No progress in journalist’s case as ex-US envoy leaves Myanmar

Bill Richardson’s private visit was centred on COVID-19 humanitarian work but he also met with military officials, foreign diplomats and UN representatives.

Former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson (left) meets with military chief Min Aung Hlaing (right) in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw during his visit [Myanmar military via AFP]

Former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson has left Myanmar after finishing a private humanitarian mission in which he sought to boost the Southeast Asian country’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate the delivery of aid.

Richardson wrapped up his visit on Thursday as a detained American journalist was charged with a third charge that could see him in jail for several years.

“The main focus of my discussions was to identify specific ways to speed the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility to Myanmar and to help mitigate a possible fourth wave of COVID-19,” he said, according to a statement issued by the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

COVAX is an international effort backed by the United Nations to even out global vaccine distribution by supplying doses to low and middle-income countries. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia.

During his visit, Richardson met with the leader of Myanmar’s military government and other top officials, members of the foreign diplomatic corps, and representatives of the United Nations and other international organisations, the statement said.

It said he recommended a range of specific humanitarian measures — mainly to facilitate the delivery of assistance to remote areas.

The situation has been worsened by armed conflict following the military’s seizure of power in February when it ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Opposition to the takeover has grown into an underground movement that some UN officials have warned could turn into a civil war.

Richardson, who has also served as secretary of energy and governor of New Mexico, “also encouraged Myanmar authorities to engage with the UN and ASEAN Special Envoys, suggesting creative solutions to break the current impasse”, the statement said.

Uncooperative military

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has sought to mediate a solution to the violent conflict, but Myanmar’s military leaders have been uncooperative.

Richardson said he was able to secure the release of a woman, Aye Moe, from prison on Wednesday. Moe used to work with his centre.

The military-installed government has arrested more than 9,700 people on political charges since it took power, though many have since been freed.

According to rights watchdog groups, at least 1,200 people have been killed since the February coup.

Daily protests against the military government continue across the country, as ethnic rebels in the north also fight with the government troops.

Richardson is known for his past efforts in gaining the freedom of Americans detained in countries with which Washington has poor relations, such as North Korea.

His visit had raised hopes that he might obtain the release of US journalist Denny Fenster, who has been jailed for more than five months on political charges, but the statement did not mention his case.

On Wednesday, a court rejected Fenster’s bail application and added a new charge of violating immigration law, with a possible sentence of six months to five years in jail.

Fenster had already been charged with incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information – an offence punishable by up to three years in prison, and for allegedly violating the Unlawful Associations Act for alleged links to illegal opposition groups, which carries another two-to-three-year prison term.

The UN’s top humanitarian official in Myanmar, Andrew Kirkwood, said at the end of September that Myanmar’s “severe crisis” is the result of increasing communal strife, the military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government and the coronavirus pandemic, which had “a devastating third wave” of infections in recent months.

The per capita death rate in Myanmar was the worst in Southeast Asia during one week in July, when bodies were lined up outside overwhelmed crematoriums.

Even before the surge, the country’s central health care system was collapsing as the military attacked and drove underground many medical workers who were early opponents of the February takeover.

As of November 2, about 13.5 million of Myanmar’s roughly 55 million people had received at least one vaccination dose.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies