Veteran U.S. Diplomat Comes Under Criticism for a Trip to Myanmar

Bill Richardson, the American ex-diplomat, has made numerous trips to Myanmar since the 1990s. He has negotiated with the generals who ruled it, then and now. He has been an ally and later a critic of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, its most popular politician, who is once again a prisoner of the army.

Mr. Richardson’s latest visit, last week, made him the most prominent Western figure to meet with Myanmar’s generals since they overthrew Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government in February. In an interview on Saturday, his first since the trip, he said that he had met with the junta’s leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and other officials to try to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar, including Covid vaccines.

“On the whole, our discussions were positive and they were productive,” Mr. Richardson said by telephone.

But some rights activists have been scathing in their criticism of his visit, saying that he had helped the junta by meeting with its leaders as though they were legitimate rulers. The state-run media in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, published a photograph of Mr. Richardson and General Min Aung Hlaing together in a grand hall, Mr. Richardson in a chair and the general perched on an ornate, golden sofa.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the trip “did zilch, zero nothing for human rights in Myanmar while giving a propaganda win to Burma’s nasty, rights abusing military junta. Pathetic.”

In the interview, Mr. Richardson acknowledged that it was possible that his visit had given the junta an air of legitimacy, but he said that his goal had been to focus on the needs of Myanmar’s people.

Myanmar’s military government released this photograph of Mr. Richardson, left, meeting on Tuesday with its top commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in Naypyidaw, the capital.Credit…Myanmar Military Information Team, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“My philosophy in diplomacy is, I don’t believe 55 million people should suffer because of the political crisis of the military takeover,” he said. “Somebody has to help the people who are suffering and dying.”

At his request, he said, General Min Aung Hlaing released a former employee of his nonprofit group, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, from prison. But Mr. Richardson said that he had not sought the release of other prisoners, including Danny Fenster, an American journalist, or asked to meet with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the Feb. 1 coup.

He said that he had gone to Myanmar at the invitation of the junta’s foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, solely to discuss humanitarian aid and the delivery of vaccines for childhood diseases and Covid-19. If there is progress, Mr. Richardson said, it could lead to a second mission that could focus on larger issues.

“I think the problem has been a lack of engagement on all sides,” he said. “My theory is that if you improve the humanitarian situation and vaccine access, that could lead to some political reconciliation among the parties.”

The U.S. State Department had said in advance that it welcomed Mr. Richardson’s trip. He said that he had consulted with officials at the department and at the United Nations before going to Myanmar.

Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the U.N., has also been a governor of New Mexico and a cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton. Over the years, he has acted as a global troubleshooter, helping to win the release of American prisoners from countries such as Bangladesh, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

Mr. Richardson said that he had not raised the case of Mr. Fenster during his Myanmar trip because the State Department had asked him not to.

Mr. Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar magazine, was arrested in May as he was preparing to leave the country. He has been charged with disseminating information that could harm the military. Last week, a judge rejected his request for bail, and a new charge of violating immigration laws was lodged against him.

Outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar. Since the Feb. 1 coup, journalists, elected leaders and pro-democracy protesters have been held in the aging facility.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We’re devastated with the turn of events that happened during the exact time of the Richardson visit,” Mr. Fenster’s brother, Bryan Fenster, said in an interview.

Mr. Richardson said he did not see a connection between his mission and the latest actions taken against Mr. Fenster.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, declined to say why the State Department had asked Mr. Richardson not to raise Mr. Fenster’s case. “We continue to urge the military to release all those unjustly detained, including Danny,” he said.

Understanding the Chaos in Myanmar

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Myanmar is on the verge of civil war. Following a military coup on Feb. 1, unrest has been growing. Peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations have given way to insurgent uprisings against the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, which ousted the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is a polarizing figure. The daughter of a hero of Myanmar’s independence, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains very popular at home. Internationally, her reputation has been tarnished by her recent cooperation with the same military generals who ousted her.

The coup ended a short span of quasi-democracy. In 2011, the Tatmadaw implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as state councillor in 2016, becoming the country’s de facto head of government.

The coup was preceded by a contested election. In the Nov. 8 election, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 83 percent of the body’s available seats. The military, whose proxy party suffered a crushing defeat, refused to accept the results of the vote.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi could face time in prison. She was detained by the junta and secretly put on trial. If convicted of all 11 charges against her, which include “inciting public unrest,” she could be sentenced to a maximum of 102 years in prison.

The generals’ February coup drew nationwide protests and a general strike in Myanmar, prompting a brutal military crackdown. Soldiers and the police have killed at least 1,243 protesters and bystanders and detained more than 7,000 people, according to a rights group monitoring the violence. The crackdown and its repercussions have crippled the health care system even as Covid-19 has swept through the country.

Diplomatic efforts aimed at reducing the violence have been unsuccessful. Myanmar’s military leaders have a reputation for appearing conciliatory in meetings but failing to follow through on what seemed to be agreements. Despite an apparent deal in April between the junta chief and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regime has still not allowed a special envoy from that organization to visit Myanmar.

Mr. Richardson said that General Min Aung Hlaing had not made any promises during their talks. “I gave my presentation and he responded positively without committing himself to each one,” he said. “He seemed knowledgeable about the situation. He was cordial, quiet. He was not bombastic at all.”

Mr. Richardson said he brought up the case of Ma Aye Moe, 31, his center’s former employee, who was arrested more than four months ago and was being held at the notorious Insein Prison on an incitement charge. Mr. Richardson showed the general a photograph of himself with Ms. Aye Moe, who had led training workshops focused on empowering women. The general said that he would look into it.

“The next day, she was delivered to my hotel,” Mr. Richardson said. “They picked her up at the prison and took her in a car. She didn’t know where she was being taken. She saw us and she burst out crying. It was quite a nice scene.”

Mr. Richardson in Yangon on Wednesday with Ma Aye Moe, a former employee of his nonprofit group, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, after her release from Insein Prison. At right is Mickey Bergman, the center’s executive director.Credit…The Richardson Center, via Associated Press

Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group Burma Campaign UK, was critical of Mr. Richardson for not securing the release of other prisoners. He said on Twitter that the trip had given General Min Aung Hlaing “the money shot he waited 9 months for. Will he get Danny Fenster in return? What about the other 7,000 political prisoners?”

Mr. Richardson first went to Myanmar in 1994 as a member of Congress and persuaded the military rulers of that era to let him meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. He helped negotiate her release the following year, though she was eventually detained again.

He broke with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in 2018 when, as the leader of a civilian government sharing power with the military, she refused to stand up for Rohingya Muslims who were the targets of ethnic cleansing by the army, or for two Reuters reporters who were imprisoned after they uncovered a massacre of Rohingya villagers.

On Feb. 1, as the generals were seizing full power, Mr. Richardson called on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to step aside and let others lead Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces because of “her failure to promote democratic values.” That may have made the regime more amenable to his visit.

Mr. Richardson said that he did not ask to meet with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi during this trip because he wanted to focus on humanitarian and health issues. She is now on trial, and a verdict is expected later this month.

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