Ousted Myanmar ambassador says his relatives ‘forced into hiding’

Archie Bland* – The Guardian

Exclusive: Kyaw Zwar Minn says he feels unsafe at London residence and family at home fear reprisals

Myanmar’s ousted ambassador to the UK has said that friends and relatives at home have been forced into hiding after the country’s military regime removed him from office for declaring his loyalty to the deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his first major interview after he was unceremoniously locked out of the embassy by his deputy last week, Kyaw Zwar Minn said he no longer felt safe at his north London residence and had contacted the police after members of his former staff delivered a letter ordering him to move out by Thursday.

“The Foreign Office said that if they invaded our residence the British police could not do anything,” he said. He added that he was still waiting for British officials to set out what support they would give him to stay in London.

In recent days, he said, loved ones at home – whom he has not visited in five years – had feared reprisals as a result of his stance. “Some friends and relatives, they are hiding, staying away from their places. They are not able to show their face in public because of me.”

Urging the Foreign Office (FCDO) to strengthen security measures, he did not call for further sanctions but said his situation would be viewed as a litmus test of the UK’s commitment to democracy around the world.

“People are watching very closely the British government’s next step,” he said. “They got a lesson from the Myanmar army … now they have to give a lesson back to the army. They have to show their strength.”

The FCDO said that it last week “reiterated UK plans to ensure that Ambassador Kyaw Zwar Minn can live safely in the United Kingdom while he decides his long-term future” in a meeting with the Burmese regime’s chargé d’affaires, Chit Win, who has not been recognised as ambassador.

While a spokesperson did not respond specifically to Kyaw Zwar Minn’s fear that the residence could be “invaded”, it is understood that officials are seeking to broker a solution and do not anticipate events reaching such a crisis.

Kyaw Zwar Minn, a diplomat under Aung San Suu Kyi after a long career in the army, spent a night in his car outside the embassy last week after his then deputy, Chit Win, and military attache Soe Aung took the extraordinary step of locking him out, on orders from the regime. He had stayed in the hope that the UK government would secure his re-entry. One ally said that he “had the military impulse to remain at his post”.

Fears he might be removed from his post had escalated when a source in Myanmar’s foreign ministry warned him that his staff were spying on him. “My friend told me, your people are telling me about you. People in the embassy are sending back reports,” he said.

He remains in limbo, with his additional status as non-resident ambassador to Ireland, Sweden and Denmark yet to be revoked.

When he spoke to the Guardian at his home his mood slipped between concerted good cheer and moments of despondency. He is holed up with his wife, son and two golden retrievers in the faded grandeur of their multimillion-pound official residence in Hampstead, where gold-trimmed furnishings and pictures of him meeting the Queen stand in surreal contrast to a rusty bathtub in the garden and a gate secured only by a padlock.

Though he appeared to have accepted he was unlikely to be able to retain control of the property, he warned of the symbolic significance of his probable eviction. “This is the last building I have,” he added. “We had seven buildings and six have been lost. I will give it back to the government – to the legitimate government. How can I give it to the military?”

Asked what risks he would face if he went back to Myanmar, he laughed and said: “If you’d like to see what happens when I go back, I will make you a mask that looks exactly like my features, and give it to you, and you wear it like in Mission Impossible. Then you go to Yangon and you can see what happens.” Still, he noted: “The point is people are dying in my country. They lost more than me. Their life. Their life. And their families suffer more than me.”

Two weeks ago, activists said more than 500 people had been killed since the 1 February coup.

The former ambassador, whose home was protected on Monday only by a single member of his household keeping watch, described his alarm at the arrival of two of his former staff on Sunday.

“They put a letter from Naypyidaw [the capital of Myanmar] down,” he said. “They showed their faces in front of our gate. It’s a kind of threat.” Over lunch his wife said he had been treated “like a dog” and staff had been very rude. “Why are they bullying us?” she asked.

For some activists seeking the return of civilian government in Myanmar, Kyaw Zwar Minn is a complicated figure. He was “one of the few ambassadors around the world to speak out against the coup and call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the president [Win Myint]”, said Mark Farmaner, the director of the Burma Campaign UK. “He deserves credit for that.”

But Farmaner noted that the diplomat had for weeks “refused to support the civil disobedience movement and join the CRPH” – the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parallel civilian government.

 “It was only the day after the lockout that he finally did the three-finger salute that protesters in Myanmar have been using,” he said. And he said that as ambassador Kyaw Zwar Minn had “defended genocide of the Rohingya and other human rights violations by the military and government”.

Kyaw Zwar Minn acknowledged that the “Rohingya issue is very, very important” and claimed he had “great sympathy for these people”. Referring to a set of notes, he said: “This is not a good time for discussing this item. We need to see the release of Daw Suu Kyi, and the president, negotiations, and an end to the killing. Then we can go back to the Rohingya.”

His critics should show more understanding of his dilemma, he said. “I was in a big sandwich,” he said. “I could not join the CRPH as ambassador. Now I am free.” This was why he had only now given the three-fingered salute, he said. He wished to join forces fully with the opposition “if they received me as a comrade”. He added: “I’m going to shake their hand, not kneel down and say accept me.”

He reserved particular contempt for his successor as ambassador, Chit Win, who once co-authored an academic paper about Myanmar calling for “a wide-ranging democratisation of how post-dictatorship politics is conceived”. Chit Win had voiced support for the CRPH even as he told the military regime that he would back it, he said. “Of course he is an ambitious, educated man, he would like to get a high-level position. He’s climbing. It is not only a betrayal; he’s like a villain.”

At times, he appeared able to hold contradictory views, armed by his hope that he can act as a fair broker and clinging to the belief both sides want the best.

Without talks between the two sides, he said, he feared the crisis would “head to civil war”. “You can see the military government is not going to step back,” he said. “More people will die, and the economy is going to collapse. Then anything can happen in our country.”

He said: “Children are dying. People are dying. Of course they are innocent. They don’t have arms, they went out on the street to protest – this is their right.” Tue 13 Apr 2021


*Archie Bland is a senior reporter for the Guardian