As one of America’s most experienced diplomats, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is known for holding face-to-face negotiations with some of the world’s most fearsome regimes, from Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic to humorless grey bureaucrats from the government of North Korea.
But this week he had a decidedly undiplomatic run-in with a world leader once renowned as a peaceful, democratic icon — Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi — over the fate of her country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim population.
Richardson announced Wednesday he’s quitting an international panel set up to advise on the Rohingya refugee crisis, calling the committee a sham designed to justify Myanmar’s policies toward the long-oppressed ethnic group. He even personally slammed Suu Kyi, who several years ago received a Nobel Peace Prize, for lacking “moral leadership.”
“The main reason I am resigning is that this advisory board is a whitewash,” Richardson said, adding he didn’t want to participate in “a cheerleading squad for the government.”
Richardson told Reuters that he’d gotten into an argument with Suu Kyi during a meeting Monday about the two Reuters reporters who were jailed over accusations they violated the country’s Officials Secrets Act. Suu Kyi’s response was “furious,” he said, as she insisted the fate of the reporters was beyond the remit of the 10-member panel.
Almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country since August, according to estimates from the International Office for Migration, following a violent crackdown by Myanmar’s military in the country’s Rakhine State.
Human Rights Watch has accused Myanmar’s security forces of waging a campaign of “extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and widespread arson, leading to hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.” And those lucky enough to escape to Bangladesh face squalid conditions in the refugee camps.
“New arrivals are living in spontaneous settlements with an increasing need for humanitarian assistance; including shelter, clean water, and sanitation,” according to the IOM.
This week, the government of Bangladesh postponed plans to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, saying it needed more time to verify the lists of returnees.
Human Rights Watch warned on Tuesday that returning the refugees could simply mean forcing them back into the hands of the security forces that brutalized them.
“Rohingya refugees shouldn’t be returned to camps guarded by the very same [Myanmar] forces who forced them to flee massacres and gang rapes, and torched villages,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director.
Cover image: Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech at the opening ceremony of the "CPC in dialogue with world political parties high-level meeting, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 1, 2017. (REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool)