US Diplomat Quits Myanmar Rohingya Panel, Calling It A “Whitewash”

Former Clinton administration cabinet member and veteran US diplomat, Bill Richardson, has resigned from the international panel established by Aung San Suu Kyi to advise on the Rohingya crisis. He quit as the ten-member advisory board was making its first visit to the western Rakhine State, from where over 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled in recent months. In an interview with Reuters, Richardson explained “the main reason I am resigning is that this advisory board is a whitewash” and added that he was unwilling to take part in what he viewed as “a cheerleading squad for the government.”

Richardson said that he had got into an argument with Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting with other members of the board when he brought up the case of two Reuters reporters, who are on trial after being accused of having breached the country’s Officials Secrets Act. According to Richardson, Suu Kyi’s response was “furious” as she insisted that the case “was not part of the work of the advisory board.” This point was reiterated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, who commented to Reuters that the Advisory Board had met exclusively about the “Rakhine issue” and that “[Richardson] talked on a topic outside the agenda of the meetings and went beyond the framework, we feel sorry for his resignation due to the misunderstanding.”

If Richardson’s criticisms are legitimate, the integrity of the panel’s intentions to fulfil its mandate may be called into question. The Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, as it is titled in full, was set up by the Myanmar government last year in order to advise on enacting the findings of a previous commission conducted under former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Nevertheless, Bill Richardson has said that the panel’s chairman, former Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, was not “genuinely committed” to implementing important recommendations regarding issues pertaining to the Rohingya’s safety, citizenship, peace, stability, and development.

At the beginning of 2017, there were approximately one million Rohingya people living within Myanmar, where they exist as an ethnic minority with their own language and culture; now only a fraction of this number remains. While having long combatted issues of discrimination by the government, the situation flared up last August after Rohingya militants in the Rakhine state attacked police posts. As a result, lots of people fleed across the border to Bangladesh, where accounts began to emerge of Myanmar armed forces, supported by local Buddhist mobs, burning villages as well as attacking and killing civilians. The nature of this military offensive has led the United Nations to describe it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Bangladesh has said that the Rohingya people, who are currently living in refugee camps within its borders will be returned to Myanmar within two years. While these circumstances only increase the need for Myanmar to make a sincere effort to implement the recommendations on Rakhine State, Bill Richardson’s decision to resign from the board and his stated reasons for such decision do not indicate that this is what is being practiced. This is undoubtedly concerning, but as Heather Nuart, the spokeswoman for the US State Department put it, “ultimately the Burmese government and military have the authority to determine whether the Advisory Board will succeed” and all the international community can do is continue to support good faith efforts in the promotion of peace.