A lot can happen in Israel between Monday night and Thursday morning.
On Monday night of last week, the writer of this interview bumped into Myanmar Ambassador U Maung Maung Lynn at the North African Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
The occasion was the posthumous publishing of Yitzhak Navon’s Meditation Diary, written by hand when Navon accompanied Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion to Burma in 1961.
The evening was dedicated to meditation and Myanmar culture, and Lynn was there because Navon’s widow, Miri Shafir-Navon, had visited him at the Myanmar Embassy in Tel Aviv to see if there was anything there that was reminiscent of the historic visit – and invited him to the event.
Lynn, who is usually seen in the national dress of his country, was barely recognizable in a smart business suit. He had been angling for an interview for some time – not because he wanted publicity for himself, but because it bothered him when he came to Israel a year-and-a-half ago that hardly anyone he met had ever heard of Myanmar.
This prompted his decision to wear national dress at all official events to which he was invited in order to draw the attention of other guests.
After Myanmar became a daily news item in the Israeli media, he was suddenly inundated with people wanting to know where it was on the map, what language was spoken there and what food was eaten – as well as inevitably receiving questions about persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population in Myanmar, and about the Israeli arms sales to the country.
Some of those same questions were asked of Lynn on Monday night in the lobby of a nearby hotel, following the book launch.
He was willing to explain who the Rohingya are, albeit reluctant to go into too much detail, but strenuously denied that Israel was in any way involved in his country’s ongoing conflict. It didn’t matter how many different ways the question was put to him, the answer was always the same.
But by Thursday morning the story had changed following Lynn’s interview on Army Radio where he mentioned that the two countries had signed a new arms deal since he had become ambassador, eventually taking it back and apologizing after receiving a wave of backlash from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, according to reports.
Life has not been all that smooth for him in Israel. As a boy, Lynn had two dreams. At age 10, he wanted to be a combat pilot because he had an uncle who was a pilot. The other dream was to become a diplomat.
As things worked out, both his dreams became realities. He joined the air force, where he reached the rank of brigadier-general and was the commander of an air base.
He might have stayed in the air force but for the fact that, under the administration of the previous government, five ambassadorial positions became vacant.
While Lynn is the first to admit that “my English is not so good,” it happened to be better than any of his fellow officers, leading to him getting the job. In 2016, together with his wife and daughter, he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.
In the early weeks of their stay in Israel, they received invitations to various events, which they attended, but sat alone – partially out of choice, partially because no one made an effort to befriend them.
Lynn later discovered that his predecessors had also led semi-isolated existences, fraternizing only with diplomats from other Asian countries. When he introduced himself to a female diplomat who had been in Israel for a relatively long time, she told him that he was the first person from Myanmar that she had ever met.
Fortunately, he knows a little French, German and Chinese, which helped break the ice when he introduced himself to other ambassadors.
Unlike his colleagues, Lynn does not frequent Israeli restaurants, and is therefore in no position to comment on Israeli food. Part of the reason is the small budget he is given, but, perhaps more importantly, is the fact that his wife is a gourmet cook of Asian cuisine.
He doesn’t go to the theater or cultural events in Israel because he does not understand Hebrew and is not sufficiently fluent in English.
With no diplomatic background, Lynn has made it his business to get to know almost every ambassador serving in Israel.
He attends every conference on every kind of subject “from security to agriculture.”
His daughter, Shwe Eain Lynn, is a second- year student at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya where she is studying business administration. “I can tolerate anything so that my daughter can study here,” he said.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for her to study in a developed country while living with her parents.”
Lynn uploaded to his Facebook page a transcript of an interview he gave to veteran broadcasting and print media journalist Yaakov Ahimeir on November 16 discussing Myanmar’s attitude toward the Rohingya population.
“According to our people’s perspective, they [the Rohingya population] are not our ethnic group. They are the people originally from Bangladesh, non-immigrant persons since British colonial time. The British occupied our country with three Anglo-Burmese wars. The first Anglo-Burmese War was in 1824. At that time, the British people brought them in especially for the farming. The Suez Canal was opened and the rice business was growing.
We had plenty of fields and these people were brought in for [working on the] paddy plantation. According to British rule, they had contracts with these people year by year. But the rule of law was not too good and they settled here – more than a million people. So for more than a hundred years they have settled in our country.
“In 1982, we enacted the Myanmar Citizenship Law. According to the British Census, we have 135 ethnic groups [which] are recognized, as they originated from Myanmar before 1824. That’s why these people are not included in our national races.
That’s why we cannot recognize them as ethnic origin like our people,” the transcript read.
Lynn went on to say that had their grandparents applied for citizenship, the Rohingya would be citizens today, but because they didn’t, the Rohingya are considered foreigners.
Ahimeir also asked about the Myanmar army burning Rohingya villages and was told that in 2012, it was just a communal conflict that was peacefully settled by the government. But then the Muslim Rohingya began attacking police outposts, killing security personnel and civilians and taking ammunition from police posts. The upshot was an escalation in the conflict.
Ahimeir did not overlook the arms issue, and asked why Myanmar needs so much military equipment from Israel. Lynn replied that it was because Myanmar is in a difficult geographic position, sandwiched between India and China, with a border with Bangladesh and a smaller border with Thailand. “Every national army needs to defend their country,” he said.
Pursuing the arms subject further, Ahimeir asked, “Did the Israeli Foreign Office tell Myanmar to change its attitude on Rohingya otherwise we will stop selling you arms?” “I have no information and nobody discussed with me about it. Nobody contacted me for this question. I don’t know. I really don’t know,” said Lynn.
When asked several times in the course of his interview with The Jerusalem Post
whether Myanmar was receiving any form of military aid from Israel, Lynn consistently replied that it wasn’t.The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on December 6 in Jerusalem.