The veteran US diplomat is criticized for a trip to Myanmar

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

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

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

But some rights activists were harsh in their criticisms of his visit, saying he had helped the junta by meeting its leaders as if they were legitimate rulers. State media in Myanmar, 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 gilded decorated sofa.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said on Twitter that the trip “he did nothing, zero nothing for human rights in Myanmar while giving a propaganda victory to the Burmese military junta that violated rights. Pathetic. “

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

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

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 he hadn’t asked for the release of other prisoners, including … Danny Window, to the American journalist, or asked to meet Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained since the February 1 coup.

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

“I think the problem was a lack of commitment from all sides,” he said. “My theory is that if the humanitarian situation and access to vaccines are improved, this 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 traveling to Myanmar.

Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, was also governor of New Mexico and cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton. Over the years it has acted as a comprehensive troubleshooting tool, helping to 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 had asked him not to.

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

“We are devastated by the turn of events that occurred during the exact moment of Richardson’s visit,” Mr. Fenster’s brother Bryan Fenster said in an interview.

Mr. Richardson said he didn’t see a connection between his mission and the latest action taken against Mr. Fenster.

A spokesperson for the US Embassy 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 who have been wrongfully detained, including Danny,” he said.

The February coup by generals sparked nationwide protests and a general strike in Myanmar, resulting in a brutal military crackdown. Soldiers and police killed at least 1,243 demonstrators and bystanders and detained more than 7,000 people, according to a human rights group that monitors the violence. Repression and its repercussions have paralyzed the health system also as Covid-19 has overwhelmed the country.

Diplomatic efforts to reduce violence have not been successful. Myanmar’s military leaders have a reputation for appearing conciliators in meetings but failing to carry out what appeared to be deals. Despite an apparent bargain in April between the head of the junta and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regime has not yet allowed a special envoy of that organization to visit Myanmar.

Mr. Richardson said that General Min Aung Hlaing had not made any promises during their talks. “I made my presentation and he responded positively without committing to each,” she said. “He seemed aware of the situation. He was friendly, quiet. It wasn’t bombastic at all. “

Mr. Richardson said he raised the case of Ma Aye Moe, 31, a former employee of his center, who was arrested more than four months ago and was detained in the infamous Insein prison on charges of instigation. Mr. Richardson showed the general a photograph of him with Ms. Aye Moe, who had conducted training seminars focused on women’s empowerment. The general said he would investigate.

“The next day, it was delivered to my hotel,” said Mr. Richardson. “They took her from the prison and drove her. She didn’t know where they were taking her. She saw us and burst into tears. It was a pretty good scene. “

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

Mr. Richardson first went to Myanmar in 1994 as a congressman and persuaded the military rulers of that time 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.

Hey broke up with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in 2018 when, as the leader of a civilian government that shared power with the military, he refused to defend the Rohingya Muslims who were the objectives of ethnic cleansing by the army, or for two Reuters reporters who were imprisoned after discovering a massacre of Rohingya villagers.

On February 1, as the generals were taking full power, Richardson called on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to step aside and let others lead the democratic forces of Myanmar due to “her inability to promote democratic values”. This may have made the regime more open to his visit.

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

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