By Helen Regan and Jamie Crawford, CNN
The duo are accused of conspiring with an arms dealer in Thailand who sells weapons to the Myanmar military, to “seriously injure or kill” the ambassador “in a planned attack on a foreign official that was to take place on American soil,” said Audrey Strauss, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.
Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on February 1 and Myanmar Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun has been outspoken against its sacking of the civilian government and its deadly suppression of protests. The United Nations has not recognized the military junta, and in his position as UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun continues to represent the ousted civilian government, which is operating underground.
Kyaw Moe Tun told CNN he was made aware of the alleged plot on Tuesday and reported it to the US Mission and law enforcement, believing it to be a credible threat. He said the FBI and New York police are now providing him with 24-hour security.
Suspects Phyo Hein Htut, 28, and Ye Hein Zaw, 20, who live in New York, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to assault and make a violent attack upon a foreign official, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
According to the legal complaint, Phyo Hein Htut told the FBI the arms dealer had made contact via Facebook and FaceTime, allegedly offering him cash to hire attackers to hurt the ambassador in an attempt to force him to step down from his post.
If Kyaw Moe Tun did not step down, the arms dealer allegedly proposed the attackers would kill him by tampering with the tires of the ambassador’s car so it would crash while he was inside, the complaint said.
After allegedly agreeing on the plan, Ye Hein Zaw is accused of transferring about $4,000 to Phyo Hein Htut as a advanced payment. Later, during a recorded phone conversation, the pair allegedly discussed how the attackers would need an additional payment of $1,000 to carry out the attack and “finish off” the ambassador, according to the complaint.
A volunteer security guard at the UN mission told the FBI that Phyo Hein Htut had approached him about the alleged plot, saying he had been in contact with the arms dealer in Thailand to allegedly hire a “hitman to kill or injure the ambassador.”
The alleged conspiracy took place between July and August 5, and the planned attack would take place in New York’s Westchester County, where the ambassador lives, the complaint said.
“As alleged in today’s federal charges, these defendants reached across borders and oceans in designing a violent plot against an international leader on United States soil,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a statement.
“But our NYPD investigators and prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York worked relentlessly with our law enforcement partners to bring them to justice before any harm could be done.”
On February 27, Kyaw Moe Tun was fired as Myanmar’s UN ambassador after making an impassioned speech to the UN urging the use of “any means necessary” to stop the military coup in his country. He refused to step down in a decision that was supported by the UN.
When asked whether he believed the orders for the alleged attack to come from Myanmar’s military junta, the ambassador told CNN he could not speculate as to who was behind the plot, but that the incident would not put him off his work.
“Of course what happened is disturbing, but my day to day work has not been impacted,” Kyaw Moe Tun said. “I will continue what I have to do and this incident will not deter what I am doing for the country and for the people.”
Kyaw Moe Tun thanked the US government, State Department and law enforcement agencies for their “support, kind assistance,” and “professionalism” in responding to the incident.
“They saved my life and saved any harm from coming to me,” he said.
Since seizing power, Myanmar security forces have killed at least 948 people and detained more than 7,000, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, including doctors fighting a severe Covid outbreak, protesters, opposition figures, teachers, and children. Fighting between Myanmar soldiers and local militia groups, as well as ethnic armed organizations, has increased in recent months.
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CNN’s Caitlin Hu contributed.