YANGON – The resignation of Bill Richardson from the Advisory Board for the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State will not tarnish the panel’s credibility, board member Roelof Petrus Meyer said on Thursday.
Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi established the board in December. Comprising five high-profile international figures and five local experts, it is chaired by former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and tasked with advising the implementation committee led by Social Welfare Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye.
The board nominees conducted a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Jan. 22. Vice president U Myint Swe and Union Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye also attended. During the meeting, Richardson tried to raise the issue of two Reuters reporters who have been detained in connection with their coverage of events in Rakhine. However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi refused to discuss the issue, saying it was outside the scope of the advisory board’s mandate.
The next day, Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and a long-time ally of the state counsellor, did not join the board as it left on a trip to Rakhine State. Richardson left Myanmar on Jan. 24 and issued a statement announcing his resignation from the board. In the statement he voiced his concern that the board would become a “cheerleading squad and whitewash for government policy.”
Surakiart and three other board members — Urban Ahlin, a Swedish parliamentarian; Armenian-British doctor and Labour politician Prof. Lord Derzi of Denham; and Meyer, a former South African defense minister — returned to Yangon from Rakhine on Thursday.
Meyer took questions from journalists at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon. He said, “I think Mr. Richardson was a little bit in a hurry to make that statement and it’s unfair. And like our statement said, it is not a legitimate statement by him.”
The State Counsellor’s Office released a statement on Thursday evening regarding Richardson. It described his intent as “not to provide advice based on recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by Dr. Kofi Annan, but to pursue his own agenda.”
Recently appointed Deputy Information Minister U Aung Hla Tun told reporters in Naypyidaw on Friday that Richardson had raised an issue that was beyond the commission’s mandate, and pointed out that the trial of the two reporters could only be dealt with by the president. Attempts by others to intervene could be tantamount to contempt of court, the deputy minister said.
“Nobody should use this case for their personal advantage, such as to seek popularity or publicity,” said U Aung Hla Tun, who added that putting pressure on the government in connection with the two detainees could be “counterproductive”.
Some local observers have criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for appointing international experts to advise on the Rakhine crisis, saying the cost is too high. They point to the case of Richardson, whose appointment has backfired by fuelling international criticism of the state counsellor. She has experienced sustained international condemnation in recent months regarding her perceived silence over the exodus of Rohingya refugees from northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw District following military operations there. The UN described the military offensive as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Richardson also accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of disparaging UN and human rights workers, INGOs as well as the international community. Addressing that serious accusation, Meyer said his board completely understands the essential role of the international community and the UN in addressing Rakhine State’s complex problems and pointed out that Richardson’s comments represented his personal views.
“That’s the observation of one individual and we don’t need necessarily agree with it,” he said.
Meyer, when asked whether Richardson’s resignation hurt the team’s credibility, especially in the eyes of the international community, said, “Not at all.” He added, “I think it’s clear from the points that we are raising in the last paragraph of the recommendations [in the board’s first statement] that we made to the implementation committee that we are quite serious, very serious [about] what needs to be done.”
The Advisory Board’s statement urged the government to allow UN humanitarian work in conflict zones and access to media as soon as possible. He said the commission would provide free and frank advice to the implementation committee and was confident in its ability to address the Rakhine issue.
The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments initially agreed to start repatriating Rohingya refugees on Jan. 23, but the process has been delayed. The Myanmar government has announced that temporary camps are ready to accept verified returnees, though none had arrived as of Jan. 26.
The Advisory Board members visited several camps in Maungdaw and described their establishment as a positive step that would facilitate the refugees’ safe return.
Meyer said, “It’s quite clear that there is an effort being made and hopefully that will encourage people to come back.”