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VOA Interview: Bill Richardson Discusses Myanmar, Rohingya

VOA Interview: Bill Richardson Discusses Myanmar, Rohingya
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VOA Interview: Bill Richardson Discusses Myanmar, Rohingya

VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson about Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis and his resignation from an advisory committee to give recommendations on a report on refugees in Bangladesh.

Van Susteren: Governor, nice to see you, sir.

Richardson: Thank you, Greta, nice to be with you.

Van Susteren: Governor, you were just recently in Myanmar. Why were you there?

Richardson: Well, I had been appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi to an advisory committee to give recommendations on the [former U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan report on refugees in Bangladesh and other issues and I resigned because I felt the advisory commission was a whitewash and I had a little bit of a confrontation with Aung San Suu Kyi when I asked her to please deal with these two Reuters reporters, that it was not sending a good message about freedom of the press. And I decided that I shouldn't be part of what I think in the end is going to be an advisory commission that whitewashes and reinforces the policies of Aung San Suu Kyi, my former friend, and the Myanmar government.

Van Susteren: All right, so take me through the steps. You walk into the room, was Aung San Suu Kyi already there and you were anticipating, I assume, a rather cordial discussion with her? How did it go off the rails?

Richardson: Well, it went off the rails. I think she already was upset with me because there’d been a press report that I had asked for a meeting with a home minister about the two Reuters reporters. So, I walked in the room, shook her hand, and you could tell by her expression she didn't exactly want to see me. It was a very quick handshake. And then when we sat down and started the dialogue, I could tell that she was uncomfortable. I first raised the issue of the mass graves of some of the Rakhine, that there should be an investigation. I then talked about the importance of dealing fairly with the two Reuters reporters, and I thought pretty much that it was not going well, and she literally exploded, interrupting me, telling me that "This is not your charter, Bill. This is out of the question. Stay out of those issues." And then, right then, I knew that my staying on this commission — we were there for some investigative work and reform work — but it wasn't going to work. So it didn't start too well, and that initial encounter also went into a dinner right after where we were kind of trading, not insults, but very negative. I just made a point, "Look," I said, "We're friends for 30 years. I've always supported you, and here we are in a situation where you don’t want frank advice. Friends give frank advice." And she said, "Well, I don't want bad advice." So, it didn't start too well.

Van Susteren: Did she use the word "Rohingya"? Because when I've been in Myanmar, if you mention the word "Rohingya," they look through you like you're making it up. Did she at least acknowledge the fact that there had been Rohingya living in the Rakhine state and that they’d pushed into Bangladesh?

Richardson: No, nobody mentioned the word Rohingya, neither the chairman of our advisory committee, a former Thai foreign minister, or Aung San Suu Kyi, or any of her people. I think it just showed that their main interest was protecting the Buddhist-minority in the Rakhine; that they had little intention of dealing with human rights violations, the refugee issues relating to the Rohingya. No, she never mentioned it. She never mentioned the word.

Van Susteren: All right, there’s been an investigation that two Reuters reporters that you refer to, they have been taken into custody, I think, sometime in December, and Reuters obviously wants them released and journalists want them to be released. People all over the world do. Does she acknowledge that they are holding these Reuters reporters?

Richardson: She acknowledges it, but her view is that they violated the Official Secrets Act, which is just consistent with what dictatorships say reporters are violating national security, which is not the case. These are the two reporters that discovered the mass graves. Possibly as many as 12. And then they were framed by the military. The point here is that some of these atrocities were committed not by the Rohingyas, alone, but by members of the military. And so what you have here is a cover-up, a judicial process that I don't think is fair and, lastly, that doesn't give her a good, clean international image that she's trying to deal with the Rohingya issue and that she puts reporters, the bedrock of democracy and free press, in jail. It doesn't make sense.

