Who Was Behind the Plan to Kill Myanmar’s UN Ambassador?

By The Irrawaddy 7 August 2021

News of two Myanmar citizens who have been arrested in the US for allegedly plotting to kill or injure Myanmar’s UN ambassador has spread like wildfire among Myanmar nationals at home and abroad.

“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,” US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement on Friday.

“We commend the tireless work of our law enforcement partners at all levels of government to ensure the safety of foreign diplomats and officials,” she said.

U Kyaw Moe Tun publicly opposed military rule in Myanmar during a UN meeting in February after the coup. Since then the regime has tried to replace the ambassador, but in vain so far, as the UN has not taken action at the junta’s request. Currently, he represents Myanmar’s National Unity Government formed by lawmakers from the ousted government and ethnic minority representatives. The ambassador recently filed a complaint to the UN Secretary-General against the regime over an alleged massacre in upper Myanmar.

Prior to the arrest of the two men, U Kyaw Moe Tun told Reuters that there was reportedly a threat against him and the police were working on it.

“Necessary security has been provided by the police,” he said earlier this week.

Then came the US Attorney’s statement on the arrest of the two Myanmar men on Friday.

According to the legal complaint, Phyo Hein Htut told FBI investigators that an arms dealer in Thailand had contacted him online and offered him money to hire attackers to hurt the ambassador and force him to step down.

According to prosecutors, Ye Hein Zaw transferred $4,000 to Phyo Hein Htut.

The US Department of Justice alleges that Phyo Hein Htut hired attackers and told Ye Hein Zaw in a recorded phone call that the attackers would require an additional $1,000 to “conduct the attack on the Ambassador in Westchester County, and for an additional payment the attackers could, in substance, ‘finish off’ the Ambassador.”  

If the ambassador did not step down, then the arms dealer proposed that the attackers would kill him, according to the complaint. Phyo Hein Htut and the arms dealer then agreed on a plan to tamper with the ambassador’s car to cause a crash.

A court filing states that Phyo Hein Htut “agreed in substance” with the Thai arms dealer on a plan for Phyo Hein Htut “to hire others to tamper with the tires on the Ambassador’s car to cause a crash while the Ambassador was inside.”

The military regime in Myanmar has asked Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun, who opposed the coup in his country, to leave the post and residence but he refused. Since then, Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun has become a well-known target for the regime.

Who is the arms dealer in Thailand?

The plot is interesting but poorly planned and there is an indication that the regime’s networks operating outside of Myanmar are involved.

Phyo Hein Htut seems to have contacts in the ambassador’s office and arms dealers in Thailand know him.

The complaint said Ye Hein Zaw admitted that he transferred the money to Phyo Hein Htut, and that he regularly sends money to others on behalf of the arms dealer and recently booked travel to the United States for two other people at the arms dealer’s request.

Who is the arms dealer in Thailand? Is he a Thai or Myanmar citizen? It is likely that he is a Myanmar citizen.

There are many prominent and shady Myanmar businessmen who are close to the regime who live and thrive in Bangkok.

They have opened up businesses and trading companies and bought residences and live in Bangkok. Some Myanmar businessmen in Bangkok have been more active since the coup as they support the military and have close ties with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, coup leader and now chairman of the State Administration Council (SAC).

They also have extensive networks along the border with Myanmar where goods, construction materials, liquor, automobiles and arms are exported to Myanmar.

Past assassination plots and conspiracies

There have been several mysterious disappears and killings of Myanmar and ethnic leaders and opposition members in exile.

Myanmar has seen state-sponsored assassinations of prominent politicians in the past. In May 2003, the junta organized thugs to ambush then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign convoy in Sagaing Region’s Depayin township.

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. Outraged to learn of the killings and planned attack, the UN, US and Myanmar’s neighbors expressed concern over the state-sponsored murders and condemned the regime.

In February 2008, a prominent Karen leader, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, a senior leader of the Karen National Union, was gunned down by two Karen men at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand.

It is widely believed that he was killed on the orders of the Myanmar military regime. Known as Padoh Mahn Sha, he was the Karen leader who was capable of uniting the country’s divided armed groups into a coherent political force.

In January 2017, U Ko Ni, legal adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was killed in broad daylight at Yangon International Airport.

A hired gunman and several former military officers were involved in the killing of the prominent lawyer and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

In 2019, hired gunman Kyi Lin, who shot U Ko Ni, and ex-lieutenant Aung Win Zaw, who accompanied Kyi Lin, were sentenced to death.

However, the alleged mastermind of the killing, former Lieutenant-Colonel Aung Win Khaing, remains at large after fleeing. With the coup in February, Aung Win Khaing is assumed to be safe.

The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) which was formed in exile across the Thai border in December 1990, suffered from disappearances and murders.

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 murdered in Bangkok under mysterious circumstances. U Win Ko, who was finance minister of the NCGUB, was found murdered in a hotel room in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. No one has claimed responsibility for the deaths.

Active network in Bangkok

When the previous regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was in power, the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok was active in monitoring the activities of Myanmar opposition figures in Bangkok and ethnic insurgents along the border.

In the past, military attachés and informants were active in gathering intelligence and engaged in several illegal activities. For instance, Colonel Thein Swe, an air force officer and intelligence officer posted in the 1990s, was known to have worked with Thai networks and thugs in Bangkok to disturb exiled activists and opposition offices in Thailand. Myanmar’s most feared spy chief Lt Gen Khin Nyunt later promoted him to brigadier general and assigned him to run the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece the Myanmar Times, established in 2000.

Nevertheless, the full extent of the military and the regime’s business and criminal networks in Bangkok is unknown.

Several well-known and shady business tycoons connected to the military from Myanmar have also bought luxury condos and residences in Bangkok to live, retire and work. On weekends, they frequently appear at Bangkok’s golf resorts where they play golf with Myanmar diplomats and officials.

Myanmar tycoon and arms dealer Tay Za also bought residences in Bangkok and Singapore. He recently appeared in the news as Myanmar regime leaders bought military hardware and jet fighters from Russia.

What’s next?

The story of the assassination plot in New York should be treated seriously. Many at home and abroad have seen military troops shoot and kill hundreds of demonstrators on the streets since the coup in February and the regime’s snipers have targeted many innocent young people. But beyond the killing fields in Myanmar it seems the regime is looking at its potential targets and enemies overseas.

Looking at the arrest of two Myanmar citizens in New York, what is really worrying is that Myanmar is following in the North Korean regime’s footsteps, engaging in political murders and assassination on foreign soil.

“These defendants reached across borders and oceans in designing a violent plot against an international leader on United States soil,” New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a statement.

The attorney’s office statement did not directly implicate the junta of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing that seized power from the civilian government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, and which is already facing a wave of international revulsion over the coup and the ensuing bloody crackdown. But Friday’s arrests are sure to fuel speculation about whether the military had a hand in the alleged plot against a senior diplomat.

In a statement posted on social media on Saturday morning, Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said he was “horrified” to learn about the plot.

“Who was behind this outrage and who will hold them accountable?”

Now Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun has been put under heightened security because of the threat against him.

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