FORMER US Governor Bill Richardson has stepped down from the Advisory Board on Rakhine State, stating that he is worried it will simply become a “cheerleading squad for government policy” as Burma (Myanmar) responds to the Rohingya crisis.
Having been a friend of the Nobel laureate for decades, Richardson said in a statement on Wednesday that he had been “taken aback” by how strongly the media, United Nations and the international community generally were “disparaged” in the Advisory Board’s first meetings with the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week.
“I was one of the first westerners to visit her while she was under house arrest and have helped to free political prisoners and supported Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” Richardson wrote. “In the wake of ARSA attacks, the absence of Daw Suu’s moral leadership on this critical issue is of great concern.”
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Burmese security force outposts on Aug 25, 2017, provoking so-called “clearing operations” across the Rakhine by the Tatmadaw army which have led to almost 700,000 refugees fleeing into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
The Advisory Board is tasked with overseeing the implementation of recommendations from a commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, which include extending citizenship rights, freedom of movement and equality before the law to Rohingya Muslims.
Amnesty International has described the Rakhine State as an “open-air prison” for Rohingyas.
Suu Kyi’s office responded on Thursday, claiming that Richardson had been asked to stand down because he was using the position to “pursue his own agenda”.
A spokesman for Richardson denied the claim, telling Reuters that the situation was “quite the opposite, their National Security Advisor stopped by the night before to convince the Governor to stay as planned.”
Chairman of the body Dr Surakiart Sathirathai was “not genuinely committed” to implementing the Annan Report, said Richardson, and had “parroted the dangerous and untrue notion that international NGOs employ radicals and that humanitarian agencies are providing support for ARSA.”
Richardson added he was “extremely upset” with Suu Kyi’s response to the arrests of two Reuters journalists who had been covering the Rohingya crisis and face 14 years’ imprisonment under Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Southeast Asian lawmakers visit Cox’s Bazar
After completing a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh, meanwhile, members of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have called upon Southeast Asian governments to take greater action to resolve the Rohingya crisis.
“Where is Asean? This is the question we kept hearing from everyone we met,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament who headed the delegation.
“We therefore call on Asean to convene an urgent meeting of foreign ministers of all members states to discuss the crisis and establish a plan of action to resolve it,” he said.
Singapore parliamentarian Louis Ng said: “the stories we heard directly from Rohingya refugees were heartbreaking, from parents who witnessed their children killed to children scarred physically and emotionally by brutal violence.”
“Asean countries must stop using the non-interference principle as an excuse for inaction,” former Thai lawmaker Rachada Dhnadirek said. “Financial commitment to support humanitarian assistance is critical, but it must be accompanied by pressure on the Myanmar military to end persecution that lies at the root of the crisis.”
The Muslim majority states of Indonesia and Malaysia have been most vocal on the issue, with Putrajaya distancing itself from an Asean statement on the crisis as a “misrepresentation of the reality of the situation” last September.
Earlier this week, slated repatriation of Rohingya refugees was delayed – a development welcomed by APHR. “The Rohingya refugees we spoke with were clear: They want to return to their homeland, but only if their conditions are met,” said Santiago.
“These include citizenship, justice, compensation, and security guarantees. In any discussions of possible repatriation, these and other demands of the refugees must be heeded.”