By Yimou Lee
YANGON (Reuters) - Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson denied he was asked by Myanmar's government to step down from an international advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, his spokesman said on Friday.
A statement issued by the office of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi late on Thursday had accused Richardson of pursuing "his own agenda" and said that the government decided to ask him to quit as his continued participation on the board would not be in the best interests of all concerned.
"At no point was the Governor asked to step down, either in person or in writing by any member of the Government of Myanmar or the Chair of the Advisory Board," Richardson's spokesman Mickey Bergman told Reuters.
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"Quite the opposite, their National Security Advisor stopped by the night before to convince the Governor to stay as planned."
Richardson said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday that he was resigning from the board because it was conducting a "whitewash" and accused Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of lacking "moral leadership".
The departure of Richardson, a former Clinton administration cabinet member, came as the 10-member advisory board was making its first visit to western Rakhine State, from where around 688,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled in recent months.
A U.S. official, who spoke on Thursday on condition of anonymity, said the issues raised by Richardson had reinforced concerns about Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis. Still, the official said, the United States would likely stick to its ”measured” approach of applying limited pressure on Myanmar and avoiding more drastic measures that could destabilize the situation.
A separate statement from the nine remaining members of the advisory board on Thursday said they met this week "with open minds" and agreed "to speak with one voice".
"Therefore, any statement about the Advisory Board 'whitewashing' or 'cheerleading' for anyone lacks complete legitimacy," the board said.
Richardson said in the Reuters interview that he was worried the board would become "a cheerleading squad" for the government.
Richardson's spokesman said the reference to pursuing his own agenda would seem to refer to his addressing with Suu Kyi the issue of two imprisoned Reuters journalists.
In his interview with Reuters, Richardson said he got into a furious argument with Suu Kyi at a Monday night dinner when he brought up the case of two Reuters reporters, who were arrested on Dec. 12 on suspicion of violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act.
Reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of the crisis in Rakhine. They were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon.
"It's important to note that he agreed to serve on the Board a month before the Reuters journalists were arrested," said Richardson's spokesman Bergman.
The armed forces have been accused by Rohingya witnesses and human rights activists of carrying out killings, rapes and arson in Rakhine in a campaign senior officials in the United Nations and United States have described as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar rejects that label and has denied nearly all the allegations.
The former New Mexico governor's foundation, the Richardson Center, has "invested tens of thousands of dollars of its own money" in preparing for his role on the board "and were gearing up for a full year of robust programming for 2018," Bergman said.
Richardson led the first foreign delegation allowed to visit Suu Kyi in 1994 when she was under house arrest, Bergman said, "and helped to get many Myanmar political prisoners out during military rule, some are currently serving in her government.
"It is heartbreaking to see her indulging in similar practices, now that she is in power," Bergman added.
Former South African Defence Minister Roelof Petrus Meyer, one of the four remaining international members of the board, said on Thursday Richardson's departure was "really unfortunate".
After touring temporary repatriation camps set up by Myanmar, Meyer said he thought the country was ready to take back the Rohingya refugees under an agreement with Bangladesh, where they are currently sheltering.
"The security will be provided...the subject is so internationally covered so I don't think (Rohingya) people should be scared," he said.
The Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State was set up by Myanmar last year, to advise on enacting the findings of an earlier commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Thursday's statement from Suu Kyi's office said the government was committed to "implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to the fullest extent possible and in the shortest timeframe, in accordance with the situation on the ground".
(Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung and Yimou Lee in Yangon, Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Paritosh Bansal in Davos; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Martin Howell)