YANGON, Myanmar – Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has resigned from an advisory panel on the massive Rohingya refugee crisis, calling it a “whitewash and a cheerleading operation” for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The sudden resignation Wednesday of probably the panel’s most prominent member, a former senior U.S. politician and diplomat who considered Suu Kyi a close friend, raises serious questions about international efforts to deal with the calamitous fallout of Myanmar military operations since August against the Rohingya Muslims that the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
It also offers possible insight into the thinking of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate once revered as an icon of human rights whose leadership during the Rohingya crisis has shocked many outsiders.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President Bill Clinton’s energy secretary, castigated Suu Kyi for blaming outsiders for the crisis instead of looking honestly at military actions that have forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they have spoken of mass killings, rapes and the obliteration of whole villages in Myanmar.
“She believes there’s a concerted international effort against Myanmar, and I believe she is wrong,” Richardson said Wednesday evening in an AP interview at his hotel in downtown Yangon, the country’s biggest city. “She blames all the problems that Myanmar is having on the international media, on the U.N., on human rights groups, on other governments, and I think this is caused by the bubble that is around her, by individuals that are not giving her frank advice.”
The 10-member advisory board is meant to implement earlier Rohingya recommendations made by a group led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but Richardson said Suu Kyi appears to want the board to validate her Rohingya policies.
“The advisory board is mainly a whitewash and a cheerleading operation for the Myanmar government, and I’m not going to be part of it because I think there are serious issues of human rights violations, safety, citizenship, peace and stability that need to be addressed,” Richardson said. “I just felt that my advice and counsel would not be heeded.”
A spokesman for Myanmar’s government said it was sorry about Richardson’s resignation.
“The reason why we formed the advisory commission was because we hoped that the team will give us constructive support and advice,” spokesman Zaw Htay said in Naypyitaw. “We are sorry that Bill Richardson is releasing a statement and resigned from the commission but that, of course, is out of our control.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Richardson’s resignation and his reasons for doing so “are cause for concern.” She said the U.S. has urged Myanmar’s government to fulfill its pledge to implement the Annan commission recommendations “as a matter of urgency.”
Richardson’s biting criticism of Suu Kyi and his resignation from the panel come as refugees cram camps in Bangladesh rife with crushing poverty, disease and a pervasive air of hopelessness.
More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the military of majority Buddhist Myanmar, which began what they called clearance operations following attacks by an Islamic militant group on Aug. 25. The U.N. human rights chief has suggested that what’s happening to the Rohingya may be genocide.
Rohingya are severely discriminated against in Rakhine state and called illegal immigrants although many families have lived there for generations. They have been denied citizenship, freedom of movement and other basic rights.
Richardson, who has frequently negotiated for the release of Americans imprisoned in foreign countries, also said he was “very unhappy and distressed” by Suu Kyi’s heated reaction to his plea that two Reuters journalists detained on charges of violating a British colonial-era secrecy law used by a former military junta to muzzle freedom of speech “be treated fairly and rapidly.”
“That brought almost an explosion on her part, saying there were issues related to the official secrecies act, that that was not my charter as a member of the advisory board,” Richardson said. “It was a very heated exchange that we had.”
The journalists, who are both Myanmar citizens, were investigating the Rohingya crisis. They face up to 14 years in prison if convicted. Local media say their arrests were an attack on media freedom.
“The advisory commission is only to advise on the Rakhine issue. The arrest of the two Reuters journalists has nothing to do with the mandate of the commission or Rakhine issue,” Zaw Htay said. “When he talks about the Reuters journalists, he is speaking out of the boundary of the commission’s mandate.”
Some Myanmar officials are working hard to help people in Rakhine, Richardson said, and he held out hope the advisory panel might press the government to push through his suggestion of an investigation of widespread reports the military in Myanmar buried Rohingya victims in many mass graves.
Though he said members of the advisory board were generally “serious people that could be very helpful,” Richardson had tough words for the panel’s leader, Surakiart Sathirathai, a former Thai foreign minister.
“There’s no agenda, there’s no plan to address some of the issues relating to safety, to citizenship,” Richardson said. “I don’t want to be part of a whitewash, and I felt it best that I resign immediately.”
He also disparaged a trip Wednesday by the panel to the border to see Myanmar’s preparations for a possible gradual repatriation of some Rohingya. Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare for the transfer, and the refugees are deeply skeptical, if not outright terrified, about returning.
There was, Richardson said of the trip, no plan to talk with Rakhine leaders, to talk to members of the Muslim community or to visit Rohingya refugee camps in Myanmar.
“It just seemed like a big photo-op, and I said I’m not going to be part of that,” Richardson said. “Before there is repatriation, there has to be monitors to ensure that that repatriation is properly done. There have to be human rights safeguards. There has to be a commitment, a path to citizenship. There has to be assurances of safety and freedom of movement, and so far there aren’t.”
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