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International Relations

ASEAN aims to express 'concern' on Rohingya crisis for first time

Indonesia and Malaysia push for rare comment on a member's internal affairs

Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Malaysia and Indonesia have been pushing ASEAN to take up the issue at their summit in Singapore.    © AP

SINGAPORE -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is preparing to use unusually strong words against Myanmar, one of its member countries, regarding the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis.

The repatriation of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar's Rakhine State across the border into Bangladesh has been delayed for a long time. The humanitarian situation is "a matter of concern," says the early-stage draft statement by the ASEAN Summit chairman, which was seen by the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Rohingya issue is expected to be one of the major topics discussed by Southeast Asian leaders when they meet on Tuesday evening at the summit in Singapore. 

The focus is on whether to actually state the concern in the final joint statement, which Myanmar may strongly oppose.

ASEAN is pushing the Independent Commission of Enquiry, established by the Myanmar government, to "carry out an independent and impartial investigation of the allegations of human rights violations and related issues and hold those responsible fully accountable," according to the draft statement. 

The firm tone is a departure from ASEAN's usual mild attitude toward Myanmar, based on the group's principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs. It also reflects increasing impatience among its peers about the slow progress on serious human rights violations, which have been condemned by United Nations investigators as genocide. 

Muslim-majority nations in the region such as Indonesia and Malaysia are believed to be driving the criticism against Myanmar.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been hardening his stance to exert pressure on the Rohingya issue. It is seen as a way to gain more support from voters ahead of the presidential election next year and also to dodge criticism from opposition parties for not acting on the issue.

Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to the Malaysian premiership in May, has also been showing a tougher attitude than his predecessor.

"We don't really support her anymore," Mahathir said in September at an interview in Turkey. He was referring to Myanmar's defacto leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. "She is a changed person," the 93-year-old Malaysian prime minister said, adding that she "did not want to say anything against the action taken by the [Myanmar] military against the Rohingya."

Mahathir continued to put pressure on Suu Kyi telling reporters in Singapore on Tuesday, "Someone who had been detained before should know the sufferings and should not inflict it on others."

"ASEAN would like to have this thing resolved to have the Rohingya back in their part of Myanmar and accepted as citizens," he said.

The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims began last year after an attack by an insurgent group triggered a harsh military response. The continuing humanitarian crisis in temporary settlements in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, has produced the world's fastest-growing concentration of refugees. 

Myanmar has been facing strong criticism from the international community. In August, a U.N. report accused Myanmar's military of conducting genocide, gang raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages in Rakhine. 

Rohingya crisis has put a damper on investment from Western nations. Speaking at the business forum in Singapore on Monday, Aung San Suu Kyi concentrated on appealing for investment. "Opening of Myanmar's market is now in full scale. We are ... Southeast Asia's final frontier market," she said. 

Recently Bangladesh and Myanmar announced they would begin repatriating refugees. "Aung San Suu Kyi wants ASEAN to play a role in repatriation," a diplomat from another ASEAN country said.

"What kind of role ASEAN can play, or how much ASEAN should engage, depends on real progress in repatriation," the diplomat added. "ASEAN supported Myanmar since the issue's onset but so far there is no progress."

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