In Burma, a former rebel now fights for peace

January 9, 2014

RANGOON, Burma — The crowd that gathered to launch an American chamber of commerce in Burma in late October included diplomats, local entrepreneurs and Western business officials eyeing Asia’s newest “frontier market.”

It’s safe to say that Ngun Cung Lian — managing director of the Herzfeld, Rubin, Meyer & Rose law firm in Rangoon and part-time peace negotiator — was the only person at the upscale hotel event who had spent the early 1990s fighting the Burmese army.

Those battles took place in the remote jungles of northwestern Chin state, one of Burma’s long-disputed ethnic areas — and the starting point for an unusual journey that has brought him to the center of an effort to draw Western investment to this former pariah state, also known as Myanmar, after years of sanctions.

He’s also working with the reformist government that took power in 2011 as a go-between with his former Chin colleagues, as Burma’s leaders seek an end to conflicts with several ethnic groups that make up the world’s longest-running civil war.

“Fortunately, I survived,’’ he said. “A lot of my friends were killed.’’

Now nearly 47 and an American citizen, Ngun Cung Lian left Chin state in the 1990s to attend college in Indiana. He earned a law degree and co-founded the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law before returning to Burma to run the first fully U.S.-owned law firm in the country, which until 2012 was virtually off-limits to U.S. companies because of sanctions against Burma’s military junta.

Many American firms remain reluctant to invest here, and experts say uncertainty about the peace process is adding to questions about whether a recent wave of economic and political reforms truly is gaining traction. With hostilities continuing, mistrust is rampant and ethnic groups doubt that the government will agree to the concessions they have demanded, including a sharing of mining revenue, or to a constitution that grants them more autonomy.

As a negotiator, Ngun Cung Lian has faced blowback from his former colleagues in the Chin resistance. “The problem is that ethnic armed groups view me as a traitor,” he said.

But his academic stature and constitutional expertise make him a rare commodity among Burma’s ethnic minorities. And colleagues say his years of work with the Chin resistance, even while in Indiana, give him credibility, and clear eyes, when it comes to the shortcomings on both sides.

“A person like him, in that kind of situation, cannot satisfy everyone,” said Zaw Oo, another former exile who returned to Burma. He is a top economic adviser to President Thein Sein.

Ngun Cung Lian, a native of the city of Matupi in mountainous Chin state, a poor, predominantly Christian area on largely Buddhist Burma’s border with India, was a self-described “angry student hoping that democracy would bring a better life” when protests against the then-military dictatorship swept the country in 1988.

About to be arrested by government forces, he fled to India, traveled to Bangladesh for military training and then returned to Chin state, where he spent much of the next five years fighting for the Chin National Army.

Sick and desperate, he left for India in 1994 and soon won a U.S. government scholarship for Burmese refugees. After arriving in the United States in October 1996, he ended up in Indiana, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University in 1999 and then master’s and doctoral law degrees at Indiana University.

A leader in Indiana’s large population of refugees from Burma, he continued to work as a negotiator for the Chin National Front. But after the junta gave up control of Burma in 2011, Ngun Cung Lian started working with a think tank advising the new quasi-civilian Burmese government, which sought to draw foreign capital into its moribund economy.

Although Ford, Coca-Cola and General Electric have established a presence here, other U.S. firms have been slow to enter amid lingering sanctions, political uncertainty and a host of more practical impediments, such as unreliable power supply and a poorly educated workforce. U.S. investment in Burma has totaled less than $250 million since 1988, the baseline year the Burmese government uses to calculate investment, compared with the $14.2 billion that China has sunk into Burma over the past quarter-century.

“You all truly are pioneers,” Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador in Burma, said at the October launch of the chamber of commerce, which will help companies scope out opportunities and weigh in on policy issues with the Burmese government.

At the new law firm, Ngun Cung Lian spends half of his time on client work, including helping companies find export opportunities in the United States, where import bans on Burmese goods have been lifted. The other half is spent working with the government-backed Myanmar Peace Center, which he joined in 2012. He also uses the first name Andrew and splits his time between Burma and Indianapolis, home to his Burmese wife and two young children.

The experience has been odd, he says, but it has convinced him that peace is coming.

“Do you remember, we tried to kill each other in 1992-93?” he recalled asking one top Burmese official, formerly a government soldier, whom he met recently. After talking, he noted with laughter, the two men said, “Let’s forget about the past.”

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