Two Myanmar nationals have been arrested on charges of plotting to seriously injure or kill the country’s ambassador to the United Nations on U.S. soil, New York federal prosecutors announced Friday.
The pair, Phyo Hein Htut, and Ye Hein Zaw, were living in New York when they set the scheme in motion last month with the help of an arms dealer based in Thailand, according to their criminal complaints.
Htut and the weapons trafficker agreed on a plan to hurt the ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, as part of an effort to force him to step down from his post, federal prosecutors said. If Tun refused to leave his position, prosecutors alleged, the arms dealer proposed that the attackers hired by Htut would kill him.
The dealer sells weapons to the Burmese military, which overthrew Myanmar’s civilian government earlier this year, according to the complaints.
Not long after agreeing to the plot, Zaw sent Htut $4,000 via an app as an advance payment, prosecutors said. Htut was later caught on a recorded telephone line telling Zaw that the planned attackers needed an additional $1,000 to carry out the attack in Westchester County, where the ambassador lives, court papers say.
For an additional fee, the attacks could, in substance, “finish off” the ambassador, Htut said, according to prosecutors. Zaw agreed to pay the extra $1,000 and to try to obtain additional money, prosecutors said.
Htut was subsequently interviewed at an FBI office in New York, according to the complaint. He told investigators that the arms dealer had contacted him while he was staying at the Myanmar Mission in New York and they ultimately came up with the plan to tamper with the tires on the ambassador’s car to cause it to crash with him inside, the complaint says.
It’s not clear when Htut, 28, and Zaw, 20, were taken into custody. They were charged with one count of conspiracy to assault and make a violent attack upon a foreign official.
“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,” said NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.
Htut’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not clear if Zaw had hired an attorney.
A person who answered the phone at the Myanmar Mission in New York said no one was available to comment on the case.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, posted a tweet that raised a question the court papers don’t answer: who was the ultimate orchestrator of the planned hit?
“I’m horrified by news that a supplier of weapons to the Myanmar military allegedly paid two Myanmar nationals to harm or kill UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun in New York in a plot to pressure him to relinquish his post,” Andrews wrote. “Who was behind this outrage and who will hold them accountable?”
Rich Schapiro is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Tom Winter is a New York-based correspondent covering crime, courts, terrorism and financial fraud on the East Coast for the NBC News Investigative Unit.