ASEAN leaders push for greater role of bloc in Rohingya repatriation

24, Jun. 2019

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BANGKOK, Kyodo - Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reaffirmed their support for a “more visible and enhanced role” of the bloc to support Myanmar in the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims who fled their villages in its western state of Rakhine, according to a statement issued Sunday.

The leaders pledged their continued backing of “Myanmar's commitment to ensure safety and security for all communities in Rakhine State as effectively as possible and facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner,” said a chairman's statement released after their summit in Bangkok.

The humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh involving Rohingya from Rakhine was one of the main issues discussed at Sunday's ASEAN summit in the Thai capital, which was attended by all 10 ASEAN leaders including Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi

More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Rakhine since the military launched a harsh crackdown there in August 2017 in the wake of attacks on security posts by militants of the minority ethnic group.

Their repatriation from sprawling camps in neighboring Bangladesh has been delayed as they are not confident in their safety after returning home.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose country is chairing ASEAN this year, did not mention the Rohingya crisis at a post-summit press conference.

However, ASEAN diplomats said that the leaders at their retreat Sunday exchanged views on the issue, in particular on the safe repatriation of the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi told her counterparts that the Rohingya issue is really complicated and the Myanmar government is seeking solutions, according to a diplomatic source.

She also expressed appreciation for efforts being made by the ASEAN Secretary General and the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance to assess the needs of the refugees.

Both Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo demanded that the security of returning Rohingya be guaranteed, according to the diplomats.

“The issue of security has become key to the implementation of repatriation,” said Jokowi, leader of the world's biggest Muslim nation. “Without security guarantee, the repatriation will never happen.”

Although the grouping has a policy of non-interference in members' internal affairs, the Rohingya issue has been fixed on the agenda of relevant meetings since 2017.

ASEAN's statement did not openly criticize Myanmar's government, and in line with such statements in the past, it also complied with Myanmar's preference to avoid the term “Rohingyas,” referring to them instead as “displaced persons.”

The chairman's statement also showed that regional security issues such as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea continued to engage the attention of its member states.

The statement said that the leaders “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area.”

The leaders welcomed efforts to complete the first reading of a “single draft negotiation text” on forging a code of conduct among the claimants in the sea by 2019.

ASEAN and China last year agreed on the text, which will form the basis of future COC negotiations. China claims rights to nearly the entire South China Sea and has erected artificial islands with military infrastructure in the waters.

Laos and Cambodia, which have strong economic ties with China, have a more pro-Beijing stance on the issue. In contrast, Vietnam, which has competing claims with China, takes a harder line on Beijing's assertiveness in regional waters.

On the Indo-Pacific region in which both the United States and China are expanding their influence, the leaders adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” the statement said.

The document, the fruit of more than a year of discussions, outlines the bloc's geopolitical framework of the Indo-Pacific region and emphasizes ASEAN's “centrality” in the evolving regional architecture.

Prayut also said that the leaders support a joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034 and asked people to support ASEAN to reach the goal. The statement only mentioned a “shared wish of ASEAN to develop a joint bid” without specifying a particular year.

Besides the chairman's statement, several documents were adopted by the leaders including the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN, which will be presented at the Group of 20 summit of leading economies in Osaka next week.

Regarding a plan to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the 30th Commemorative Summit between ASEAN and South Korea later this year in Busan, it was decided to leave the decision to South Korean President Moon Jae In, according to ASEAN sources.

The sources said it is too early to say when or if Moon will extend an invitation, and if he does whether Kim would accept it.

ASEAN comprises of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. (Kyodo)