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Politics

Rohingya crisis is another headache for ASEAN

Rift between Malaysia and Myanmar over Muslim minority deepens divisions over South China Sea disputes

KUALA LUMPUR Diplomatic spats are rare in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; member states tend to refrain from commenting on one another's internal affairs.

But the recent clash between Malaysia and Myanmar over the Rohingya issue has challenged ASEAN's noninterference policy and consensus-based decision making, prompting calls for a different approach.

"The current situation is a stain on ASEAN itself, and on the community we declared established at the end of 2015," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in a meeting on Jan. 19. Malaysia convened an extraordinary session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers in Kuala Lumpur to urge Myanmar to stop human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.

Najib said that, even though Malaysia subscribes to noninterference, it could no longer "remain silent" on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

In a response, Myanmar's foreign ministry issued a statement insisting it was a domestic affair. It warned that, "undue external pressure ... would only make a complicated issue worse."

Violence erupted in early October when Myanmar authorities launched military operations in response to armed attacks by Islamic militants on policemen near Maungdaw. The crackdown, which has drawn allegations of abuses, including torture, rape and the destruction of homes, has prompted more than 65,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Myanmar even accused Kuala Lumpur of exploiting the issue to "promote a certain political agenda." But Malaysia, which hosts some 56,000 displaced Rohingya, maintains that it speaks for "all neighboring countries" who want to avoid hosting potential refugees.

Sectarian violence in 2012 forced tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee and some found their way to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Unlike Malaysia, Indonesia said a "naming and shaming exercise" would not work.

"Constructive engagement will be more productive than when we adopt megaphone diplomacy," said Retno Marsudi, Indonesia's foreign minister as quoted by Channel NewsAsia. Retno, who visited Myanmar a day after the OIC meeting, said Indonesia wanted to play a bridging role between Myanmar and the rest of ASEAN.

The Rohingya issue is the latest to test ASEAN solidarity. Observers warn it could harm the bloc's cohesion. Members are already divided on Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

"More importantly, this clash highlights the importance of ASEAN leaders to either reaffirm the regional organization's established protocols," said Tang Siew Mun, a senior fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, "or to establish new modalities that allow for a more public airing of disagreements."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who holds the bloc's rotating chairmanship this year, has spelled out his priorities -- a people-centered ASEAN, regional peace and stability and an ASEAN as model of regionalism.

Manila may find itself in a tight spot at the upcoming ASEAN Summit in April.

"Manila has to tread carefully as bringing the Rakhine issue into ASEAN's official discussion may in itself contravene its noninterference principle," warned Tang. "In short, there is not much room for the Philippines to play on this issue."

Nikkei staff writer Thurein Hla Htway in Yangon contributed to this article.

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