World

Myanmar pushes back after U.S. diplomat leaves Rohingya advisory panel

Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson was pursuing "his own agenda" when he was asked to step down from Myanmar's international advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, the Myanmar government says. Richardson says he resigned because the panel was conducting a "whitewash."

Bill Richardson says he quit panel, Myanmar says he was dropped

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson said he has resigned from an advisory panel trying to tackle the massive Rohingya refugee crisis. He spoke during an interview in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday. (Thet Htoo/Associated Press)

Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson was pursuing "his own agenda" when he was asked to step down from Myanmar's international advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, the Myanmar government said on Thursday.

But Richardson said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday that he was resigning from the board because it was conducting a "whitewash" and accused Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of lacking "moral leadership."

The departure of Richardson, a former Clinton administration cabinet member, came as the 10-member advisory board was making its first visit to western Rakhine State, from where around 688,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled in recent months.

A U.S. official, who spoke on Thursday on condition of anonymity, said the issues raised by Richardson had reinforced concerns about Myanmar's handling of the Rohingya crisis, but the official said the United States would likely stick to its "measured" approach of applying limited pressure on Myanmar and avoiding more drastic measures that could destabilize the situation.

'Pursuing his own agenda'

Thursday's statement from Suu Kyi's office said it became evident in discussions on Jan. 22 that Richardson's intent was not to provide advice "but to pursue his own agenda."

"In view of the difference of opinion that developed, the government decided that his continued participation on the board would not be in the best interest of all concerned," the statement added. 

A separate statement from the nine remaining members of the advisory board on Thursday said they met this week "with open minds" and agreed "to speak with one voice."

"Therefore, any statement about the Advisory Board 'whitewashing' or 'cheerleading' for anyone lacks complete legitimacy," the board said.

Rohingya refugee Momtaz Begum, 30, said soldiers came to her village, beat her, locked her in her house and set the roof on fire. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The board was informed that Richardson "had to be asked to leave", it said.

Former South African Defence Minister Roelof Petrus Meyer, one of the four remaining international members of the board, said Richardson's departure was "really unfortunate."

After touring temporary repatriation camps set up by Myanmar, Meyer said he thought the country was ready to take back the Rohingya refugees under an agreement with Bangladesh, where they are currently sheltering.

"The security will be provided...the subject is so internationally covered so I don't think people should be scared," he said.

Argument with Suu Kyi

Richardson said in the interview that he got into an argument with Suu Kyi during a meeting on Monday, when he brought up the case of two Reuters reporters who are on trial accused of breaching the country's Officials Secrets Act.

He said Suu Kyi's response was "furious", saying the case of the reporters "was not part of the work of the advisory board." The argument continued at a dinner later that evening, the former New Mexico governor said.

Richardson accused Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, of lacking "moral leadership" for declining to speak out against the Myanmar military's campaign in northern Rakhine.

In an interview with CBC's Carole MacNeil, Richardson said he has a deep love for Myanmar, a country his foundation has been working in for years. But Richardson, who has known Suu Kyi for a long time, said he's now "deeply disappointed that my friend has changed." 

The armed forces have been accused by Rohingya witnesses and human rights activists of carrying out killings, rapes and arson in a campaign senior officials in the United Nations and United States have described as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar rejects that label and has denied nearly all the allegations.

Reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters' coverage of the crisis in Rakhine. They were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo, at work at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar, on Dec. 11, 2017. (Antoni Slodkowski/Reuters)

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Thursday reiterated Washington's call for the journalists' "immediate and unconditional release."

On Wednesday, Nauert described Richardson's departure from the board and his reasons for doing so as "cause for concern", but noted he had been acting as a private citizen.

Internal challenges

Bob Rae, Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, said in an interview on CBC News Network that he was encouraged when Richardson was asked to join the panel because he was an outspoken and direct person who would tell it like it is.

But Rae said he didn't agree entirely with Richardson's assessment, saying the diplomat doesn't sufficiently appreciate the challenges Suu Kyi faces internally, including the power of the military in terms of the resources it controls. Because so much of the political power in Myanmar is in the military's hands, Rae says, "to refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as the head of state is really not accurate."

The work of the advisory panel will continue, he said, but Richardson's resignation is unfortunate, "because he was such a candid presence. But a lot of his observations about how engaging with the government of Myanmar is challenging, I would say that's true." 

The U.S. official, who spoke on Thursday on condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration would be watching to see how Myanmar deals with the issues Richardson raised.

Washington has sought to balance its wish to nurture the civilian-led government in Myanmar, where it competes for influence with China, with its desire to hold the military accountable for the abuses.

"Cover up'

"Bill Richardson rightly wanted nothing to do with Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to cover up the Burmese military's crimes against humanity toward the Rohingya," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State was set up by Myanmar last year, to advise on enacting the findings of an earlier commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Bob Rae, Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, says Richardson's resignation is unfortunate, 'because he was such a candid presence. But a lot of his observations about how engaging with the government of Myanmar is challenging, i would say that's true.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the commission's recommendations "are essential to addressing the security, human rights, development and humanitarian crisis going on in Rakhine State and we will continue to urge the government to implement them."

Thursday's statement from Suu Kyi's office said the government was committed to "implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to the fullest extent possible and in the shortest timeframe, in accordance with the situation on the ground."

In its own statement, the advisory board said it was recommending that U.N. agencies, including the UNHCR, should be invited to take part in the return and resettlement of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

In an apparent reference to the military's counter-insurgency campaign, launched after Rohingya militant attacks on Aug. 25, the statement called for an "independent fact-finding commission" to look into "the situation in Rakhine state after August 2017."

The commission statement also calls for "wider media access to all affected areas in Rakhine State."

Rae says, "we still don't have a coherent path to reconciliation and to bringing people together and that I think is a challenge." 

With files from CBC News

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