Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (C) speaks to the media during a briefing upon his arrival from North Korea at Beijing Capital International airport, January 10, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

Yesterday, former US diplomat Bill Richardson issued a blistering statement announcing his resignation from a Burma advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, denouncing it as a “whitewash” and a “cheerleading squad” for the government.

The board, created in December by Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was purportedly set up to help Burma implement recommendations from a 2017 commission report (the “Annan Commission”) to address tensions in Rakhine State, where military ethnic cleansing campaigns have forced 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh since 2016.

Richardson expressed concern that the board’s chair, Thailand’s former Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, was not “genuinely committed” to the board’s mandate. As Richardson said, “He parroted the dangerous and untrue notion that international NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] employ radicals and that humanitarian agencies are providing material support to ARSA,” referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army responsible for attacks on government outposts in Rakhine State.

Notably, Richardson expressed deep disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi, who he said had been furious with him for raising concerns about two Reuters journalists jailed while reporting on the Rohingya crisis. Richardson told the media she had, “developed an arrogance of power,” and that he was, “taken aback by the vigor with which the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community were disparaged,” by her and other officials during meetings.

Richardson’s strong rebuke is remarkable. A former governor of New Mexico, for much of his career he has served as a diplomat, serving as US ambassador to the United Nations and repeatedly as envoy to North Korea. He considers himself Aung San Suu Kyi’s friend, and visited her during Burma’s military junta, when she was under house arrest.

Richardson’s blunt comments indicate he believes the Burmese government is in a state of denial about its atrocities in Rakhine State and needs to be told so. His experience shows why tougher action is needed from foreign governments to generate change – real consequences like arms embargos, targeted sanctions on military leaders, and tougher sanctions via the United Nations.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Richardson’s announcement was “cause for concern” while noting that the US remains, “willing to support good faith efforts to implement the Annan Commission recommendations.”

This misses the point. Richardson’s point was that the government is not acting in good faith. This is why stronger actions – and not just words – are needed. As a diplomat, Bill Richardson has navigated the complexities of the UN Security Council and dealt with two Supreme Leaders of North Korea. When someone with that kind of experience speaks like this, it means something, and we should listen.