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FBI arrests two Myanmar nationals for conspiring to attack ambassador

File photo of a Myanmar army soldier (Photo: IANS)

The US has arrested two Myanmar citizens on charges that they were conspiring to attack Myanmar's ambassador to the United Nations. U Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar's permanent ambassador to the UN, has publicly opposed the military rule.

In a statement, US Attorney Audrey Strauss said: "Phyo Hein Htut, 28, and Ye Hein Zaw, 20, plotted to seriously injure or kill Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations in a planned attack on a foreign official that was to take place on American soil”, adding: "we commend the tireless work of our law enforcement partners at all levels of government to ensure the safety of foreign diplomats and officials”.

The information is going to severely embarrass the military junta for not just trying to commit a serious crime on foreign soil but also for the notorious links that have emerged from the US investigations.

Documents submitted by the attorney before a federal court say that a Thailand arms dealer who sells weapons to the Myanmar military allegedly hired the pair to injure the ambassador to try to force him to step down. The papers say that if the ambassador was still adamant about continuing with work, he was to be killed.

The ambassador had publicly opposed the coup during a UN meeting in February. Though the military regime tried to recall and replace the ambassador, it failed to do so as the UN did not act on the junta’s request. The diplomat furthered angered the authorities by recently filing a complaint to the UNSC against the military regime over an alleged massacre in upper Myanmar.

Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, posted on social media that he was “horrified” to learn about the plot.

Irrawaddy reports that one of the conspirators Phyo Hein Htut told the FBI that an arms dealer in Thailand offered him money to hire attackers to hurt the ambassador and force him to step down. Ye Hein Zaw then transferred $4,000 after which Phyo Hein Htut hired attackers and sought another $1,000 more. Separately, he added that the hired attackers could, ‘finish off’ the ambassador for more money.

The also discussed various ways to harm or kill the ambassador—tampering with the ambassador’s car to cause a crash.

Irrawaddy says that the arms dealer operating from Thailand is likely to be a Myanmar citizen as "there are many prominent and shady Myanmar businessmen who are close to the regime who live and thrive in Bangkok". It adds that some of them have become more active since the coup as they have close ties with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, coup leader. 

The Myanmarese businessmen have extensive networks on the Thailand-Myanmar border where goods, construction materials, liquor, automobiles and arms are exported to Myanmar. The junta has been looking around for weapons from friendly countries also.

The Irrawaddy investigation points out to disappears and killings of Myanmar's ethnic leaders and opposition members. With its long army rule, the country has a record of political assassinations and State-sponsored murders.

One of the most daring ones was to ambush opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign convoy in Sagaing in May 2003. "The plot was approved by the highest command in the regime, and involved regional commanders, police officers and prominent members of the regime’s mass association known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Thousands of people were brought to a remote rural location in Myanmar and the attackers were all well-armed and located strategically at two killing sites. Several people were killed. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and some politicians escaped from the mayhem but subsequently were detained by the regime".

There have been a series of disappearances and high-level murders of leaders opposed to the military in both Myanmar and Thailand.

Another striking example cited by Irrawaddy is that of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) which was formed in exile across the Thai border in December 1990. Two of its ministers, U Win Ko and U Hla Pe, disappeared separately in 1992 and were found murdered the next year–U Hla Pe was found dead in Bangkok while U Win Ko was found murdered in a hotel room in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China.

The investigation shows that the Myanmarese military government in its earlier avatar had been active in gathering intelligence on the porous borders. Working along with criminal networks, military officials and spies were also keeping an eye on Myanmar's opposition leaders living in Thailand. This nexus of spies, military officials, businessmen and Myanmarese diplomats networked with each other in Thai capital Bangkok's posh places, according to the Irrawaddy, which adds that not all these links are easily explained.

The unearthing of the plot in the US will have repercussions for Myanmar. It also shows the reach that the military has and the desperation with which it wants its opponents silenced.