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International Relations

Cracks appear in ASEAN over Rohingya crisis

Malaysia protests Chairman's Statement, accusing group of downplaying problem

A Rohingya refugee carries her child in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 24.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia has criticized the stance taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the Rohingya refugees crisis, saying the reality on the ground is being misrepresented. 

Malaysia's foreign minister, Anifah Aman, said late Sunday that the ASEAN chairman's statement released on the same day was one-sided and lacked substance. The Philippines government issued the chairman's statement to reflect the general views of ASEAN.

"Malaysia would like to disassociate itself from the Chairman's Statement," said Anifah, adding that the statement failed to reflect his country's concerns, and therefore did not follow ASEAN's key decision-making principle of consensus. 

The statement on the humanitarian problem in Myanmar's Rakhine State did not mention the Rohingya by name, only referring to the stateless Muslim minority as "victims and affected communities of the conflict."

The Philippine government said Monday it respected the position taken by Malaysia. It said that as the ASEAN Chair, the Philippines had to respect and take into account the sentiments of the other members within the regional pact, said the country's Department of Foreign Affairs. It also noted that public manifestation of dissenting voices demonstrates a "new level of maturity" within ASEAN, especially on issues affecting national interests.

The Philippines is ASEAN's current rotating chairman. Malaysia and Myanmar are both members.

More than 410,000 Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government calls "Bengali" to imply that they are not legitimate residents, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after the Myanmar military launched a campaign against them in retaliation for attacks by the Arakan Rohingy Salvation Army on Aug. 25.

ASEAN condemned the attacks on the Myanmar security forces, but did not address allegations of atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, one of the concerns raised by Malaysia.

Malaysia has repeatedly called on the Myanmar government to end the violence in Rakhine and to deal with the root cause of the crisis. Indonesia, another Muslim-majority country in ASEAN, joined Malaysia in pressuring Myanmar at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a global grouping of Muslim countries. 

Public displays of dissent such as Anifah's are rare in ASEAN. The 10-member organization typically makes decisions by consensus.

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