Myanmar accused US diplomat Bill Richardson Thursday of a ‘personal attack’ on Aung San Suu Kyi after an excoriating takedown of the former darling of the global rights community as he resigned from a panel on the Rohingya crisis.
One-time Suu Kyi ally Richardson was one of five foreign members handpicked by Myanmar’s civilian leader to serve on the committee.
But after a three-day visit to Myanmar, Richardson struck out at his hosts, saying he could not in ‘good conscience’ sit on a panel he feared would only ‘whitewash’ the causes of the Rohingya crisis.
He tore into the Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi for an ‘absence of moral leadership’ over Rakhine and described her ‘furious response’ to his calls to free two Reuters journalists arrested while covering the crisis.
A Myanmar government spokesman hit back Thursday, accusing the former New Mexico governor Richardson of overstepping the mark in his stinging resignation letter.
‘He should review himself over his personal attack against our State Counsellor,’ government spokesman Zaw Htay said, referring to Suu Kyi’s official title.
‘We understand his emotion about the two Reuters correspondents. However, he needs to understand, rather than blame the Myanmar nation and the State Counsellor.’
Zaw Htay said the issue of the arrests was beyond Richardson’s mandate and he should not have brought it up at his meeting with Suu Kyi.
The heated discussion left Myanmar’s leader ‘quivering’ with rage, Richardson told the New York Times.
‘If she had been a little closer to me, she might have hit me, she was so furious,’ the paper quoted Richardson as saying.
The Reuters journalists, Myanmar nationals Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, face a possible 14 years in prison under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly possessing classified documents that they say were given to them by two policemen.
They are waiting to hear whether they will be granted bail in a protracted case that could take months to even reach trial.
They had been reporting on the crisis in Rakhine, where Myanmar troops are accused of waging a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.
Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled the brutal military operation for Bangladesh since last August, bringing with them consistent testimony of murder, rape and arson at the hands of troops and vigilante mobs.
Some 300 more families have crossed the border in recent days after several houses were burned down in Buthidaung township, said Chris Lewa from the Arakan Project, a monitoring group that closely tracks Rakhine.
Suu Kyi’s tepid response to the crisis and failure to openly rebuke the military has punctured her reputation as a rights icon in a matter of months.
Myanmar analyst Khin Zaw Win said Richardson’s sharp words could deliver a ‘much-needed jolt for Aung San Suu Kyi and for the people around her who are not reporting the truth to her.’
Aaron L. Connelly from the Lowy Institute for International Policy said that the description of the conversation between Richardson and Suu Kyi should ‘finally dispel the myth that she privately holds views which she cannot express publicly’.
Suu Kyi, who is yet to directly respond to the criticism, on Thursday made a low-key foray onto the international stage to attend a meeting of Asian leaders in India.
Richardson joined the Myanmar board as a private citizen, but the US State Department said the Washington administration shares many of his concerns.
After his trip to Myanmar, the diplomat said he was shocked by the panel members’ disparagement of the media, the UN, human rights groups and the international community.
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