As recently as two months ago, Kyaw Win was living in a comfortable single-family home on Wilson Lane in Bethesda, Md., a seven-seat Ford Windstar with diplomatic license plates at his disposal.
Now he inhabits a sparsely furnished, two-bedroom apartment in Gaithersburg, Md., and tools around in a Toyota Corolla.
The apartment, which belongs to a friend, is only temporary, he says, while the 59-year-old Kyaw Win and his immediate family anxiously wait for the State Department to approve their request for political asylum.
He’ll need it. Going back to Burma isn’t exactly the best option, now that Kyaw Win — until recently the country’s second-highest ranking official in the United States — has embarrassed and infuriated the military regime by defecting as a way of protesting its abysmal democracy and human rights record.
“I wanted to send a message to my own government that we need to have a change,” Kyaw Win told The Washington Diplomat in an exclusive interview late one evening as his wife, Khin Win, served tea in traditional ceramic cups. “If we keep going like this, our country will collapse. All our institutions are broken.”
Kyaw Win’s comments to us mark the first time he’s spoken face to face with any journalist since sending a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing his defection and asking the United States to protect him from the regime he faithfully served for 31 years — the last three and a half in Washington as deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Myanmar. (The regime changed the country’s name in 1989, but exiles and government opponents — along with many newspapers, including this one — still use Burma.)
In the July 4 letter, Kyaw Win noted the dictatorship’s systematic abuse of the Southeast Asian country’s 52 million inhabitants. He told Clinton that for years, he kept thinking the situation would improve and that gradual reform should come from the inside. But after last November’s election — intended to show the world that the military junta was transitioning to civilian rule but dismissed by most observers as a sham — the diplomat decided he could no longer work for the bosses he had slowly come to despise.
“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,” his letter said. “Oppression is rising and war against our ethnic cousins is imminent.”
Nine days later, the embassy’s number-four diplomat, first secretary Soe Aung, also quit and applied for asylum — after being warned that he had 24 hours to return to Burma and face an inquiry over Kyaw Win’s defection. Soe Aung later told Voice of America’s Burmese service that two other diplomats had already been called back to Burma and placed under investigation (also see “Summer of Defections for Burma” in the August 2011 online edition of the Diplomatic Pouch).
But Kyaw Win insists the only person he confided in about his defection was his wife. Neither man — both civilian members of the Foreign Service — knew about the other’s plan to defect, even though they’ve been friends for more than 30 years. Nor, says Kyaw Win, did anyone else at the 14-person embassy know.
“I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want them to get in trouble,” he said. “What I’m doing is from my beliefs. After I get political asylum, I’ll need to have a job, but I can’t take responsibility for these other people.”
Kyaw Win is seeking asylum for himself, his wife and their two sons: Arkar, 28, an employee of Montgomery College, and Moewai, 24, a recent university graduate. The couple’s daughter, 31-year-old Zarche, lives in New York and has a green card.
The career diplomat said the decision to defect came just as his tour of duty in the United States was coming to a close and he was due to return home. The week before his scheduled flight back to Rangoon, Kyaw Win quietly began moving his personal effects out of the embassy and into his friend’s apartment, careful not to attract attention from his coworkers. Then he made his announcement.
“For a long time, we were expecting changes in my country. I joined the Foreign Service in 1980, and at that time we had a one-party system. We hoped for change, but it didn’t happen. In 1988, there was an uprising, and we hoped for change then too. We always believed it would come soon. But after the first multiparty elections in 1990, [the military] never transferred power to the civilians,” he said. “My whole life has been just wasted.”
Kyaw Win and his wife have been married for 34 years. Both of them have family members back in Shan state, the region of Burma where they were born and raised; in Kyaw Win’s case, he has to think about his mother, three sisters and a younger brother.
“If we talk too much, they can do something to them. Nobody knows,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s very difficult to harm them physically, but there are so many ways. My sisters are in private business, and it’s not like here. We don’t have any rule of law.”
The former diplomat added: “After we get asylum, we will move to another place, but we’ll stay in Maryland — probably Gaithersburg or Germantown.”
Many of his neighbors in the low-income apartment complex Kyaw Win calls his “temporary home” are also foreigners — mostly immigrants from El Salvador. Surprisingly, the once-powerful diplomat has no trouble at all communicating with them, thanks to the three years he spent in Madrid back in the 1980s.
“In the Foreign Ministry, nobody spoke Spanish,” he explained, “so somebody thought we should have at least one diplomat who did.”
In the end, Kyaw Win’s bosses never did send him to a Spanish-speaking country. But those language skills proved somewhat useful when the ministry eventually assigned him to Portuguese-speaking Brazil as Burma’s only ambassador in South America. He and his wife ended up spending three years and eight months in Brasília, the capital.
By coincidence, the only other high-ranking U.S.-based diplomat to defect this year, Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali, also served as his country’s envoy to Brazil. Aujali applied for political asylum after he publicly denounced Col. Muammar Qaddafi but has since been recognized by the State Department as Libya’s sole representative in Washington, where he’s now actively helping rebels overthrow the regime he once worked for.
