on one such group) Soe Thinn described these groups as
less fragmented than the exile groups that concentrate their
efforts on purely political activities.  At the same time, as
these smaller organizations begin drawing greater recognition
and funding from the international community, the NCUB and
FTUB are seeking to co-opt their work. A representative from
the International Republican Institute (IRI), repeating
assertions from other donors, confirmed that IRI is
encouraging its grantees "to stand up for themselves" and to
resist NCUB and FTUB efforts to step in and direct their

18. (C) Stothard emphasized that there are not strict
ideological distractions or even animosity between those
working inside and those outside Burma.  Rather, she viewed
the divide as much more nuanced, particularly at the
grassroots level.  Recognizing the differences, groups such
as the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma
(AAPPB) and the Political Defiance Committee (PDC) emphasize
the need to support groups inside Burma.  In addition, many
exile groups are recognizing the value of cultivating new
leaders on the border as well as inside Burma and
facilitating dialog with partners up and down the ladder.
Unfortunately, as new leaders come across the border, the
need for sponsorship from established groups -- to gain a
degree of protection from the Thai authorities -- creates a
dependence on those who are already established in Thailand,
making it difficult for activists with more recent experience
in Burma to present themselves as equals.


19. (C) Many of the exile leaders from the NCUB and the NCGUB
deserve credit for their early efforts to criticize the
Burmese regime and engage in international lobbying.  While
this has played an important role in raising and maintaining
international awareness about Burma, these hard-line
activists have not moved beyond this role.  As a result, they
are losing credibility among their own community and ASEAN
governments.  Many opposition groups along the border have
used the renewed attention and publicity about Burma to
increase their funding and expand the influences of their
various organizations, but their reach and effectiveness
inside Burma only appears to be diminishing.  Money and
equipment supply lines to the activists, the most useful role
played by the exile organizations, have been disrupted since
September 2007, with only a trickle now getting through.

20. (C) It is not yet clear to us that the current leadership 
of the Burmese exile community in Thailand can establish 
itself as constructive and effective advocates of change in 
Burma.  Positive steps would include balancing rhetorical 
attacks with concrete and practical proposals; adopting a 
more inclusive approach that provides a credible basis to 
claim they represent both a broad range of activists and 
perhaps even the large Burmese refugee and migrant community 
present in Thailand; and building or demonstrating a greater 
degree of coordination with and support for the pro-democracy 
movement inside Burma.  At this time, the exiles' will and 
ability to accomplish these tasks remain unproven. End 
21. (U) This cable was coordinated with Embassy Rangoon and 
Consulate General Chiang Mai.