News / Asia

Burmese Diplomat Defects, Cites Fears for Safety

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For the second time in less than two weeks, a senior Burmese diplomat has defected.  He says he feared for his safety after being recalled to Burma.

Soe Aung, the Burmese embassy’s first secretary in Washington, sent a letter to the U.S. State Department on Wednesday declaring that he wanted to defect. He later told VOA’s Burmese Service that he fears for his safety and that of his family.

He had been ordered to return to Burma for an investigation into last week’s defection of another diplomat. Soe Aung said he was told on Tuesday that he must return to Burma within 24 hours, accompanied by a military official. His and his wife’s diplomatic passports had been confiscated. Soe Aung told VOA that two other diplomats already have been called back to Burma and placed under investigation.

Kyaw Win, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, defected last week. He says he defected because his efforts to push for reform had been rejected and that he feared he would be prosecuted in Burma. Kyaw Win told VOA on Wednesday he had hoped that following last year’s election, Burma's military would ease its grip on power and improve its human rights record.

Listen to VOA interview with Kyaw Win

He says the human rights situation in Burma is getting worse, especially in remote areas. Kyaw Win says that in 1998, the military leaders promised change, but it never happened. He adds that in 2004, new leaders talked about changes, but it never happened.

Kyaw Win says he thinks Soe Aung and other civilian diplomats are being blamed for his defection, but that they were his subordinates. He says military and ex-military staff at the embassy are not being investigated.

Aung Din is executive director of the United States Campaign for Burma, a rights group based in Washington. He says diplomats could face stiff punishment, if Burmese military authorities decide they failed in their duties in the Kyaw Win case.

“He will be severely tortured, and he will be sent to the military tribunal for imprisonment," said Aung Din. "So I believe that he or she will have a great danger when he or she returns back to Burma.”

Burma's government has long been considered one of the most repressive in the world.  The United States and many other governments have imposed tough economic sanctions on the country because of its lack of political reform.

The military described last year's election, the first in 20 years, as a key element of a plan to return the country to civilian rule after four decades of army leadership. But critics of the government say the vote solidified military control because an army-backed party won 80 percent of the elected parliament seats.

Aung Din of United States Campaign for Burma says there could be more defections in the coming months, in part, because the new foreign minister is replacing many career civilian diplomats with people he trusts. But he also says some diplomats might feel the way Kyaw Win does. 

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