Van Susteren: Could she do anything? I mean, she was under house arrest for a number of years then, when she became the leader, the [de facto] president, everyone was so excited thinking she was going to change things dramatically. But does she really have any authority in Myanmar to the help the reporters, to help the Rohingya?

Richardson: First of all, she's in charge of all domestic policy. The military’s in charge of National Security. There is a divide, so she can't tell the military what to do. But she doesn't have, or has not exercised, moral authority to push the military and say, "You know, stop terrorizing the Rohingyas, release these reporters, find ways to integrate the Rohingyas and the Buddhists. Bring some kind of end to the violence with a lot of these refugees." You were there, Greta, you know this issue. I mean, there’s almost a million people displaced. They don’t want to go back to the Rakhine state, to Myanmar because they're afraid of their safety. They’re afraid they're going to end up in mass graves or raped. And you know that many of us, like also the international press, the U.N., we lionized Aung San Suu Kyi. She was a champion of democracy. I remember being in the Clinton cabinet and proposing sanctions on the military to set her free. And she eventually was set free. So, it's a big disappointment all around.

Van Susteren: So, what happened to her? What happened to her? Was this all a fraud to begin with or it seems like you, sir, were lured over there with the expectation that you’d help with the spotlight on this and help solve this problem and now she doesn't even want to face it? She won’t even use the word Rohingya. What happened?

Richardson: Well, I think, Greta, you understand how powerful people, you've been in Washington, great reporter a long time. You know when people get powerful and I, maybe me too, you get people around you that tell you how great you are. You don't want to hear bad news. I think she was a human rights icon, a great champion of democracy, but she's changed because she gets people around her that tell her not frank advice. She wants to get re-elected. She knows she needs the military to get re-elected, and she may be afraid that the military is going to do something untoward toward her. I suspect that. But she's also developed, I’ve known her for 30 years, an arrogance of power, a sense that "I know it all and what I'm doing is right," and she brought this advisory commission of four fairly distinguished people, myself maybe included, to advise her and she didn't want to take any frank advice, at least from me.

Van Susteren: Have you heard at all from her since you left Myanmar?

Richardson: Well, no. Obviously, I think the friendship is over. I have heard that they were very upset at me saying that I was pursuing my own agenda. And I have resigned and they were begging me to stay, but then they put out a statement saying that I'd been asked to leave, which is not true. But no, the relationship is hopefully not permanently damaged, but I’m going to stay active on this issue. It means a lot. One million people are being brutalized, and in the international community, somebody has to speak out.

Van Susteren: We've heard terms like ethnic cleansing. I think Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson has even used that word in reference. So, what is it going to take to stop this? Because if the situation is so bleak, besides all the killings and all the deaths and the people penned in a particular area in Bangladesh, you’ve got diphtheria, you’ve got mumps, and you've got all these problems that are only getting worse. What will it take to end this?

Richardson: Well, a lot of people ask me that, Greta, and they say, "Well, shouldn't we punish Aung San Suu Kyi? Put on sanctions?" I say, no. I think she needs another chance. In other words, the international community, the U.N., countries around the world, the U.S. By the way, I think the Trump administration and secretary Tillerson have been in the right position on this issue, talking about the need for investigations, dealing with the refugees fairly. So, what I think is give her one more chance. The international community that she has disparaged should find a way to enter into a very serious dialogue with her. But I would consider, maybe, sanctioning some of the military leaders that have been committing the atrocities. You know, we’ve sanctioned one individual under what is called the Magnitsky Act. I would consider some of the other generals that are responsible for some of these tragedies. You know, these sanctions work sometimes, but I would combine diplomacy. You know, you were in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. The international community needs to step up financially for food and medicine. And then we need to develop, if they're going to go back to Myanmar, I don't think they're ready, they have to be safe. They have to get some promises of citizenship. They’re going to have to go back to jobs and education and homes. A lot of these homes have been destroyed. It's a huge task and you can't just sweep it under the rug or say we're just going to punish her. That's only going to make things worse.