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March 2, 2024

No successor for departing U.S. ambassador to Myanmar

There will be no immediate replacement for the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Thomas Vajda, when he leaves his post this month, with his deputy instead taking over as chargé d’affaires “ad interim.”

The arrangement will allow the United States to maintain a mission in Yangon but avoid having a new ambassador hand credentials to the military junta that seized power in the February 2021 coup, a move that would be viewed as legitimizing the regime.

But a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said in an email that Vajda’s departure was “a normal staffing change” and did not represent a change in policy from the U.S. government.

“Our current Deputy Chief of Mission Deborah Lynn will serve as Chargé d’Affaires, ad interim, following Ambassador Vajda’s departure,” the spokesperson said. “We will share information on Ambassador Vajda’s successor in due course.”

The situation – with a mission led by a chargé d’affaires – will be a return to the manner in which the United States was represented in Myanmar between the 1988 coup and 2012, when democratic elections were held and were swept by the National League for Democracy, which the military removed from power last year.

Another State Department spokesperson said Vajda’s departure was “long planned” and that the embassy would remain open as usual. 

“Most of the time he’s spent there has been after the coup,” the spokesperson said, noting that the ambassador arrived only months before the junta took power and had been there without his family. “He wasn’t expecting that going in. Then the coup happened.”

August elections

Myanmar’s junta has said it plans to hold new elections in August, but U.S. officials have cast doubts on the legitimacy of any vote.

State Department counselor Derek Chollet told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June that he believed there was “no chance it could be free and fair” and would likely just be an “attempt to just manipulate the region, the international community.”

Scot Marciel, who preceded Vajda as ambassador and served from 2016 to 2020, told Radio Free Asia there were a few reasons why the United States would not immediately name a replacement.

“I would think that one reason would be that they would not want the new ambassador to present his credentials … and in doing so, create the appearance of giving legitimacy to the junta,” Marciel said, adding that such a situation could be considered a downgrade of relations. 

“If it’s true that they don’t intend to nominate a new ambassador, then, yes, that would be a downgrade,” he said.

Marciel said the situation was different to one where an ambassador was nominated but then had confirmation held up in Congress.

“That’s not a downgrade,” the former ambassador said. “But if there’s a decision not to name a new ambassador, then you’re saying that you don’t want to have relations at the ambassadorial level.”

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