The number two diplomat at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, D.C. has defected and is now seeking political asylum in the United States.
Deputy Chief of Mission Kyaw Win, 59, told RFA he made the decision to leave the government because he saw little hope for Burma’s future and because he fears “my life and those of my family are in danger.”
Kyaw Win said 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.”
“Senior military officials are consolidating their grip on power and seeking to stamp out the voices of those seeking democracy,” he said, adding that war with the country’s ethnic groups is imminent.
Recent fighting between government troops and the ethnic Kachin army near the border with China has escalated, causing thousands of refugees to flee the conflict.
He also warned of threats made by the Burmese government against Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which he said “must be taken seriously.”
Suu Kyi, who turned 66 in June, recently announced plans for her first tour of Burma since 2003 when her visit to Depayin in the north was marred by what many believed was an assassination attempt against her by groups linked to the military junta.
Her motorcade was attacked by pro-junta thugs, resulting in the death of at least 70 of her supporters in what is known today as the Depayin massacre.
Burma’s state media warned Suu Kyi in a commentary last week that her tour could trigger riots.
Kyaw Win is a career diplomat who has worked for the Burmese Foreign Ministry for 31 years.
During that time he served in Madrid, Geneva, New Delhi, Brasilia, and Washington.
But now, he says, the army of Burma’s late national hero and father of Suu Kyi, General Aung San, “has been corrupted” and has become “an oppressor of the people, not a defender of the people.”
The Burmese government has been accused of numerous human rights violations, including murder, torture, rape, forced labor, and the use of child soldiers.
Kyaw Win says he now supports an international inquiry into those violations. He is also calling for “highly targeted financial sanctions against the government and their cronies that serve to keep them in power.”
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.
But he 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.
“My reports questioning the actions of the military and urging dialogue and reconciliation … resulted in my being deemed dangerous by the government,” he said, adding that he fears persecution should he return to Burma.
His message for Burma’s military is “not to fear democracy, but embrace it as the only way forward.”
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.
Several other Burmese diplomats defected from the country following a brutal crackdown on student-led protests opposing the rule of military dictator Ne Win in 1988.
In November of 2010, the Burmese government held its first elections in 20 years, but blocked Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, from participating and disbanded her opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
She was released by the ruling generals on Nov. 13 just after elections which were heavily criticized as a sham by the local opposition and Western nations.
The new quasi-civilian government, largely comprised of retired military officers, has not introduced any real reforms since then and is still holding some 2,200 political activists in prisons throughout the country.
Suu Kyi addressed U.S. lawmakers for the first time in June, asking them to help push for the release of Burma’s political prisoners and for a UN probe into human rights abuses in her country.
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.
Reported and translated by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.