Kyaw Win was 22 years old when he first glimpsed the world outside Burma. It was 1975, and he’d traveled to his country’s eastern border, where short bridges cross a river from the Burmese town of Tachilek to Mae Sai in Thailand. “The bridges, I quite remember, are not more than 100 or 200 feet, but life there was totally different,” Kyaw Win recalls.
On the Thai side, you could dial phones directly, televisions were common and bus travel was easy. None of this was true in Burma (also known as Myanmar).
These memories — never far from Kyaw Win’s mind — helped inform his decision at the beginning of July to resign his diplomatic post in Burma’s embassy in Washington after spending 31 years serving a government he now says he cannot tolerate. He sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying that his conscience would no longer allow him to work for the government of Burma.
“It has always been my hope that democratic reform could finally be realized in my country,” he wrote in the letter. “The truth is that . . . the military continues to hold uncontested power and democratic change under this system will not happen in the foreseeable future.” A few days after sending the letter, he applied to the United States for asylum. He has been living in a friend’s apartment in Gaithersburg since then.
A week and a half ago, when the White House announced that Clinton will visit Burma on Thursday — the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years — Kyaw Win’s reaction was mixed. “It’s a good thing,” he says with no hesitation. But are recent events in the country a sign of real reform? We’ll know in another year, he says.
Kyaw Win is one of a small group of foreign diplomats who have sought asylum here — the phenomenon was more common during the Soviet era. A recent case with some striking parallels is that of Aung Lynn Htut. Six years ago, he held the same post at the same embassy; he resigned and sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice detailing why he feared returning to Burma. His request for asylum was denied but deportation was deferred. He’s been living in a District suburb since, publishing periodic screeds against the Burmese government he used to serve, part of a small Washington subculture of disaffected former foreign diplomats.
Kyaw Win looks back on his career in the service of one of the world’s most repressive and inscrutable regimes as a time of quiet revolts and fleeting hope. He laughs ruefully when he thinks about its beginnings at the Public Service Training School outside Rangoon, where his preparation seemed more appropriate for a career in the military than diplomacy. He and his class of trainees spent their days drilling in identical blue uniforms (blue, he quips, because that’s what the Burmese imagined the proletariat wearing) and memorizing arcane regulations. “Later on, we realized they just taught us how to obey the orders,” he says. “No complaints, no questions; just follow orders.” This type of thinking would surround Kyaw Win for the next three decades.
His first job with the ministry was on the Latin America desk. He was sent to Madrid for two years to learn Spanish — a language no one on the Latin America desk spoke. Shortly after, Kyaw Win was posted to Geneva.
It was from there that he watched the popular uprisings that swept Burma in 1988. The government cracked down, then promised to hold open elections — one of many moments when Kyaw Win believed Burma was changing for the better. One U.N. staffer in Geneva told Kyaw Win, “After the election, your country will be good.”
The optimism was for naught. The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, easily won the 1990 elections. The government ignored the results. “After the election, when the power was not transferred, nobody would talk to us. We were just like outcasts,” Kyaw Win recalls.
These events also began a shift within the Foreign Ministry. Animated by new distrust for civilians, Burma’s government started filling the ministry’s ranks with military personnel. With them came a new level of subservience to Burma’s leaders.
Kyaw Win ran up against this new brand of military official after being assigned to the embassy in Brasilia in 2002. Burma’s ambassador to Brazil, who was a military officer and has since become the mayor of Rangoon, told him “that in the military, they only have two versions: friend or enemy, that’s all,” Kyaw Win says. “I told him in our diplomatic circles we are in gray areas. Everybody is not an enemy, everybody is not a friend. We need to talk; we need to exchange ideas.”
Kyaw Win got a reputation for being willing to talk to dissidents, government critics, nonprofits and think tanks. As this reputation became known back home, he says, his career stalled. “The big problem with me was I could not keep my mouth shut,” he says with a laugh.
In March 2008, he brought his willingness to engage to his job at the Burmese Embassy in Washington. “He [was] basically the guy at the embassy that one talks to,” says one Burma expert who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of doing research on the country. And Kyaw Win quickly found himself with a lot of people to talk to.
In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed nearly 150,000 people in Burma. Among many rushing to Burma’s embassy in Washington were aid groups trying to get into the country. Kyaw Win’s orders were to avoid giving visas to aid groups, even those aiming to provide humanitarian aid. Groups with strictly medical objectives were sometimes allowed visas, though, so Kyaw Win began recommending that any nonprofit plan, on arriving in Rangoon with a few boxes of medicine, hand them over at the airport and go about their business.
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Apparently more troubling to his superiors was his willingness to meet with exiled dissidents and members of opposition political parties in the Washington area. He regularly attended services with them at the Mingalarama Buddhist monastery in Silver Spring.
“He is unusually friendly to the community,” Tin Thaw, the monastery’s vice president, says, contrasting Kyaw Win with other embassy officials he’d met in his 30 years in the area. “He was a little outspoken and very frank.”
Ministry colleagues told Kyaw Win that his meetings with dissidents were raising hackles in Burma. When he received notice in May that he was to return to Burma in 45 days, he knew he had a decision to make.
If he went back to Burma with his wife and two sons, he’d have one more year until he turned 60 and would be forced to retire. He would face a life hemmed in by official displeasure: a meager pension, few job prospects and the likelihood of losing his passport and with it his ability to visit his daughter, who lives in New York. More forceful reprisals were also a possibility.
On July 3, the eve of his scheduled return to Burma, he e-mailed his letter to the State Department and faxed his resignation to Burma’s embassy.
A week after that, he applied for asylum for himself, his wife and two sons. A few weeks later, another diplomat at the embassy resigned and applied for asylum after being ordered to return to Burma, apparently to be questioned about Kyaw Win’s resignation.
The Burmese Embassy didn’t respond to phone calls or e-mails about Kyaw Win’s case. The State Department won’t comment aside from acknowledging that it received Kyaw Win’s letter to Clinton.
At the end of October, Kyaw Win learned that his application for asylum had been accepted. Now begins the work of figuring out what’s next.
But this latest chapter in Kyaw Win’s story has unfolded in the midst of increasing diplomatic engagement between the United States and Burma. Mike Green, a former National Security Council director under George W. Bush who was nominated to be the State Department’s special envoy to Burma but never confirmed, says Kyaw Win’s case “could put a chill on the discussions, because the harder-line elements in Naypyidaw [Burma’s new administrative capital] don’t trust their diplomats or military officials to talk to the Americans.”
Wallace is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.