January 22, 2017 3:42 am JST

Myanmar rebuffs Malaysia on OIC as ASEAN warns on Rohingya naming issue

Naypyitaw accuses Malaysia of 'exploiting' Rohingya crisis as regional bloc warns over use of ASEAN name

KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN, Contributing writer and GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor

JAKARTA -- Myanmar's government lashed out at Malaysia, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, accusing Kuala Lumpur on Saturday of exploiting international concerns over Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority. Malaysia called for convening a special Jan. 19 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  In a statement issued at the weekend, Myanmar's ministry of foreign affairs - headed by the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi - said it was "regrettable" that Malaysia had called the meeting, and accused Kuala Lumpur of exploiting the crisis "to promote a certain political agenda" while disregarding Naypyitaw's efforts to address the issue.

A few days earlier, in a move that highlighted ASEAN's deepening regional divide over the harsh military crackdown in Rohingya-dominated areas of Myanmar's western Rakhine state, ASEAN envoys demanded that a Malaysian non-governmental organization stop using ASEAN's in dealing with the Rohingya situation.

On Jan. 18, the day before Malaysia chaired a special meeting in Kuala Lumpur of OIC foreign ministers  to discuss the Rohingya crisis, envoys from Jakarta-based ASEAN held a closed door meeting about the use of the organization's name and emblem by the ASEAN-Rohingya Center, or ARC.

The envoys quickly reached a consensus to warn the ARC that it was illegal to brand itself an ASEAN entity, and they mandated the ASEAN Secretariat to write to the center the same day, demanding it immediately cease using the name and emblem .

At the ASEAN meeting, Malaysia clarified that the center was an NGO and was not endorsed by the government. Kuala Lumpur-based ARC, which was established last year, aims to address the plight of the Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, who have been subject to persecution due to their religion and ethnicity. The center used the name "ASEAN" without permission from the ASEAN Secretariat, said ASEAN officials.

The meeting of ASEAN envoys, officially known as the Committee of Permanent Representatives, was the first since the Philippines took the revolving leadership of the group earlier in January. It was also ASEAN's first concrete decision in relation to the recent crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of Rohingya people flee their homes in Rakhine state, moving to makeshift camps or crossing the border into Bangladesh amid numerous reports of military abuses.

Myanmar's government, including Suu Kyi who is both foreign minister and state counsellor, has rejected most claims of military abuse - as has a government-appointed commission charged with investigating reports of human rights violations. The issue is expected to be discussed more extensively at the informal ministerial retreat on Feb. 24 on the Philippine island of Boracay, which will prepare for the upcoming 30th ASEAN summit scheduled for April 26 in Manila.

ASEAN has well-established guidelines, approved in 2010, for the use of its  name. Among key criteria is that it must not be used for "political propaganda or for activities that harm the dignity of ASEAN." In addition, it should be used in a manner that "promotes ASEAN" and its purposes and principles, according to the guidelines.

Internal affairs

The decision to move against the ARC reflected the feeling among ASEAN envoys that the use of ASEAN's name was politically motivated to make the ASEAN Secretariat appear as if it was siding with Rohingya  activist groups.

ASEAN has been trying to address different views among its member states over the plight of the Rohingya since 2012, when sectarian violence in Rakhine prompted large numbers to flee Myanmar in boats to Thailand, Malaysia and further afield. ASEAN leaders have discussed the issue informally since then. In October 2012, Cambodia urgently called for a special foreign ministerial meeting to discuss the issue, but Myanmar refused on the grounds that it was an internal matter.

In the past four years, affected countries have held a series of meetings among themselves and with potential donor countries. A trust fund was established in May 2014 with donations from ASEAN members to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected communities in Rakhine state. Singapore contributed $100,000 and Thailand and the Philippines $50,000 each.

In addition, Thailand hosted an international conference to address the issue of irregular migrants in the Indian Ocean in May 2015, with Myanmar taking part for the first time. The meeting urged all concerned countries to tackle the root cause of the crisis and find a lasting resolution.

The latest crisis followed attacks on Oct. 9 by Muslim militants on three police posts along Rakhine's border with Bangladesh. In the aftermath, Myanmar's military launched a sweeping crackdown on Muslim communities, triggering international condemnation over widespread reports of human right violations.

In early December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak broke ranks with ASEAN leaders, accusing Suu Kyi's government of presiding over "genocide" in Rakhine and calling for international action. Najib's comments prompted Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to hold talks with Suu Kyi to try to reduce tensions and achieve consensus among ASEAN states.

The Myanmar-Indonesia talks led to Suu Kyi's unprecedented move to convene a special meeting ASEAN meeting on the situation in Rakhine. On Dec. 19, she personally briefed ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon and asked for time, space and understanding to find a durable solution.

In recent weeks, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have been providing some humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. They have also asked the Myanmar government for permission to access affected areas in Rakhine, while the OIC has called on Myanmar to allow it to send a mission to investigate claims of ethnic cleansing. While some humanitarian access has been granted, it is unclear whether any government has gained full access to affected communities.

At the Yangon retreat in December, Suu Kyi expressed her country's readiness to grant necessary humanitarian access and to keep ASEAN informed of developments in Rakhine state. She said the retreat was "intended to strengthen ASEAN unity and solidarity."  ASEAN responses so far, however, have been far from united.

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