YANGON: The crowd that gathered to launch an American chamber of commerce in Myanmar 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 Yangon and part-time peace negotiator — was the only person at the upscale hotel event who had spent the early 1990s fighting the Myanmarese army.
Those battles took place in the remote jungles of northwestern Chin state, one of Myanmar’s long-disputed ethnic areas — and the starting point for an unusual journey that has brought him to the centre of an effort to draw Western investment to this former pariah state, formerly known as Burma, 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 Myanmar’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 Centre for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University before returning to Myanmar to run the first fully US-owned law firm in the country, which until 2012 was virtually off-limits to US companies because of sanctions against Myanmar’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 Myanmar’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 Myanmar. 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 Myanmar’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, travelled 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 US government scholarship for Myanmarese refugees.
After arriving in the US in October 1996, he ended up in Indiana, where he earned a master’s and doctoral law degrees at Indiana University.
A leader in Indiana’s large population of refugees from Myanmar, he continued to work as a negotiator for the Chin National Front.
But after the junta gave up control of Myanmar in 2011, Ngun Cung Lian started working with a think tank advising the new quasi-civilian Myanmarese government, which sought to draw foreign capital into its moribund economy.
Although Coca-Cola and General Electric have established a presence here, other US 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.
At the new law firm, Ngun Cung Lian spends half of his time on client work, including helping companies find export opportunities in the US, where import bans on Myanmarese goods have been lifted.
The other half is spent working with the Myanmar Peace Centre, which he joined in 2012. He also uses the first name Andrew and splits his time between Myanmar and Indianapolis, home to his Myanmarese 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 1992-1993?” he recalled asking one top Myanmarese 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.”
—By arrangement with the Washington Post