Defection Could Show Reforms Unlikely

A high-profile defection may indicate that US engagement with Burma won’t bear fruit.

kyawwin-305.jpg Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win, July 1, 2011.

A top Burmese diplomat’s decision to defect and seek political asylum in the U.S. shows that the country’s new quasi-civilian government has no intention of enacting long-awaited reforms, according to an exile group.

Aung Din, executive director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a dissident group in Washington, said Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win’s announcement on Sunday should send a message to U.S. officials who have pushed for increased engagement with Naypyidaw.

“U.S. [officials] have visited Burma two times. Some of them thought that some elements within the new government are reform-minded. That’s why they are reluctant to take a stronger stance and put more pressure on the regime,” Aung Din said.

“Now, the defection of the second-highest standing official from the regime’s embassy in Washington made them understand that whatever they expected from the Burmese regime will never come true.”

Kyaw Win said in a July 4 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that after Burma held historic elections last November, he expected the government to begin a transition to democracy.

Instead, he said, nothing has changed and “the military continues to hold uncontested power.”

A stronger stance

Aung Din said the U.S. should heed Kyaw Win’s advice to take a stronger stance against the Burmese government, which has been accused of numerous human rights violations, including murder, torture, rape, forced labor, and the use of child soldiers.

Kyaw Win said in his letter that he now supports an international inquiry into those violations.

He also called for “highly targeted financial sanctions against the government and their cronies that serve to keep them in power.”

“Kyaw Win is a senior diplomat and he is also a foreign service official—he has been in the regime’s foreign ministry for over 30 years. He is a kind of insider. So the advice … should be considered by the U.S. government,” Aung Din said.

The United States and other Western governments have made freedom for Burmese political prisoners a key prerequisite for any easing of tough sanctions against Burma.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration abandoned a previous policy of diplomatically isolating Burma and has attempted to engage the government over the past 18 months, but has achieved little progress.

Career diplomat

Kyaw Win, 59, a career diplomat, served in Madrid, Geneva, New Delhi, Brasilia, and Washington.

But in his letter announcing his decision to defect, Kyaw Win said the army of Burma’s late national hero and father General Aung San, “has been corrupted” and has become “an oppressor of the people, not a defender of the people.”

Deputy Chief of Mission is the highest posting a non-military person can hold in Burmese embassies. Kyaw Win has held the position in Washington since 2008.

Kyaw Win said that his work reaching out to the diplomatic, governmental, and NGO communities in the U.S. capital may have made him a target of the regime he represents, adding that “my life and those of my family are in danger.”

Kyaw Win has asked for asylum for his wife and three children, who are already in the United States, but he also has family members in Burma.

Aung Din said it was likely that his family in Burma would face retribution from the government following Kyaw Win’s defection.

“If he still has family members in Burma, then they will be under [attack] by the regime and their business and their lives will be very much interrupted by the regime,” he said.

Official response

Aung Din said that the Burmese government, which has not made an official response to Kyaw Win’s announcement, would likely try to discredit him as a criminal in coming weeks.

“The regime will be very, very angry and they will make a phony announcement saying Kyaw Win was corrupted and, ‘We are planning to take action against him because he took bribes’ or because he misused the embassy’s funds,” he said.

“You will hear such accusations in the following detail, saying he committed crimes and making him responsible for many charges. This is what the regime uses to respond to those diplomats who have defected.”

But for now, Burmese officials seem not to have noticed that their second-highest ranking diplomat in Washington has decided to leave government service and relocate in the U.S.

A woman who answered the phone at the diplomatic section of Burma’s Foreign Ministry in the capital of Naypyidaw said officials were unaware of Kyaw Win’s decision to defect.

“We have no knowledge of this situation,” said the woman, who declined to provide her name, but answered the telephone of the department’s general director.

“My bosses are all very busy working on other things,” she said before declining to comment further.

Burmese officials at the embassy in Washington did not return calls for comment.

Seeking asylum

Kyaw Win is not the first high-ranking Burmese diplomat to defect from the country.

In March 2005, former Major Aung Lynn Htut resigned as deputy chief of mission at the Burmese embassy in Washington and requested political asylum in the U.S. for himself, his wife, a son, two daughters, and a sister.

At the time, he said that he feared for his life because of an ongoing purge of the associates of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was ousted in 2004 following a power struggle with more hard-line officials in the military junta.

But while Aung Lynn Htut was granted permission to reside in the U.S., Aung Din said that he was never given full asylum because of his suspected involvement in various rights abuses against the people of Burma as a member of the military.

He said Kyaw Win is much more likely to be granted asylum because of his civilian background.

“I think Kyaw Win will get asylum because he is not related to the military,” Aung Din said.

“In the asylum application, they ask a question about whether you are a member of the security forces or the military. Kyaw Win is not a member of the military,” he said.

“Kyaw Win is not a member of any organization which used violence against the people. I think he will be ok.”

A spokesperson at the U.S. State Department declined to speak on the subject.

“We don’t confirm, deny, or otherwise comment publicly on any sort of application for asylum,” the spokesperson said.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.


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