Besides Brazil, Kyaw Win’s diplomatic career has also taken him to Switzerland, where he represented Burma before the United Nations in Geneva, and to India, where he was in charge of the consular section at Burma’s embassy in New Delhi.
But it was here in Washington where, as deputy chief of mission, he came to realize that the military junta running Burma since 1962 was unlikely to ever change — and that it was time to do something dramatic. Things took a turn for the worse on Aug. 8, 1988 — a date commonly known as 8-8-88 — when police fired on Burmese university students, monks and other civilians taking part in a massive yet peaceful anti-government demonstration. More than 3,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence.
“Before 1988, we used to have an ambassador here and the U.S. had an ambassador there. But after the events of 1988, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador in Rangoon, and since then, you have only a chargé d’affaires,” Kyaw Win explained. “We had an ambassador in Washington until 2004, but when we proposed to replace him, the U.S. didn’t accept his replacement because of his military background.”
If this whole affair sounds like déjà vu, there’s a good reason.
Burma’s last full-fledged ambassador here was Linn Myaing — profiled by The Diplomat in a September 2002 cover story. These days, he’s said to be leading Burma’s efforts to re-engage with Washington with help from high-powered K Street lobbyists, according to the Irrawaddy, an online newspaper covering Burma and Southeast Asia.
Aung Lin Htut, the man who replaced Linn Myaing, defected in April 2005 after only three months as deputy chief of mission. In his letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Aung Lin Htut described present-day Myanmar as a “tyranny” and said he and his family “face arrest and possible death” if they were to return to Burma. He requested political asylum for himself, his wife, a son, two daughters and a sister but was denied because of his military background; nevertheless, Aung Lin Htut was quietly allowed to stay.
In Washington, DCM is the highest posting a non-military official can hold in Burmese embassies. Like Aung Lin Htut, Kyaw Win also feared for his family’s safety, especially given his reports back home recommending that the regime improve bilateral relations with the U.S. and his overtures to pro-democracy activists. As the embassy’s number-two man, he became the public face of the regime here, frequently meeting with exiles and often coming out to speak with them during protests.
“When people in the opposition used to demonstrate at the embassy, I talked to them. My view is that we might have different opinions, but all of us want to have a better country,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly what the situation is. We don’t have a free press, and we’re not used to talking officially about this kind of thing.”
Part of Kyaw Win’s job was to monitor U.S. print and broadcast outlets for news items pertinent to Burma, then make reports about them. “I would tell them what we needed to do if we wanted to have good relations, but the thing is, they didn’t want to listen. In our system, the government is run by fear. If you do what you’re told, you will be rewarded. My colleagues used to say, ‘Just enjoy Washington. Don’t do anything.'”
Indeed, the Burmese Embassy wasn’t exactly the most media-savvy operation in town.
“We never talked with reporters,” Kyaw Win admitted. “I came here in March 2008, and then in May we had the constitutional referendum. There were so many phone calls from the media and NGOs, but we were on our own. They never told us anything. Nobody knew which line to walk.”
Sein Win, chairman of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), says he’s not really surprised by Kyaw Win’s decision to defect.
“In Burma, nobody is secure. There is no rule of law,” said the exiled activist, speaking to The Diplomat from NCGUB’s headquarters in suburban Rockville, Md. “The defections show that something is not in order. This man was a high official, and now that he is free from his duty at the embassy, he should say what he feels about the regime, and especially what he experienced as a government employee. We welcome anyone from the embassy who defects and who wants to be on the side of the people.”
The NCGUB was formed after Burma’s military regime refused to allow elected representatives of the National League for Democracy to take power following the 1990 elections, which the NLD won with 80 percent of the vote. The party’s general-secretary, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest. In mid-August, the democracy icon traveled outside her home city for the first time since being released from house arrest last November (just after the elections) and was greeted by thousands of supporters.
Several closed-door meetings between Suu Kyi and top Burmese government ministers — including President Thein Sein — have sparked optimism that a rapprochement is under way between the regime that runs Burma and the NLD, which was officially dissolved last year for failing to register under the election laws. The new government has been open to meeting with dissidents and introduced some economic reforms. A much bigger step would be the release of at least some of the 2,000 political prisoners now languishing behind bars.
Burmese exiles hope the government will finally acknowledge the legal existence of the NLD, with 66-year-old Suu Kyi — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 — at the helm.
“Actually, she is the only leader who has public support, and the people trust only her. She’s an idol,” said Kyaw Win. “But to lead the country is something else. All the institutions are broken down. To build up the country and democracy, we need to build up the institutions.”
Sein Win, a first cousin of Suu Kyi, said the recent defections will have some effect on the regime, “but the question is how much.” He suggested that in the future, “they will be very careful about sending to Washington people whom they don’t really trust.”
One example of the paranoia that pervades Burma’s rulers, according to Kyaw Win, is the secrecy with which the country’s capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), was suddenly transferred 400 kilometers north to the remote, brand-new city of Naypyidaw in 2005.
