Statement by Governor Bill Richardson – A Reluctant Resignation from the Advisory Board on Rakhine State

January 24th, 2018

It is with great disappointment that I announce my resignation from the Advisory Board on Rakhine State. It appears that the Board is likely to become a cheerleading squad for government policy as opposed to proposing genuine policy changes that are desperately needed to assure peace, stability, and development in Rakhine State. Additionally, I was extremely upset at State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s reaction to my request that she address the situation of the two Reuters journalists both swiftly and fairly; freedom of the press to report the facts is a fundamental bedrock of democracy.

I accepted a role on the Advisory Board as a friend of Myanmar and of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I have known for decades; I was one of the first westerners to visit her while she was under house arrest and have helped to free political prisoners and supported Myanmar’s transition to democracy. I met with Daw Suu in the immediate aftermath of the attacks perpetrated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August 2017 and offered her my assistance yet one more time. My intention in accepting this role was to support Myanmar’s efforts to bring about lasting peace, security, and development in Rakhine State. I was under no illusions about the complexities of the challenges that lay ahead – and conveyed some of my concerns to Daw Suu upon accepting the role – but was optimistic that, with the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations as the foundation for a road map and the commitment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to implement these recommendations, tangible progress could be made, both for the Rakhine and Muslim communities living in Myanmar and for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have fled to Bangladesh since August and previously.

In the past three days, however, in initial meetings with members of the Advisory Board and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it has become clear that I cannot in good conscience serve in this role. In the Advisory Board’s initial meeting with Daw Suu, I was taken aback by the vigor with which the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community were disparaged. I was also alarmed by the lack of sincerity with which the critical issue of citizenship was discussed. Moreover, Daw Suu’s furious response at my suggestion that the case against the two arrested Reuters journalists be addressed swiftly as a way to protect freedom of the press in an increasingly constrained environment. A scheduled meeting I had with the Minister of Home Affairs to discuss this issue was abruptly canceled. While it is important to recognize that the military still wields significant power and that they are primarily to blame for the recent exodus of refugees in the wake of ARSA attacks, the absence of Daw Suu’s moral leadership on this critical issue is of great concern.

I am also concerned that the Chairman of the Advisory Board, Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai, is not genuinely committed to implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations and to addressing the root causes of conflict in Rakhine. He parroted the dangerous and untrue notion that international NGOs employ radicals and that humanitarian agencies are providing material support to ARSA. The Advisory Board’s lack of a formal mandate and Surakiart’s general desire to avoid the real issues at the risk of confronting our Myanmar hosts, led to an agenda devoid of any meaningful engagement with the local communities in Rakhine, whose people the Advisory Board is meant to serve. Moreover, the Chair’s suggestion that the Advisory Board meet only twice over the course of our tenure – once in January 2018 and again in December 2018 – demonstrates the lack of seriousness with which he views the very real challenges faced by Rakhine State and the Myanmar Government.

While Daw Suu, Surakiart and I continued to have heated exchanges over dinner on Monday after the first meeting of the Advisory Board, this is not about my personal relationship with either of them or about egos, but about the ability of the Advisory Board to do the work necessary to address the challenges at hand. While there are tremendous development challenges in Rakhine State – and these must be addressed for the benefit of all communities – at its root, this is not a development challenge and cannot be treated as such; the Government of Myanmar must be willing to tackle the realities of the political and security situation.

To be clear, I found some encouraging signs as well. There are many dedicated officials in Myanmar who are working hard to improve the lives of people in Rakhine State, including the Implementation Committee. To their credit, these individuals are looking to own this conflict and are making genuine efforts to improve conditions in Rakhine. The same is true of most of my international counterparts on the Advisory Board and of the Myanmar members as well. For those that are engaged in these complex challenges for the right reasons, I wish you my support and the utmost success; the people of Rakhine State deserve as much.

Unfortunately, these efforts have yet to produce the improvements needed. In fact, the continued escalation of the conflict serves as evidence of the need for such an advisory board, but one that is given the space and means to recommend adjustments to the implementation process, rather than simply being expected to applaud the existing efforts; I will not support a whitewash.

Over the years, my Center for Global Engagement and I, in a personal capacity, have invested a lot to support Myanmar’s transition. My Center has conducted multi-party trainings for over 3,000 activists in political and governance skills, political campaigning, and English, with a particular focus on Myanmar women as leaders. We also brought many of these activists to the United States to learn from the U.S. experience with elections and democracy and to provide further English training. We have also helped with water projects, capacity building, investment and entrepreneurship in Myanmar, bringing numerous delegations to the country in recent years.

I regret that my tenure on the Advisory Board was so short and that I have not had the opportunity to impact the lives of the people of Rakhine State in the ways in which I had hoped. Nonetheless, I had already started working on a recommendation to form an independent investigation into the mass graves at Inn Din in Rakhine State and I am hopeful the government will still act on this recommendation.

The situation in Rakhine both requires and deserves the attention of the international community and of the stakeholders working hard to bring about tangible improvements to the situation on the ground. If their efforts are to succeed, the powers that be must be open to constructive criticism and be willing to act upon not just the advice that is welcome, but that which may be necessary. Without the commitment and moral leadership needed from the top, my engagement on the Advisory Board is no longer tenable. However, should there be an opportunity for me to support genuine efforts to bring about peace, stability, and development in Rakhine State, I stand ready to offer my assistance.