The second-ranking diplomat at the Burmese Embassy in Washington has decided to defect and is seeking asylum in the United States.
Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win, 59, confirmed Monday that he is leaving his post to protest what he says are his government’s human rights violations and sham elections, and because he is afraid for his and his family’s lives.
Kyaw Win, who declined a phone interview, sent a letter Monday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in which he laid out his reasons for defecting, talked about his experiences as one of Burma’s top diplomats and sided with international human rights groups who have accused Burmese military leaders for years of abusing their countrymen. The letter was obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed as authentic by Kyaw Win.
In the letter, Kyaw Win said that throughout his 31-year career in the Foreign Ministry of Burma, also known as Myanmar, he had held out hope for democratic reforms. But after watching the widely criticized elections last year, which largely left the military junta in control, Kyaw Win said he lost confidence and could not in good conscience continue working for the government.
“The truth is that senior military officials are consolidating their grip on power and seeking to stamp out the voices of those seeking democracy, human rights and individual liberties,” he wrote in his letter. “Oppression is rising and war against our ethnic cousins is imminent and at present.”
Kyaw Win previously served as a Burmese diplomat in Geneva, New Delhi and Brasilia before arriving in Washington in 2008. As deputy chief, he was second at the embassy only to the military counselor in charge. Because of strained diplomatic ties, the Burmese Embassy does not have an ambassador stationed in Washington.
Burmese officials at the embassy did not immediately return calls for comment.
As a high-ranking Burmese official, Kyaw Win maintained surprisingly good relations with his government’s opponents, the pro-democracy Burmese activists in Washington.
“Many Burmese people here know him well,” said Aung Din, a former Burmese political prisoner and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “He often reached out to the activists. Even when people were protesting outside the embassy, he came out to listen and told them, ‘I will bring his points and requests to my government.’ ”
In his letter, Kyaw Win talked about the delicate line he walked daily in reaching out to the opposition while also being held accountable by his bosses back in Burma.
“My efforts of reaching out to groups and individuals here, and my reports suggesting of actions to improve bilateral relation between Myanmar and the U.S. have been continually rejected and resulted in my being deemed dangerous by the government,” he said. “Because of this, I am also convinced and live in fear that I will be prosecuted for my actions, efforts and beliefs when I return to Naypyidaw after completing my tour of duty here.”
Kyaw Win’s move comes at a sensitive time for the Burmese government. This weekend, according to news reports, Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi traveled outside Rangoon for the first time since her release from house arrest last year.
As Burma’s most outspoken and internationally recognized pro-democracy figure, Suu Kyi had spent much of the past two decades under arrest by the government. When she announced her plans to travel this week, the government warned that the trip would result in chaos and that her safety couldn’t be guaranteed, a statement some interpreted as a veiled threat.
On her last trip outside Rangoon in 2003, her convoy was ambushed by thugs who were later linked to the then-ruling generals.
In his letter to the State Department, Kyaw Win also made note of Suu Kyi’s travel, saying the current threats against her life “must be taken seriously.”
Burma is facing increasing pressure to open itself up to inspections as called for in a recently passed U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution.
Last month, in Suu Kyi’s first appearance before Congress via a video recording, she urged U.S. officials to support a commission of inquiry by the United Nations to look into the country’s alleged human rights abuses.
In his letter, Kyaw Win also called for U.S. action on the commission, as well as targeted financial sanctions against the Burmese government and its officials, which he said would thrust additional international pressure on Burma’s rulers.
“As the American people celebrate their Independence Day, we will one day soon celebrate ours,” he said. “The democracy movement in my country cannot be crushed. It is alive and well and at some point will prevail.”
In 2005, the deputy chief of mission also requested asylum from the State Department, writing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that if he returned home, he would “certainly be arrested, possibly tortured and possibly even killed.” Information about the outcome of that case was not available Monday.