The Diplomats Without a Country

Myanmar’s diplomats in the U.S. and at the UN moved to oppose a coup—and found themselves in limbo.

Portrait of Kyaw Moe Tun sitting in a chair

NEW YORK—The Hunger Games–style salute Kyaw Moe Tun held in the air during perhaps the defining moment of his life was not exactly correct, his teenage daughter chided him later: His three fingers, she noted, were meant to be together, not spread apart, as he had raised them. His voice had also quivered and cracked as he spoke, the words tumbling out as he glanced nervously down at the text of his prepared statement again and again.

He could be forgiven for his imprecise pop-culture references and imperfect rhetorical skills: Five months ago, Kyaw Moe Tun had made a decision that he knew would upend his life and that of his family. It would cost him his career and, potentially, his freedom.

On February 26, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations, denounced the military coup that had been carried out in his country earlier that month and the junta that had seized control. “We will continue to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, for the people,” he said before the UN’s General Assembly, the biggest of global stages, throwing his support behind the ousted government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and protesters who had taken to the streets across Myanmar.

Diplomat holding up three fingers.
(Bryan Thomas)

Before he had even finished speaking, the career diplomat, previously little-known outside of Myanmar government circles, vaulted to celebrity status. Clips of his speech exploded on social media, despite internet outages imposed by the military. Samantha Power, the former American ambassador to the UN, tweeted in awed support. Kyaw Moe Tun’s emotional act of defiance, a marked departure from the normally staid speeches at the UN, captured international headlines. “After two, three weeks, [protesters] were getting tired,” he told me recently of his decision to defy his military bosses. “We needed some sort of trigger to keep the protests going.”

Twenty of his fellow Burmese diplomats stationed abroad joined him in abandoning their positions to take part in the movement against the military coup. (More than 100 people working domestically for the ministry joined as well.) Kyaw Moe Tun and these other national representatives abroad now find themselves in an unusual kind of limbo: They have been officially recalled, their jobs and livelihoods cut off, but they are unable to return home, fearful of the repercussions of their choice to stand against Myanmar’s new regime. As the military’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic compounds the instability caused by the coup, these diplomats have been left watching an almost entirely preventable disaster play out from afar, while grappling with the limitations of pushing for change from abroad. On Sunday, six months after the coup took place, Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader and commander in chief, showed no signs of retreat or remorse. Rather, he named himself prime minister and announced the formation of a caretaker government that he said would hold new elections by 2023. The military nullified the results of last year’s contest as part of its power grab.

Since the spring, Burmese diplomats who worked at Myanmar’s embassy in Washington, D.C., have had their diplomatic passports declared void, been kicked out of their government-funded apartments, and had their health insurance and cellphone service cut off. For his leading role in the protest, Kyaw Moe Tun was charged with high treason in Myanmar and, days after we met last month, the junta asked the United States to extradite him to Myanmar to face trial. (The request has not been honored.)

Unable or unwilling to go home, the Burmese diplomats have redirected their skills to aid the efforts of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a parallel administration set up by opponents of army rule, to raise its profile in America. Kyaw Moe Tun, for example, continues to work as the country’s envoy to the UN, arriving every day at Myanmar’s stately six-story townhouse on the edge of Central Park from his official residence, an apartment nearby. “The people own it,” he told me when we met in a large sitting room on the second floor, a portrait of Win Myint, the deposed president who is currently detained, hanging above a pair of carved elephant tusks. This is something of a wishful sentiment: Representatives from the junta, he said, have sent him and the UN numerous notices insisting that he vacate the premises, but so far he has refused to do so. The issue is likely to come to a head later this year. The UN credentials committee is due to meet in September, setting up a contentious debate over accepting a representative from the junta or continuing to honor Kyaw Moe Tun’s status.

Myanmar’s flag, with hues of yellow, green, and red, hung listlessly above the mission’s door during my recent visit. The shady street was lined with cars fitted with diplomatic license plates. Just opposite the building, security guards in dark suits with earpieces and wraparound sunglasses stood outside the Mark Hotel, a favorite gathering spot for celebrities and a fertile feeding ground for paparazzi. Kyaw Moe Tun joked that if my timing was lucky, I might catch someone famous dining curbside or quickly hopping into one of the SUVs idling outside. (Myanmar’s diplomatic properties tend to have noteworthy neighbors: The embassy in Washington sits alongside the sprawling museum turned megamansion of Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos.)

The stately facade of the New York mission hides a dated interior, where well-worn burgundy-colored carpet lines the floors. A few gemstone paintings, popular keepsakes among tourists visiting Myanmar and favorite diplomatic gifts, decorate the white walls. When I visited, a stack of Burmese-language Myanmar Gazette newspapers sat by the front entrance. A student from nearby Hunter College who had landed what must be one of New York’s most peculiar summer internships was manning a desk in the entryway.

Courtney Smith, the acting dean and an associate professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, whose research focuses on the UN, told me that foreign governments typically send “the best and the brightest” to the UN because the position is “seen as quite the prestigious post.” This is the case for Myanmar, where former permanent representatives have enjoyed careers in the upper echelons of the country’s politics and international diplomacy. Most notable among them was U Thant, a former Burmese permanent representative to the UN who would go on to lead the global body as its third secretary general.

