Former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson has met with junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as part of a humanitarian mission to Myanmar, an official said Tuesday, while the military pounded the country’s Sagaing region with airstrikes for a fifth straight day, forcing some 2,000 villagers to flee for their safety.
Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who once served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met with the head of Myanmar’s military regime in the capital Naypyidaw and discussed measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Myanmar’s Information Ministry said in a statement.
The meeting included Myanmar’s ministers of foreign affairs, health and international cooperation, the statement said, and was later broadcast on state television channel MRTV Tuesday.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the two men “mainly talked about providing COVID-19 vaccines [to the people of Myanmar] from the U.N., Western nations and other programs as assistance to the public health sector.”
Myanmar—a country of around 53.6 million people—has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, recording nearly 501,000 infections and 19,000 deaths from COVID-19 since March 2020. The country’s response has been hampered by a crackdown following the military’s Feb. 1 coup that has seen scores of medical professionals locked up for taking part in anti-junta protests.
Richardson’s office announced Sunday that he would be “visiting the country to discuss pathways for the humanitarian delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, medical supplies, and other public health needs.”
The former governor has a history of serving as a kind of intermediary between the U.S. and nations with whom Washington maintains few or no ties, including North Korea and Venezuela. The U.S. has sanctioned the junta for its use of violence against opponents to its rule and relations are at a low.
While his visit to Myanmar was not officially sanctioned by the U.S. government, observers said it could lead to the release of American journalist Danny Fenster, the managing editor of online news magazine Frontier Myanmar. Fenster was arrested at Yangon Airport in May as he prepared to return to the U.S. and charged with incitement. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Media watchdog groups have called for his immediate release.
Asked about whether Richardson had called for the release of Fenster during his meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Zaw Min Tun told RFA that such a request “was not included.”
But Myint Kyaw, a reporter based in Yangon, told RFA he has “no doubt that [Richardson] will request the release of U.S. journalist Danny Fenster” and that the junta “might agree” if doing so would thaw relations with Washington.
He noted that during Richardson’s visit to Myanmar in 2018, the former governor had called on then-State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to release two detained reporters from Reuters news agency, even though it was not part of the main agenda for the trip. The disagreement led to Richardson’s resignation from an advisory board that oversaw Myanmar’s implementation of recommendations for Rakhine state, where a year earlier the military carried out a scorched earth campaign launched in response to attacks by Muslim insurgents against police posts.
Myint Kyaw said Tuesday’s meeting could be seen as an “unofficial visit” by the U.S. government to Myanmar and that Richardson would be sure to carry a message from the junta back to Washington.
U.S. State Department representatives had yet to respond to requests by RFA for comment on Richardson’s trip as of Tuesday.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the State Department said Richardson is making the trip on his own but that it hopes he can help convince Myanmar’s leaders to allow the entry of aid for the coronavirus pandemic and other urgent needs.
Airstrikes and artillery in Sagaing
While Richardson met with Min Aung Hlaing in the capital, junta forces conducted a fifth-straight day of an offensive against People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias in Sagaing region’s Kyunhla township, using airstrikes and heavy artillery on two villages that destroyed homes and displaced nearly 2,000 people, sources said.
A resident who declined to be named for fear of reprisal told RFA that the junta began attacking areas near Kyunhla’s Inhla and Kywe Tae villages on Oct. 28 after an informer provided reports of “armed youths” in the area to the military.
“We had to flee the fighting in Kywe Tae and Inhla villages because of helicopter gunfire—there are now at least 1,500 to 2,000 refugees,” he said, adding that “six helicopters flew in, opening fire on us and dropping soldiers” in recent days.
The resident said that while refugees have enough food to sustain themselves, other supplies are sorely lacking.
“There is enough rice, but no medicine,” he said. “We had to leave our homes with only a few pieces of clothing. We need a lot of help.”
Sources told RFA on condition of anonymity that the military is cracking down on Kyunhla township because it has “a large number of local defense forces.” At least three civilians have been killed during the five days of military operations, sources said.
A man and his wife were killed when the army entered Kywe Tae village, while in nearby Hluttaw village a man who fled in fear of troops was shot dead and his body was dumped in a toilet, residents said.
Asked about the civilian deaths in Kyunhla township, military spokesman Zaw Min Tun denied that any military operation is taking place in Sagaing region, although he added that whatever the military is doing “is needed to protect the lives and property of the people” from “terrorist groups.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in September that more than 120,000 people have been displaced by fighting since May 21 in Kayah and southeastern Shan states, as well as tens of thousands in Chin, Kachin, and Karen states, as well as Magway and Sagaing regions.
In late August, OCHA announced that the number of people who need humanitarian aid in Myanmar had increased to nearly two million since the military coup. Those displaced by the recent fighting join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups who were already counted as internally displaced persons at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.