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Breakdown Of Talks In Myanmar Prompts High-Profile Negotiator's Resignation

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will no longer serve on the board tasked with implementing changes in Myanmar's restive Rakhine State.

The announcement comes as Richardson was in Myanmar, also known as Burma, this week as a member of the Advisory Board on Rakhine State. He was meeting with government officials about two Reuters journalists who face up to 14 years in prison for allegedly violating the country's colonial-era Officials Secrets Acts.

"In initial meetings with members of the Advisory Board and Daw Aun San Suu Kyi, it has become clear that I cannot in good conscience serve in this role," said Richardson.

The Advisory Board on Rakhine State was set up to implement recommendations regarding the Rohingya, Myanmar's brutally persecuted minority group, that were made by an advisory commission in 2017 — a commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annon.

On Monday, Richardson met with Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss both the detained journalists as well as the plan to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled the country last year following a military crackdown.

By Wednesday, Richardson had cut his trip short and announced his resignation.

"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," Richardson said in a statement, using an honorific for Suu Kyi.

Richardson describes Suu Kyi as being furious with his suggestion that the journalists' case be handed swiftly as a way to protect freedom of the press, and a scheduled meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs was abruptly canceled. In the statement he also notes being taken aback by the "vigor with which the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community were disparaged" in meeting with Suu Kyi and the Advisory Board.

"While it is important to recognize that the military still wield significant power and that they are primarily to blame for the recent exodus of refugees in the wake of ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] attacks, the absence of Daw Suu's moral leadership on this critical issue is of great concern," says Richardson.

Richardson also says it appears the Board is likely to become a "cheerleading squad" for government policy rather than genuine change needed to assure peace and stability in Rakhine State.

Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh from their homes in Rakhine State. This latest exodus of the Muslim minority group followed a brutal military campaign launched in response to an attack by a Rohingya militant group on Myanmar police. A plan hammered out between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya who've fled since August was supposed to start this week, but has been delayed indefinitely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.