On August 3, Myanmar’s UN representative received an alarming tip-off from one of his New York-based countrymen, who has been acting as a volunteer bodyguard: there was a plot against his life.
“I received information that someone was being paid to injure or kill me,” Kyaw Moe Tun, who denounced his country’s junta after it carried out a coup in February, told the Financial Times in a video interview.
The 52-year-old diplomat alerted the US mission to the UN and the FBI. Within three days, US authorities had arrested Phyo Hein Htut and Ye Hein Zaw, two Myanmar citizens and charged them with conspiracy to attack a foreign official.
The FBI claim the men were working with two unnamed co-conspirators, one in Thailand and one in the US, to hire and pay hitmen to attack Kyaw Moe Tun to force him to resign. The assassins were to “finish him off” if he resisted.
According to Phyo Hein Htut’s indictment, the Thailand-based co-conspirator, an arms dealer, also agreed on a plan “to tamper with the tyres on the ambassador’s car to cause a crash while the ambassador was inside”.
But Kyaw Moe Tun is already back at work at Myanmar’s permanent mission to the UN on Manhattan’s East Side, under constant armed guard.
“I smile a lot, but I am crying inside a lot,” he said, wearing a dark suit and seated in his office between the Myanmar and UN flags, when asked to describe his state of mind.
The failed hit job drew comparisons to North Korean plots to kill political exiles. It might have been a passing curiosity were it not for the fact that Myanmar’s UN envoy, and his country’s place in the world, will soon be back in the news.
When the UN General Assembly opens a new session next month, it will begin deliberating whether Kyaw Moe Tun can continue acting as Myanmar’s representative or be replaced by a nominee of Min Aung Hlaing’s junta, which would force him to vacate his Manhattan office and Westchester country home.
More than the trappings of the diplomatic posting, at stake is the question of who represents Myanmar at a time when its economy is collapsing, Covid-19 deaths are forcing crematoria to work overtime and the anti-coup resistance movement is pleading with the world to stand united against the military regime.
A parallel National Unity Government, which was formed after the coup by allies of toppled leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to which Kyaw Moe Tun has pledged loyalty, is also seeking international recognition.
“There is contested power at the moment, with the military junta on the one hand and the NUG on the other,” said Damian Lilly, director of protection with the Myanmar Accountability Project, a civil society group. It has called on the UN to continue accrediting Kyaw Moe Tun.
“Who becomes their representative to the UN will send an important signal to the people of Myanmar of who should be considered the legitimate regime.”
Kyaw Moe Tun was little known outside diplomatic circles before his speech to the General Assembly on February 26. A career diplomat, he rose through the service during the years of dictatorship in the country.
As Myanmar’s representative to UN organisations in Geneva until last year, he figured marginally in news reports on the Rohingya crisis, acting as a mouthpiece for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s widely condemned equivocations about the crackdown.
His primetime moment in the international arena came three weeks after the coup, when he asked to take the floor during a General Assembly session on Myanmar at which UN special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener was speaking. When he showed her his speech before the session, he said, she had “tears in her eyes”.
With his voice quavering, Kyaw Moe Tun called for the “strongest possible action from the international community to end the military coup”. Then he raised three fingers, the anti-junta movement’s salute, to applause.
“It was a very difficult and huge personal decision that I made,” he said.
Within a day, the regime had sacked him, invalidated his passport and charged him with high treason.
The junta controlled foreign ministry has denied any role in the alleged plot against Kyaw Moe Tun’s life, saying Myanmar had “nothing to do with this incident”. It did, however, call again for him to be extradited to face charges at home.
Kyaw Moe Tun is one of about 30 Myanmar diplomats around the world who have broken with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime and continue to discharge their duties, including in Washington, Los Angeles, Berlin, Tokyo and Tel Aviv.
The decision of who represents Myanmar at the General Assembly lies with the body’s credentials committee, which has the power to recommend the acceptance or rejection of a diplomat’s accreditation.
Ahead of September’s session, the anti-coup camp has cited precedents when the UN committee rejected an envoy from an illegitimate government, including apartheid-era South Africa in 1970, or recognised one put forward by a government overthrown in a coup, as with Sierra Leone in 1997. The junta has appointed its own envoy, Aung Thurein, a former military officer.
The US, which has condemned Myanmar’s coup, and China and Russia, which have not, hold automatic seats on the credentials committee, with other member states putting forward another six.
Lilly said that instead of accepting one of the competing representatives’ credentials, the committee might defer a decision — which would allow Kyaw Moe Tun to remain in his job — or accept neither, and leave Myanmar’s seat empty.
Kyaw Moe Tun said he has had “very encouraging” private conversations with diplomats from western countries, Latin America and Africa. However, he added: “We always hope for the best, but at the same time we also need to prepare for the worst.”
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