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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.”
99B Myay Nu Street, LAMAI Condo, Suite 6D, Sanchaung Twp., Yangon 11111, Myanmar - Phone: +95 1 230-5935©2015 Herzfeld Rubin Meyer & Rose Law Firm Limited. - Legal Info