Unsurprisingly, then, Kyaw Moe Tun has had a long career in Myanmar’s ministry of foreign affairs, first joining in 1993, then moving to New York after another distinguished tour in Geneva. Yet his career has not been entirely straightforward. His studies in Yangon were disrupted in 1988 when a popular uprising against the government, which had proved disastrous in its running of the country, swept across the nation before being violently put down. Though he stopped by to hear student leaders and activists give speeches, Kyaw Moe Tun largely avoided taking part in the protests at the behest of his parents. When Yangon University, where he was studying, shut down, he went abroad and worked at a manufacturing plant in Malaysia, making cooling fans for car engines and refrigerators, then aboard a ship based out of Singapore. “To be very frank,” he told me, it was “a smuggling boat.” The vessel illicitly ferried televisions, VCRs, and used cars to ports in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The job, he said, wasn’t for him, so he quit, eventually completed his studies, and became a diplomat.

His long career, however, makes him a flawed messenger to be calling for a democratic, inclusive, diverse post-coup Myanmar: He has, over time, defended and advocated for military-led regimes, and played down human-rights abuses. That history has also created some uncomfortable moments. Earlier this year, for example, Kyaw Moe Tun was dressed down by American lawmakers who were highly critical of the pre-coup government’s failure to include members of the Rohingya minority group. The U.S., while denouncing the coup, has wavered on recognizing the shadow government that Kyaw Moe Tun champions.

In our conversation, Kyaw Moe Tun bristled at the idea of the junta being called a “government.” He preferred to call them “terrorists” and the “murderous military,” he said, “because the way they have committed atrocities is ridiculous and inhumane.” Undoubtedly, Myanmar’s military has committed horrific crimes since usurping power: More than 900 people have been killed and thousands have been jailed in deplorable prisons where the coronavirus has run rampant; many of the imprisoned people have emerged with stories of being tortured while detained.

These, however, are not new military tactics. The armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, terrorized ethnic minorities, killed with impunity, and ruled the country ruthlessly until 2010, when they began a calculated and incomplete retreat from government that left them still holding considerable power. For decades, Kyaw Moe Tun defended the Tatmadaw as a member of the foreign ministry. More recently, he was unwavering in his defense of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government elected in 2015, an administration that stood behind the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya.

When I pressed him on his about-face, Kyaw Moe Tun said he had some regrets, but he quickly became defensive. He was a civil servant who needed to “follow the policy that is laid out by the government,” he told me. The junta wasn’t elected, so disobeying them was justified, he reasoned, though he had served unelected governments before. Regarding attacks carried out against the Rohingya, for which the military is now facing genocide charges, he said, “We really didn’t know the level of atrocities.” This claim is difficult to believe: Numerous reports from human-rights organizations, foreign governments, and journalists have detailed the level of brutality the minority group faces. And rather than assist in efforts to expose or investigate the military’s wrongdoings, the government blocked journalists and UN officials from freely entering the area where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes. (Two Islamophobic conspiracy theorists, however, were allowed to tour the area.) Suu Kyi, who also served as the minister of foreign affairs, stood behind the jailing of two Reuters journalists who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a massacre of Rohingya men. She then personally traveled to The Hague to defend the military against charges of genocide, while trumpeting a narrative of Myanmar against a world bent on seeing it fail, despite decades of goodwill toward Suu Kyi from Western governments.

Kyaw Moe Tun laid these problems exclusively at the feet of the military, saying the civilian government was totally unable to maneuver against the armed forces. His argument is a popular, if flawed, position in Myanmar, where the again-imprisoned Suu Kyi is idolized with religious zeal. Now, he said, he fully supports the unity government’s plans to abolish a citizenship law that has been used to discriminate against the Rohingya, in case the administration is able to regain power.

A few days after our conversation, I met up with four former Burmese diplomats who had turned against their ambassador after the coup and, like Kyaw Moe Tun, backed the National Unity Government. At a coffee shop in Silver Spring, Maryland, they told me with a macabre sense of humor that they were now jobless and homeless. Despite rumblings that a coup had been in the offing, the brazen move was still shocking, and Myanmar diplomats abroad held intense discussions about how to proceed. Ultimately, representing the military as it began violently putting down protests was too much. “We hated ourselves at that time. ​​We represented the junta,” said Thet Htar Mya Yee San, a former television journalist turned diplomat whose posting to Washington, D.C., was her first overseas diplomatic assignment.

Alongside Kyaw Moe Tun and others around the world, these diplomats now face an unusual problem, John Chin, an expert on coups at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of a forthcoming book on the subject, told me. Though they have been able to find places to live, thanks to the help of the Burmese diaspora in and around Washington, their status remains uncertain: They are now waiting to see if the U.S. government will grant them permission to remain.

Even if they are able to resolve these immediate challenges, however, Chin stressed the extreme difficulty of what they were seeking to do: build a movement capable of reversing a coup from abroad. As with detectives trying to solve a murder, time is of the essence, and yet it is something that is slipping away in Myanmar. “The sooner the better,” Chin told me about reversing a military takeover. “Every month the regime is in power, it gets harder and harder.”