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US diplomat quits Rohingya panel, slams Suu Kyi’s ‘absence of moral leadership’

Mandel Ngan, AFP | US diplomat Bill Richardson was once an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi.
4 min

US diplomat Bill Richardson resigned early Thursday from an Aung San Suu Kyi-appointed panel set up to ease communal tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine State and hit out at the Nobel Laureate for an "absence of moral leadership" over the crisis.


In a statement that pulled few punches, the former US governor and one-time Suu Kyi ally said he could not in "good conscience" sit on a panel that would likely serve only to "whitewash" the causes behind the Rohingya exodus.

"The main reason I am resigning is that this advisory board is a whitewash," Richardson told Reuters in an interview, adding he did not want to be part of "a cheerleading squad for the government".

Richardson said he got into an argument with Suu Kyi during a meeting on Monday with other members of the board, when he brought up the case of two Reuters reporters who are on trial accused of breaching the country's Official 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.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested in December and face up to 14 years in jail under the Official Secrets Act over the alleged possession of classified documents, purportedly relating to the army campaign in Rakhine that sparked the exodus.

Speaking to reporters following his decision, Richardson said he was "taken aback" by the disparagement of the media, the UN, human rights groups and the international community and alarmed by the "lack of sincerity" with which the issue of Rohingya citizenship was discussed.

Rohingya have been denied citizenship for decades in a discriminatory system that heavily restricts their rights and movement within Myanmar.

Richardson admitted the military still wields significant power but added that "the absence of Daw Suu's [Suu Kyi] moral leadership on this critical issue is of great concern".

The resignation deals an embarrassing public blow to Suu Kyi as her civilian government grapples with a crisis that has sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing into Bangladesh since August -- and eviscerated her reputation as a defender of the downtrodden in the process.

Myanmar pillories Richardson

Responding to Richardson’s resignation, Myanmar accused the former New Mexico Governor Richardson of overstepping the mark in his stinging resignation letter.

"He should review himself over his personal attack against our State Counsellor," government spokesman Zaw Htay told AFP, referring to Suu Kyi's official title.

"We understand his emotion about the two Reuters correspondents. However, he needs to understand, rather than blame the Myanmar nation and the State Counsellor."

Zaw Htay said the issue of the arrests was beyond Richardson's mandate and he should not have brought it up at his meeting with Suu Kyi.

US shares concerns

The US State Department noted that Richardson, a retired senior official and former state governor, had joined the Myanmar board as a private citizen, but added that the Washington administration shares many of his concerns.

"Governor Richardson's decision to resign from the Rakhine Advisory Board, and the reasons he gave for doing so, are cause for concern," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Nauert said the board which Richardson joined was supposed to oversee implementation of recommendations made by a commission led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

"The recommendations address critical actions needed to address longstanding, serious challenges in Rakhine State, including the underlying sources of recent violence and displacement," Nauert said.

"Ultimately, the Burmese government and military have the authority to determine whether the Advisory Board will succeed in its mission."

Richardson's resignation also came after Myanmar and Bangladesh failed to meet a January 23 deadline to begin the complex and contested repatriation of refugees.

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled a Myanmar army crackdown and crossed over to Bangladesh and many do not want to go back to Rakhine.

The UN and US have both accused the army and hardline militant Buddhist mobs of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority.

Inside Myanmar the Rohingya are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many have lived there for generations.

Soaring tensions

Tensions have soared in recent days in the overcrowded Bangladeshi camps housing the Rohingya with many refugees refusing to return to Myanmar.

Bangladesh insists the repatriation process will be voluntary and Myanmar has said it "welcomes" back those who can verify that they belong to Rakhine.

But rights groups fear more suffering awaits the Rohingya as they return to a country that does not want them.

On Wednesday Myanmar authorities put the finishing touches to rudimentary reception camps to process the huge number of returning refugees expected to trickle back.

Myanmar says it will take 1,500 refugees each week, a drop in the ocean of the near 800,000 who are due to be repatriated from two waves of violence.

Rohingya villages have been incinerated raising fears huge numbers will end up in long-term displacement camps.

With Rakhine still at boiling point there are also concerns returnees could be subjected to renewed violence.

Myanmar's army denies widespread allegations of murder, rape and torture saying its August crackdown was a proportionate response to deadly raids by Rohingya militants.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)


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