Bill Richardson Defends Trip to Myanmar to Talk COVID, Says He's Deeply Invested in Country

Richardson Defends Myanmar Visit
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defended his visit to Myanmar last week and said that he’s “deeply invested” in the Southeast Asian country. In this image from video, Richardson speaks to the Associated Press via Zoom from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 8. AP Photo

Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defended his visit to Myanmar last week and said that he's "deeply invested" in the Southeast Asian country, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. government and other Western nations are opposed to Myanmar's military-installed government and have called for a transition back to a democracy-led state since the coup in February.

Richardson was the most high-profile to visit the country since the military took control, unseating the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the AP reported. His office said that the purpose of the visit was to talk about the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies to Myanmar, as well as other public health necessities.

"I'm deeply invested in this country and they invited me," Richardson said during an online interview Monday from Massachusetts. "I have a letter from the foreign minister to talk about vaccines… that's what I was invited to do. And I care about the country and I think I can make a difference. It's a small difference."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Richardson Defends Myanmar Visit
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defended his visit to Myanmar last week and said that he’s “deeply invested” in the Southeast Asian country. In this image from video, Richardson speaks to the Associated Press via Zoom from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 8. AP Photo

Richardson has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home in the city of Yangon, where she had been under house arrest since 1989 under a previous military government.

He last visited Myanmar in 2018 to advise on a crisis over the country's Muslim Rohingya minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar's military in 2017 launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the western state of Rakhine, where most lived.

Since this year's military takeover, violence has swept through much of Myanmar. Widespread peaceful demonstrations against army rule were savagely suppressed by security forces, and armed resistance has grown to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country risks sliding into civil war.

The instability has also caused a humanitarian crisis with food supplies badly disrupted and a breakdown of the already feeble public health system in one of Asian's poorest countries. When a new wave of the coronavirus hit during the summer, crematoriums in Yangon struggled with a backlog of bodies.

Opponents of the military-installed government who are conducting a militant civil disobedience campaign inside the country want the outside world to treat the generals as pariahs. Richardson, as a prominent U.S. political figure well known in Myanmar, ran into a storm of online criticism for engaging with the government.

"Well, I knew that the trip would face some criticism," Richardson said. But he disputed the idea that he could confer any kind of legitimacy on Myanmar's government.

Legitimacy, he said, "is conferred by the people and by governments. I'm neither. I'm one person, a citizen who cares deeply about Myanmar, who was invited to come in a situation where there's horrendous violence, human hurting, humanitarian needs, vaccine needs. And I felt I could make a difference and I believe I have."

He is realistic enough to realize that some might try to exploit his presence. But he is satisfied with what he says he has accomplished so far: the release from prison of a young woman who had worked for his Richardson Center for Global Engagement; increased access to humanitarian aid and vaccines for the people of Myanmar; and a resumption of Red Cross visits to the country's prisons, which the government had banned because of the coronavirus.

Richardson said he avoided politics in his discussions, as he did in the interview.

"I didn't want to get into politics. I think humanitarian assistance should precede any kind of movement that would just divide the people even more. This is a country in great need, a country I've been to many times. I've invested a lot of myself in this country, and 55 million people should not have to pay with bad vaccine distribution, humanitarian problems, for the political divisions."

Richardson said he met for about 90 minutes with Myanmar's leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

"We only talked about humanitarian access. We only talked about vaccines. He listened, he responded. It seemed like he liked my ideas," Richardson said.

These ideas, he said, included the revival of the Red Cross prison visits and shortening the amount of time needed for travel permissions from the government for U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to carry out humanitarian missions, as well as finding ways to distribute vaccines more quickly and equitably.

"So it was a constructive discussion," he said.

Richardson also met with other top government officials, foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, and representatives of U.N. agencies and other international organizations.

"I think there's been a logjam on activity and progress on the humanitarian front, the access to vaccines…the humanitarian efforts," he said. "So I think my visit may be a catalyst."

Myanmar Military Government
After experiencing a storm of online criticism for engaging with the Myanmar government, Bill Richardson said, "I have a letter from the foreign minister to talk about vaccines… that's what I was invited to do. Above, a woman sells fish at Yangon jetty on October 29. Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images