Bill Richardson, the former US 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, his most popular politician, who is once again a prisoner of the army.
Richardson’s latest visit, last week, made him the most prominent Western figure to meet Myanmar’s generals since overthrew the elected civilian government of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in February. In an interview Saturday, the first since the trip, he said he had met with the leader of the board, Major General Min Aung Hlaingand other officials to try to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Myanmar, including Covid vaccines.
“Overall, our discussions were positive and productive,” Richardson said by phone.
But some rights activists have harshly criticized his visit, saying that he had helped the junta by meeting with its leaders as if they were legitimate rulers. State media in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, published a photograph of Richardson and General Min Aung Hlaing together in a large hall, Mr. Richardson in a chair, and the general sitting on an ornate gilt sofa.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the trip “did nothing, zero nothing for human rights in Myanmar while giving a propaganda victory to Burma’s disgusting rights-abusing military junta. Pathetic. “
In the interview, Mr. Richardson acknowledged that his visit may have given the board an air of legitimacy, but said his goal had been to focus on the needs of the Myanmar people.
“My philosophy in diplomacy is that I do not believe that 55 million people should suffer from the political crisis of the military seizure of power,” 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 had not requested the release of other prisoners, including Danny Window, to the American journalist, or asked to meet with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the February 1 coup.
He said he had come to Myanmar at the invitation of the board’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, Richardson said, it could lead to a second mission that could focus on bigger issues.
“I think the problem has been the lack of participation from all parties,” he said. “My theory is that if the humanitarian situation and access to vaccines are improved, that could lead to some political reconciliation between the parties.”
The US State Department had said beforehand that it appreciated Richardson’s trip. He said he had consulted with department and United Nations officials before going to Myanmar.
Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the UN, has also served as governor of New Mexico and secretary of the cabinet during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Over the years, it has acted as a global problem solver, helping win the release of American prisoners from countries like Bangladesh, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan.
Mr. Richardson said that he had not raised 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 while preparing to leave the country. He has been accused of spreading information that could harm the military. Last week, a judge rejected his request for bail and a new charge was brought against him for violating immigration laws.
“We are devastated by the turn of events that occurred during the exact time of Richardson’s visit,” Fenster’s brother Bryan Fenster said in an interview.
Richardson said he doesn’t see a connection between his mission and the latest actions taken against Fenster.
A spokesman for the US embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, declined to say why the State Department had asked Richardson not to raise Fenster’s case. “We continue to urge the military to release all those unjustly detained, including Danny,” he said.
Understanding the chaos in Myanmar
The February coup by the generals sparked protests across the country and a general strike in Myanmar, sparking brutal military crackdown. Soldiers and police have killed at least 1,243 protesters and bystanders and detained more than 7,000 people, according to a human rights group that monitors the violence. The repression and its repercussions have paralyzed the health system as plain Covid-19 has spread throughout the country.
Diplomatic efforts to reduce violence have been unsuccessful. Myanmar’s military leaders have a reputation for appearing conciliatory in meetings, but they fail to follow through on what appeared to be agreements. Despite an apparent deal In April between the head of the board and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regime has not yet 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 to each one,” she said. “He seemed to be informed about the situation. He was cordial, quiet. It wasn’t bombastic at all. “
Richardson said he brought up the case of Ma Aye Moe, 31, a former employee at his facility, who was arrested more than four months ago and detained in the famous Insein prison for 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 he would look into it.
“The next day, they took her to my hotel,” Richardson said. “They picked her up at the prison and took her away in a car. She didn’t know where they were taking her. He saw us and began to cry. It was a pretty nice 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 had given General Min Aung Hlaing “the injection of money that waited 9 months. Will Danny Window get in return?? What about the other 7,000 political prisoners? “
Mr. Richardson first went to Myanmar in 1994 as a member of Congress and convinced the military rulers of the time to allow him to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. She helped negotiate her release the following year, although 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 Rohingya Muslims who were the goals of ethnic cleansing by the army, or for two Reuters reporters who were jailed after discovering a massacre of Rohingya villagers.
On February 1, as the generals seized all power, Richardson asked Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to step aside and let others lead Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces due to “their inability to promote democratic values” . That may have made the regime more willing to accept 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 health and humanitarian issues. She is now on trial, and a verdict is expected later this month.