The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two arrested in alleged plot to kill or oust U.N. ambassador from Myanmar

Myanmar’s U.N. envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, addresses the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva in 2019. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Two men have been charged with conspiring to injure or kill Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had denounced the military coup carried out in his country earlier this year and expressed support for a pro-democracy movement.

Myanmar citizens Phyo Hein Htut, 28, and Ye Hein Zaw, 20, were arrested Thursday afternoon and charged in New York with conspiracy to assault and make a violent attack upon a foreign official, a charge that carries up to five years in prison.

Their alleged scheme involved tampering with the foreign diplomat’s car tires so the vehicle would crash and was allegedly an effort to force the ambassador to resign or be killed, according to an account from an alleged participant cited in court papers filed in federal court in White Plains.

While the Justice Department did not name the special envoy in court filings, that post is held by Kyaw Moe Tun, whose public denunciation of the coup helped fuel a protest movement opposed to the junta.

Myanmar’s military leaders responded to Tun’s speech by trying to oust him from his post in New York and charging him with treason. But he continued to be recognized at the United Nations and cast a vote on behalf of his country in June in favor of a resolution condemning the military takeover.

After the vote, Tun reemphasized his desire for the United Nations and the international community to take the “strongest and most decisive action against the military” that had seized power from his country’s elected civilian government.

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Tun said earlier this week that the United States had increased his security because of a threat against him, according to a Reuters report, which also detailed how Tun has been painted as a traitor on state television in Myanmar.

In the charges announced Friday, prosecutors did not accuse Myanmar’s military leadership of involvement in the plot. But the scheme described in court papers involved a Thai weapons dealer who sold arms to the military, whose rule in Myanmar the United States has not recognized.

Htut allegedly accepted $4,000 in two payments from the unnamed arms dealer in July, using the money transfer app Zelle, for his role in the planned attack. Court papers say he was supposed to hire someone to potentially kill Tun and was set to receive another $1,000 after completing his part of the mission.

“Hi bro I just zelled you 2000 again,” the dealer allegedly wrote to Htut in a July 23 text message, confirming the second installment.

Htut and Zaw agreed to be detained on Friday at his first appearance in court in front of a federal magistrate judge in Westchester County, where the ambassador resides. They may argue for release on bond at a later date.

Lawyers for the suspects did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for the United Nations could not be reached.

Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur focused on human rights in Myanmar, responded to the arrests on Twitter. “I’m horrified by news that a supplier of weapons to the Myanmar military allegedly paid two Myanmar nationals to harm or kill UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun,” he wrote. “Who was behind this outrage and who will hold them accountable?”

The military seized power in Myanmar on Feb. 1, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi — the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had been reelected as her country’s leader in a landslide victory in November — as well as her top ministers and advisers. It was Myanmar’s second democratic election since the country’s fragile transition from military rule to democracy.

Millions took to the streets to protest the coup, and the military government has responded by detaining thousands and killing more than 800, ­according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Suu Kyi, 75, is facing corruption and other charges and has been held incommunicado.