Veteran U.S. diplomat faces criticism for Myanmar trip | Latest News Headlines

Veteran U.S. diplomat faces criticism for Myanmar trip

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Bill Richardson, the former American diplomat, has made many trips to Myanmar since the 1990s. He has negotiated with the generals who have led it, yesterday and today. He was an ally and then a critic of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, his most popular politician, who is once again a prisoner in the army.

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

“Overall, our discussions have been positive and productive,” Richardson said over the phone.

But some rights activists have been scathing in their criticism of his visit, saying he helped the junta by meeting its leaders as if they were legitimate leaders. Myanmar State Media, formerly known as Burma, published a photograph of Mr. Richardson and General Min Aung Hlaing together in a large hall, Mr. Richardson in a chair and the General perched on a golden sofa ornate.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the trip “do zilch, zero nothing for human rights in Myanmar while giving a propaganda victory to the evil Burmese military junta. Pathetic.”

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

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

At his request, he said, General Min Aung Hlaing released from prison a former employee of his non-profit group, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. But Mr Richardson said he had not called for the release of other prisoners, including Danny Fenster, an American journalist, or asked to meet Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, detained since the February 1 coup.

He said he visited Myanmar at the invitation of the junta’s Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin only to discuss humanitarian aid and the delivery of vaccines against childhood diseases and the Covid-19. If there is progress, said Richardson, it could lead to a second mission that could focus on larger issues.

“I think the problem has been a lack of commitment from all sides,” he said. “My theory is that if you improve the humanitarian situation and access to vaccines, it could lead to some political reconciliation between the parties. “

The US State Department had said in advance that it welcomed Mr. Richardson’s trip. He said he consulted with officials from the department and the United Nations before visiting Myanmar.

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

Mr Richardson said he did not raise Mr Fenster’s case during his trip to Myanmar because the State Department asked him not to.

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

“We are devastated by this turn of events which occurred at the exact time of Richardson’s visit,” Mr. Fenster’s brother Bryan Fenster said in an interview.

Mr. Richardson said he saw no connection between his assignment and the latest action taken against Mr. Fenster.

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

The generals’ coup in February sparked nationwide protests and a general strike in Myanmar, sparking brutal military repression. Soldiers and 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 crippled the healthcare system even as Covid-19 swept the country.

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

Mr Richardson said General Min Aung Hlaing made no promises during their talks. “I made my presentation and he responded positively without committing to everyone,” he said. “He seemed aware of the situation. He was cordial, calm. He was not at all bombastic.

Mr Richardson said he brought up the case of Ma Aye Moe, 31, a former employee of his center, who was arrested more than four months ago and was being held at the infamous Insein prison for inciting violence . Mr Richardson showed the General a photo of himself with Ms Aye Moe, who had led training workshops focused on women’s empowerment. The general said he would inquire.

“The next day it was delivered to my hotel,” Mr. Richardson said. “They picked her up from the prison and took her in a car. She didn’t know where she was taken. She saw us and burst into tears. It was a very beautiful scene.

Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group Burma Campaign UK, criticized Mr Richardson for failing to secure the release of other prisoners. He said on Twitter that the trip gave General Min Aung Hlaing “the shot he’s been waiting for 9 months. Will he have Danny Fenster in return? What about the other 7,000 political prisoners?

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

He broke with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in 2018 when, as head of a civilian government sharing power with the military, she refused to defend Rohingya Muslims who were the target of ethnic cleansing by the military, or two Reuters journalists. who were imprisoned after discovering a massacre of Rohingya villagers.

On February 1, as the generals took full power, Mr. Richardson called on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to step aside and let others lead Myanmar’s pro-democratic forces over “her failure to promote values. democratic ”. This may have made the regime more favorable to his visit.

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

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