“It’s a very funny story,” he recalled. “I remember that it was 7 p.m. Friday in Rangoon, and we were working overtime. They told us we had to move by Sunday. The instructions were that we had to move fast. We had only one-day advance notice. On Saturday, we went to the office to pick up all the furniture and files and carry them to military vehicles.”
On Sunday morning at precisely 6:37 — a time recommended by astrologists — the regime officially began moving a convoy of army trucks to Naypyidaw, which at that point was an empty tract of land in the wilderness.
“We had to do it ourselves, but when we arrived in Naypyidaw, there was nothing there,” he said. “We ended up staying there two months, and during the demonstrations, they didn’t allow us to go to Rangoon because they didn’t want us to see the protests.”
Today, Naypyidaw is a modern city of 925,000 with shopping malls, wide pedestrian boulevards and elegant pagodas. It has identical ministry buildings and four-story apartment blocks for government workers and mansions for high-level officials. It’s the only place in Burma with drinkable tap water and electricity 24 hours a day. There’s even a zoo stocked with bears, rhinos, monkeys and elephants trucked in from Rangoon.
It’s a privileged environment that the majority of the country’s citizens will never set eyes on. Kyaw Win said he can’t explain why Southeast Asia’s poorest country — which can’t even afford to feed its own people — decided to lavish so much money on a new capital in the middle of nowhere. “Nobody knew the real reasons. We were never told why,” he said. “You learn that if they don’t want to tell, you don’t ask. Even here.”
Kyaw Win laments the fact that at the end of World War II, Burma enjoyed the highest per-capita income and literacy rate of any country in Southeast Asia; in fact, it was among the most prosperous nations in all of Asia. But things started declining in the 1970s and have only gotten worse. Today, Burma ranks 135th on the U.N. Human Development Index, right behind Cameroon and just ahead of Yemen.
“That’s why we feel so bad,” he said. “But we can’t change the regime. Even if we could, there would be a vacuum. Regime change isn’t practical, because most people are not educated and not intellectual. One exile activist told me they used to go to some villages in poorer areas and try to persuade the people, and an old lady told him, ‘If you want to liberate the country, liberate yourself. Don’t come to us.'”
To that end, Kyaw Win isn’t too optimistic that the uprisings now sweeping the Arab world — fueled by social networks like Facebook and Twitter — will inspire pro-democracy activists in Burma to do likewise. “We have Internet, but there’s so much censorship,” he said. “Even in Rangoon, no more than 10 percent of the people have Internet access. When you download something, it takes hours, even in the Foreign Ministry.”
Burma exposes an even more basic dilemma when dealing with dictatorships — whether to isolate or engage them, in order to help the masses below. Kyaw Win and the folks at NCGUB disagree on the question of how to punish those in charge, a reflection of the longstanding divide over the effectiveness of sanctions.
After years of a Western-imposed economic embargo — which has largely forced Burma to rely on neighboring China — the Obama administration began tentatively engaging Burma’s leaders while maintaining pressure on them. Critics of this carrot-stick approach to diplomacy argue that dialogue has failed to nudge the military from power while legitimizing the regime, while others point out that decades of sanctions haven’t worked either. For his part, Kyaw Win says the top echelons of power should still be targeted, but the rest of the country shouldn’t suffer from economic isolation.
“Broad sanctions [against Burma] are not good,” he argues. “We don’t get any aid from the IMF or World Bank, but we need to have cooperation and aid. You need to do targeted financial sanctions against the top leaders and cronies who make so much money illegitimately. I don’t want them to be allowed to enjoy that money abroad.”
Columnist Shaun Rein echoes that sentiment in a November 2010 article in Forbes magazine, saying that Suu Kyi and her fellow activists should press for greater economic engagement with the West and encourage reform within the system by working with the junta.
“Economic sanctions do not cause the downfall of unsavory regimes. They only further impoverish ordinary people who live in terror and hardship,” writes Rein, calling himself an admirer of Suu Kyi. “In fact, sanctions bolster regimes, as they concentrate power more tightly among elite families, who become more insecure and heavy-handed in their attempts to annihilate opposition as they grow to fear for their lives. They starve common people while doling out benefits to a select few thugs. Implementing economic sanctions is a naïve strategy at best. It is a basic tenet of American diplomacy that Suu Kyi should shelve.”
Suu Kyi may in fact be adopting that approach, reaching out to Burma’s rulers, who have so far been responsive. If some kind of reconciliation does occur, it could pave the way for a loosening of Western sanctions. Or it could all be an empty gesture by the entrenched military elite to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
Either way, Kyaw Win believes the democracy movement in Burma “cannot be crushed,” as he wrote in his letter to Clinton. “It is alive and well and at some point will prevail.”
But at what point remains an open question. In the meantime, he isn’t encouraging other Burmese officials to follow his example.
“When you defect, you need to have contacts. You need to believe in yourself and know how to survive here,” he said. “For me, it’s OK. I have a daughter who’s already married, and I have two grown kids. I can survive. But to start a life in Washington from scratch is very difficult.”
About the Authors
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.