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International Relations

Pressure mounts on Myanmar as ASEAN raises refugee crisis

Chair's statement includes 'concern' on South China Sea

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends the ASEAN-South Korea summit in Singapore on Nov. 14.   ¬© AP

SINGAPORE -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations called the refugee crisis in Myanmar "a matter of concern" on Wednesday, a rare departure from ASEAN's principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of members. It also reiterated concerns regarding disputes in the South China Sea.

"We discussed and received a briefing from Myanmar on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State, which is a matter of concern," said the chairman's statement from the ASEAN summit held here Tuesday. The statement does not include the word "Rohingya," the name of the Muslim minority group fleeing alleged persecution in Myanmar.

While showing support for Myanmar toward resolving the issue, the statement also urged a commission established by Myanmar's government to "seek accountability by carrying out an independent and impartial investigation of the alleged human rights violations and related issues."

It also urged "a comprehensive and durable solution" to address the root causes of the conflict.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on Wednesday that more than one leader mentioned the Rohingya crisis during the ASEAN summit.

"Someone who had been detained before should know the sufferings and should not inflict it on others"

 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, referring to Myanmar leader Suu Kyi

"We talked to each other about the Rohingya issue in the course of our discussion," Mahathir said. "Several people raised it ... urging to try to resolve it."

Mahathir also criticized Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, saying, "Someone who had been detained before should know the sufferings and should not inflict it on others."

The repatriation of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar's Rakhine State across the border into Bangladesh has been long delayed.

The rare statement by ASEAN mentioning the domestic affairs of one of its members reflects increasing impatience among Myanmar's peers about the slow progress in responding to human rights violations that have been condemned by United Nations investigators as genocide.

Muslim-majority Indonesia is believed to have raised the issue in the summit. President Joko Widodo has been taking a tougher stance over the Rohingya crisis. His effort to raise pressure on Suu Kyi's government is seen as a way to gain support from voters ahead of the presidential election next year and also to dodge criticism from opposition parties for not acting on the issue.

On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with Suu Kyi and asked her about repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar. "I'm also very anxious to hear about the progress that's being made regarding the Rohingya," he said.

Pence also stated in the meeting, "The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse."

Suu Kyi responded to Pence's remark by saying, "of course, people have different points of view, but the point is that you should exchange those views and learn to understand each other better."

The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims began in August 2017 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's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hold a bilateral meeting in Singapore on November 14.   © AP

Myanmar faces strong criticism from the international community. In August, a U.N. report accused Myanmar's military of conducting genocide, gang rapes of women, assault of children and the burning of entire villages in Rakhine.

On the South China Sea, the chairman's statement said members "took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area."

While avoiding any explicit mention of China, the statement added that the situation "increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."

ASEAN members generally avoid politically sensitive language, preferring to stick to the "balanced diplomacy" through which the bloc seeks to maintain a comfortable distance with both Washington and Beijing. 

The word "concern" was taken out of a joint statement on China's position in the South China Sea when the Philippines held the ASEAN chair in 2017, as President Rodrigo Duterte's government had improved ties with Beijing shortly beforehand.

However, it reappeared in a joint statement adopted at the last ASEAN summit in April, after Singapore took over as chair. 

On North Korean denuclearization, the statement said members "welcomed the DPRK’s stated commitment to complete denuclearization and its pledge to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests."

It did not specifically mention "complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization," a phrase repeatedly used by the U.S., as it was in the draft stage. But it did say that members noted "international efforts to bring about complete denuclearization in a final, fully verified manner."

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