Analysis

Richardson, Myanmar Junta Chief Share a Dislike for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

By The Irrawaddy 3 November 2021

At first glance, it was a meeting between a former US ambassador to the UN and the Myanmar military junta chief in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw.

To some politically aware souls, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s reception of Bill Richardson on Tuesday appeared significant: The former New Mexico governor is, after all, the first US non-state figure to pay a visit to the Myanmar regime, which has been shunned internationally for seizing power from the democratically elected government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup in February, and for its subsequent deadly crackdowns on anti-regime protesters. It raised more than a few eyebrows to see the coup leader welcoming the former US diplomat after repeatedly turning away ASEAN’s special envoy, who was appointed by the bloc to help find a resolution to the post-coup turmoil. Myanmar is an ASEAN member.

In fact, the two men who met in the Credentials Hall of the regime’s office on Tuesday have something in common: Both seek to keep Myanmar’s ousted democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi out of the country’s politics.

Since day one of the coup on Feb. 1, she has been detained—along with the country’s President U Win Myint—by Min Aung Hlaing and charged in 11 absurd criminal cases. If found guilty of all charges, the 76-year-old would spend 102 years behind bars. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a towering political figure who has been highly revered by the majority of the country’s people for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of the Myanmar democracy movement since 1988. Her political popularity has been unrivaled since then. Take her National League for Democracy (NLD)’s electoral victories in 1990, 2015 and 2020. One of her missions has been to root out the military’s long involvement in the country’s politics—which dates back to 1962—because it’s simply undemocratic. Unsurprisingly, she has been a thorn in the generals’ side.

Richardson, a onetime friend and supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, clearly stated his stand against her on the first day of the coup in a Twitter post.

“The Myanmar military must show the utmost restraint in any further use of force. B/C of Suu Kyi’s failure to promote Democratic values as Myanmar’s de facto leader she should step aside & let other Myanmar democratic leaders take the rein w/ international backing and support,” he tweeted.

Bill Richardson’s Twitter post on Feb. 1.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Richardson’s friendship dates back to 1994, when she was under house arrest and he was one of her first visitors outside of her immediate family. When her NLD government established an advisory board to help solve the Rohingya issue in 2017, the former New Mexico governor was among five prominent international figures appointed to it.

However, he became a hater of the State Counselor the following year when he abruptly quit the body after clashing with her over his attempt to secure the release of two Reuters journalists detained for their reporting on a massacre of Rohingya committed by the army. The military chief at the time was—and remains—the current coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing.

Richardson said at the time that the panel was engaged in a “whitewash” of military atrocities and he did not want to be part of “a cheerleading squad for the government” led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he accused of lacking “moral leadership” in her handling of the crisis.

More than two years later, the former US diplomat met with the general who bears ultimate responsibility for the soldiers’ atrocities against the Rohinyga. It would be interesting to know whether the former governor tried to raise the issue with Min Aung Hlaing, as his Richardson Center also works for the wellbeing of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh.

Richardson said his Myanmar trip this time was a humanitarian mission to discuss pathways for the humanitarian delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, medical supplies and other public health needs.

The State Department said the trip was not an effort sponsored by or on behalf of the US government, but added, “We hope his trip contributes to improve humanitarian access (to the country).”

While the humanitarian issue is important for Myanmar, the US shouldn’t forget that the root causes of the crisis were mostly political and sparked by the coup. So, we shouldn’t expect any positive outcomes from the meeting of these two birds of a feather.

Another interesting question is whether he asked the regime for permission to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Allowing the detained State Counselor to meet with foreign diplomats seems to be a very sensitive issue for the junta. The ASEAN special envoy’s visit to the country has been blocked by the regime as he made the same request. On Wednesday, the regime’s No. 2 leader, Vice Senior General Soe Win, insisted that allowing a foreigner to meet someone charged with crimes was unlawful.

Bill Richardson (left) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (right) in Yangon in 2012. / The Richardson Center

Currently all eyes are on the case of Danny Fenster, a US journalist detained by the junta for incitement since May, as Richardson is known for his previous attempts to negotiate the release of international hostages and US citizens in rogue nations around the world. Given his previous efforts on behalf of the Reuters journalists—and no doubt looking to maintain his “negotiator” reputation—it is reasonable to assume the ex-governor tried his luck with the regime to secure the release of the journalist, as well as that of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Australian economic adviser Sean Turnell, who has been detained since February and is accused of breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act.

It is known only to Richardson whether he requested the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—if only for the sake of their former friendship.

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