Former Myanmar Captive Danny Fenster Recounts his Brief Time With the Late Bill Richardson

September 06, 2023, 12:05 PM

Danny Fenster with former Gov. Bill Richardson.

Detroit native and journalist Danny Fenster who was imprisoned in Myanmar for nearly six months, recounts his brief encounter with the late diplomat Bill Richardson, who ultimately whisked him away in a jet to freedom in November 2021. 

Danny Fenster on the plane bound for freedom (Photo: Richardson Center for Globle Engagement)

After completing a Harvard journalism fellowship this year, and teaching an online summer writing course for the univeristy, Fenster has rejoined his colleagues at Frontier Myanmar, who are operating out of Bangkok due to the hostile environment in Myanmar for journalists and critics of miltiary regime.

Fenster was first imprisoned on May 24, 2021 because of his role as a journalist in that country.

In a column posted Wednesday in Frontier Myanmar, Fenster writes about Richardson, who passed away Sept. 1 at age 75. He begins his column talking about being in the Myanmar prison:  

I couldn’t immediately place the name. Another of the inmates at Yangon’s Insein Prison was waving a newspaper at me, telling me my governor had arrived.

“It is good news,” he said. “Your governor has come and he has met with Min Aung Hlaing. This means you will be freed.” 

My governor? I thought.  

“Who is my governor?” I asked.

“Bill Richardson.”

Bill Richardson? I searched my mind.

“Who the fuck is Bill Richardson?”

I snatched the paper from him. Squinting under the harsh sun of the prison yard, I began to read: Chairman of the State Administration blah blah blah Min Aung Hlaing met with Mr Bill Richardson, “former governor of New Mexico State of the United States of America…”

New Mexico, I thought. Right… As a native of Detroit, Michigan – thousands of miles from New Mexico – I had forgotten the name. But I suddenly remembered he’d once run for the democratic nomination for US president.

Fenster writes that he didn't realize it at the time but Richardson had been visiting political prisoners in Myanmar since the 1990s. His foundation, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, trained political parties before elections, and he was appointed to a commission to advise the government on the Rohingya crisis, which involves an Islamic minority that is discriminated and oppressed. 

Danny Fenster during an interview in 2021 with Deadline Detroit

He resigned early on, after a reportedly explosive argument with her about the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists whose “crime” was to expose a massacre of 10 Rohingya men, Fenster writes.

A lot of people worked behind the scenes for months to help release Fenster. But it was ultimately Richardson and his organization that put Fenster on a jet bound for freedom.

Fenster writes:

I didn’t get to know Bill intimately, but over the course of two flights and a layover in Doha, he was good natured and quick to laugh at himself. His hearing was going, for which we – two Richardson Center staffers on the flight and I – continually ribbed him about.

“How is the shrimp, Bill?”

“The what?”

“The shrimp, Bill! Turn up your hearing aid!”

“My what?”

He laughed this off easily, poking fun at his own aging body.

As the first jet cleared Myanmar air space, I asked him what it felt like to lock eyes with someone like Min Aung Hlaing, whose seizure of power in February 2021 was responsible for so much evil. Bill brushed such questions aside. It was the least important thing to think about, he said, when an innocent person’s life and freedom were on the line. He quickly turned the conversation back to me, asking how I was feeling, if I was sure I was okay. Like my own Jewish grandma, he told me to eat more. Then – also like my grandmother – he nodded off on the jet’s sofa.

He concludes:

I don’t believe in the afterlife, yet I couldn’t help feeling Bill was smiling down on me from somewhere, watching me clinking glasses again with old colleagues and others I knew from Myanmar.

To read the full column click here.

Read more:  Frontier Myanmar

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