Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Tuesday that he hoped two Reuters journalists will be freed in conjunction with his visit to Myanmar next week as a member of an international advisory panel seeking to resolve the crisis in the country.
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Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 after police accused them of illegally obtaining secret papers from policemen, who had worked in Rakhine State. Security forces there are blamed for rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims that sparked the exodus of some 650,000 people to Bangladesh since August when Myanmar's military launched a brutal crackdown. Myanmar's army has described it as "clearance operations" against terrorists, but the United Nations and the U.S. have called it "ethnic cleansing."
The fate of the two journalists, who could be sentenced to 14 years in prison, will be discussed when Richardson and three other members of the advisory board travel to Myanmar on Monday. The board is charged with helping implement recommendations for ending the crisis written by a commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. One of those recommendations calls for a free flow of journalists in the Rakhine area.
"Hopefully we will get this resolved during the trip or before the trip," said Richardson, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations and energy secretary during the Clinton administration. "I think it would be a smart move on the part of the government to release them before we arrive, but I'm not optimistic that will happen. It would be a nice gesture."
Richardson has played key roles in the successful release of hostages and U.S. servicemen in North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and the Sudan. He was appointed to the International Advisory Board on Rakhine State at the request of Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The chairman of the advisory board, former Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, the Trump administration and former President Bill Clinton also have called for the journalists' release.
Richardson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he sent a letter asking to meet with Myanmar's minister of home affairs during his visit to Southeast Asia.
Rights and media groups have criticized Myanmar's new civilian government led by Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, for continuing to use colonial-era laws to threaten and imprison journalists. Such laws were widely used by the military junta that previously ruled the country to muzzle critics and the media.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Richardson wasn't traveling on behalf of the State Department in any formal capacity, but that the administration wished him well as he seeks the journalists' release.
"We certainly hope that he will be successful in doing that," Nauert said.