Richardson is no fair weather friend, but Myanmar is a friend in need

The cost of speaking out is normally much greater than simply going along quietly.

THE GOVERNMENT’S handling of the Rakhine State conflict came under renewed criticism from some sections of the international community last week, after former US politician Mr Bill Richardson resigned from a board tasked with advising it on how to handle the crisis.

He didn’t go quietly, either. In an explosive statement published on January 24, Richardson singled out State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for criticism, accusing her of lacking moral leadership, and saying that the board risked being nothing more than a “cheerleading squad” for government policy.

The key reason for the tension between the pair – who have been friends since Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest – appears to be Richardson raising the issue of the detained Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo at one of the board’s first meetings.

In his statement, Richardson said he had been “extremely upset” by the state counsellor’s reaction after he urged her to address the issue. The government has since accused Richardson of pursuing his own agenda and overstepping his mandate by raising the issue. The government insists that it took the decision to remove Richardson from the board before he quit.

You can question the efficacy of Richardson’s explosive approach on such a delicate issue. However, it’s hard to agree with the government’s position that the arrests are outside the mandate of the commission. The commission is supposed to advise on implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by Mr Kofi Annan. Noting that “full transparency is the most effective way to dispel false and inaccurate representations of the situation on the ground”, the commission recommended “full and regular” access for media to all areas of the state. The Tatmadaw has stated that the Reuters journalists were arrested for handling documents related to its operations in Rakhine State. There seems to be fairly strong grounds for raising the issue – except, of course, if your priority is not to offend the Tatmadaw.

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The back and forth continued for a few more days. On January 26, a spokesman for Richardson denied he had been sacked, telling Reuters that National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun had lobbied the former New Mexico government to remain on the board. Then on January 28, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar ran an editorial in which it continued with its line that Richardson was pursuing his own agenda.

Written under the headline “Good friends are really needed!” the editorial also called out Bangladeshi authorities for delaying the repatriation process. It also accused some in the international community of deliberately creating problems for Myanmar by  “changing its tune” and calling for the repatriation process to be delayed. “We feel sorry for those who went away with their backs toward us,” it continued. “They have proven themselves to be fair weather friends.”

But the editorial – and the government, insofar as it represents the government’s views – misses the point. The calls for the repatriation process to be delayed are not part of some vindictive conspiracy; rather, they are seeking to avert its potential failure. Repatriation cannot begin until the safety of all communities in northern Rakhine is guaranteed, and when issues such as resettlement have been clarified. If the first group or groups of refugees come back and the process does not proceed smoothly, it will make it even more difficult to convince those in Bangladesh to return.

So far, the government seems to be taking a “build it and they will come” approach. But a few resettlement camps won’t be enough to change the minds of people who have fled violence, seen their homes destroyed and have little hope of citizenship. The government needs to do more to address their concerns.

Myanmar has many friends around the world who want to see it succeed – not only in its handling of the crisis in Rakhine State, but also in its transition towards a genuine democracy. But being a friend doesn’t mean toeing the line, agreeing with everything that is said.

Sometimes a few home truths are needed. That doesn’t automatically make someone a “fair weather friend”. Quite the opposite: the cost of speaking out is normally much greater than simply going along quietly.

This editorial appears in the February 1 issue of Frontier.

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