Some people suspect that the fire which destroyed the upper floor of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on May 26 was a tactic to delay the granting of visas to foreign aid workers trying to get into the country for the post-Nargis clean up.
Not so, says a newspaper published by political exiles. The New Era Journal has come up with another hypothesis: that the fire was started to burn away evidence of corruption.
An article in the June edition quotes a foreign ministry source as saying that staff specifically put the match to the records of the accounting and administration departments. Personnel from the Bureau of Special Investigation, the Auditor General’s Office and intelligence agencies are reported to be investigating, and the Prime Minister, Lieutenant General Thein Sein, handling the matter personally.
NEJ notes that this is the second time in recent years that a Myanmar embassy has gone up in flames. In April 2006 fire also destroyed the one in Kuala Lumpur, killing the alleged arsonist, who was described as a “disgruntled former employee”.
There are some parallels between the two incidents. The journal points out that the government made serious inquiries into the Malaysia episode and also had them supervised by the then-prime minister. Eighty thousand ringgit were reportedly recovered from the deceased clerk’s desk, and the equivalent of over another eight million kyat from his home. Four diplomats were later recalled, and the ambassador was dismissed. It’s not known yet what will happen to his counterpart in Thailand, but if headquarters didn’t order the fire then they’re unlikely to have been amused by it.
How often do other countries’ embassies catch alight? A quick Google search reveals that in April the ground floor of the Algerian mission in London was damaged by one; that in February a crowd burned the U.S. building in Belgrade, that in 2005 a Polish embassy, again in Bangkok, had a blaze across two floors, and that in 2002 the Israeli delegation in Paris had its premises gutted. Evidently it happens often enough that for a government to lose an embassy is not extraordinary, but not so often that when it happens twice it can be dismissed as mere coincidence.
Two fires don’t make a trend, and corrupt diplomats will probably find that the “fire burned my accounts” excuse won’t get them far in Naypyidaw for very long, but if you’re working or living nearby a Myanmar embassy, at least practice the fire drills and check that smoke detectors and sprinklers are installed and operating.