VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine interviewed former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson via Skype about his abrupt resignation from an international board that advises Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis.
Question: Do you prefer Ambassador Richardson or Governor Richardson?
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson: I think governor is better.
Q: Governor Richardson. First just to clarify, did you resign from the advisory board, or were you asked to leave, and more importantly, why did you leave?
Richardson: Well I resigned. They’re claiming I was fired but they were begging me to stay till the very last minute by the national security advisor. I resigned for two reasons – one, because I felt the advisory board was just whitewashing operation meant to validate the policies of the government of Myanmar. The second reason is an explosive reaction Aung San Suu Kyi had as I was trying to give her frank advice to deal fairly with the two Reuters journalist that had been imprisoned. That showed me she wasn’t interested in frank advice, and this is after thirty years of very strong friendship where we worked together for democracy. That has obviously been shattered by my resignation.
Q: Right, right. And it’s well documented you’ve have been a very good friend of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for many, many years and she asked you to join the council. Was she herself I know that there were two Reuters Journalist were an issue. Was she herself also disparaging the United Nations, journalists and relief workers trying to get the facts and alleviate suffering in the area?
Richardson: Yes, certainly her chairman was. But she also in various conversations has disparaged the U.N., felt the U.N. was unfair to her – the human rights investigation especially. Disparaging the international media, disparaging human rights group saying that they are all against it. These are the people that worked with her and in that transition to democracy, that were her supporters, were in essence given her the Nobel Prize. She now feels an – “us against one situation,” “an us against them situation,” and has a siege mentality right now. She’s changed.
Q: Right I was going to ask if you were sort of blind sighted and really surprised by this and do you think she’s changed now that she is in a position of power? Or does she have a blind spot when it comes to the Rohingyas?
Richardson: No, I think she’s changed as she’s assumed power. She wants to get re-elected, she’s afraid to confront the military that basically handles national security issues like treatment of refugees, like I think they’ve been responsible for the atrocities. They have participated in the mass graves issue. Finding ways instead of helping the refugees move back to Myanmar, making it more difficult. Not guaranteeing safety. And I think she’s been afraid to confront them. There is a separation of power between the military and civilian government that she has. But she’s failed to exercise more leadership to push and tell the military that they can’t keep doing this. She doesn’t have control over them. But the fact that she not only doesn’t speak out but defends them is what has made her change. And I think these caused a lot of these problems that Myanmar has with the international community.
Q: What would you say to critics who say that Aung San Suu Kyi has to walk a fine line in her power-sharing position with Myanmar’s military rulers and the public criticism of her is counter-productive?
Richardson: Well I’m a politician. I know you have to balance the existing power centers – you can’t just attack anybody. But I think she’s overdone her consent in what the military has done. In stop defending them, exercise more leadership by saying – look military, we can’t continue torturing the Rohingya. Let’s find a way to deal with these very serious problems. Instead of constantly blaming the West, the international community, and the U.N., and the United States, and Canada, and the European Union. Instead of owning up to the problem she shifts blames to everybody else fails to deal with the issue by not confronting the military. Letting them basically run amok.
Q: Right. We just got word that the advisory board is now backing the government’s plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees. What is your feeling about that?
Richardson: Well I think that’s part of the whitewash. Look the government of Bangladesh, the United Nations human rights group say that this repatriation is not ready. And this is why the government of Bangladesh has delayed the repatriation because these refugees aren’t ensured of their safety. They're probably thinking they're gonna end up in mass graves. They have no guarantees about their citizenship. They should be given a path to citizenship. There’s no guarantee that they're gonna be able to go back to their homes safely. Their homes have been destroyed and they're down so – I think this is another incidence where this is a whitewash. And just to conclude on this issue – the advisory board met with Aung San Suu Kyi secretly without me. They didn’t want me there because they didn’t want hear my candid advice. That is what broke the camel – the stroke that broke the camel’s back. They don’t want my advice – I leave. That’s why I left.
Q: Right, right. Do you think the Trump administration is doing enough to help the Rohingyas?
Richardson: Yeah, I got to say the Trump administration has spoken out for internal investigations to treat the Rohingyas properly. They came out early to release the journalist. I was briefed by the American ambassador. About a month ago, Secretary (of State Rex) Tillerson called me and told me what they were doing. Yeah I think the Trump administration – the State Department is doing well on this issue. I think as long as they keep it away from the president, they’re doing OK.
Q: What do you think it be done to get those two journalists released?
Richardson: Well there has to be more international pressure. I think Aung San Suu Kyi and the military have to say – look this is not helping us internationally. There is a way this can happen. The attorney general has pardon power. I think they should exercise this immediately. This is a nightmare for the image of the Myanmar government. Plus it’s unfair to the journalist – they were set up. They violated no official secrets laws. They didn’t disclose anything. They discovered mass graves and it was done by Rohingya and non-Rohingya people, i.e. the military. So get it over with. But I think more international pressure, but mainly the two main actors – the commander of the military and Aung San Suu Kyi to have a public or secret meeting and get this off the table. This is hurting the country enormously.
Q: Right, Right. One more if I may on North Korea. What do you think of the Trump administration’s position on that? And if you asked, you’ve done it before, you’ve been there before. Would you be willing to try and go and negotiate with the North Korean president?
Richardson: I would and I told the Trump administration I’m ready to do it but I think the way to do it is I’m not going to get mixed up in their nuclearization talks. That should be done through official channels. But I think there is soft power. I’ve offered on humanitarian grounds, find ways to exchange the recovery of American serviceman in the Korean War, Korean American family reunification issues. I think what the North and South have done on this Olympic issue makes a lot of sense, bringing athletes together. Maybe that’ll create a path for a negotiation. So I think the Trump administration – I’ll give them credit for working with China, have China put stronger sanctions. I don’t think that’s going to do the trick – I give them credit for that. I don’t give the president credit for tweeting and making policy on the go – calling on Kim Jong Un “the rocket man” and I’ve got a bigger nuclear button. I don’t like Kim Jong Un also insulting the American president. They should step aside and let their diplomats and negotiator negotiate no preconditions, just to start talks.
Q: Right. Thank you so much, ambassador. Anything else you’d like to say we didn’t cover?
Richardson: No you got it all.
Saine: Okay. Real pleasure talking to you sir.
Q: Yes. So we talked – what the State Department is doing on Myanmar. Do you think the United States should reimpose sanctions on Myanmar?
Richardson: No I don’t think so. I – sanctions, economic sanctions particularly hurt poor people. I’m very fond of the Myanmar people. I don’t think they're responsible for this travesty. Maybe targeted sanctions on some of the military at some point. But I don’t think the international community should turn its back on Aung San Suu Kyi at this time. Now if this continues, something has to happen. I think the answer is engagement. The West – the international institutions should reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi and she should do the same. Reach some kind of accommodation. Ease tensions and find ways to feel honorably and humanely with these refugees that are being devastated right now.
Q: Right and I hope this is not too personal but do you feel like you could still have the relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi to reach back to her?
Richardson: Well I’d be prepared to be helpful but right now no. She’s probably furious at me. It’s probably going to last a long time. I don’t think I would try to get a Visa there anyway. Yeah but I love the country. I’ve been so involved with the country and her and I’ve invest a lot of my foundation activity. My activity as a diplomat. Yeah but right now no. I think there has to be a big cooling off. It may be permanent but I realize that. What I did was a small (inaudible)–that even her friends are turning on it. That she has to get a frank advice from a friend. If she’s not prepared to do that, that’s going to be bad for her and Myanmar.
Saine: Right thank you. If your ever in D.C., we would love to have you again for a sit down interview.