ASEAN ready to support Myanmar in repatriation of Rohingya Muslims

15, Nov. 2018

SINGAPORE, Kyodo -Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have expressed readiness to support Myanmar in the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims who fled their villages in its western state of Rakhine, according to a statement issued late Wednesday.

Myanmar has extended an invitation for ASEAN to "dispatch a needs assessment team to identify possible areas of cooperation in Rakhine State to facilitate the repatriation process," said a chairman’s statement released on Wednesday following a summit meeting held Tuesday among leaders from the 10 ASEAN countries.

The ASEAN leaders "welcomed" the invitation and said they "stand ready to support Myanmar in its repatriation process." They also welcomed Myanmar’s commitment to "facilitating the voluntary return of displaced persons to Myanmar in a safe, secure and dignified way."

In a change from an earlier draft of the statement, however, a line was deleted that "underlined the importance of the expeditious commencement of the voluntary return of displaced persons to Myanmar...without undue delay."

The humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State was one of the main issues discussed at Tuesday’s ASEAN summit in Singapore, which was attended by all 10 ASEAN leaders including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although Bangladesh now says it has finished preparing for a Thursday start to repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar in line with an agreement the two countries made late last month, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Tuesday urged Bangladesh not to repatriate the Rohingya at this time, saying the conditions are not yet in place for their safe return.

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 Myanmar government, which calls the Rohingya "Muslims" or "Bengalis," considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them rights and citizenship, even though many have lived in the country for generations.

ASEAN has been struggling to balance its principle of non-interference in the domestic policies of its member states with expectations from the international community, as well as from predominantly Muslim ASEAN member countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that the 10-member regional body should pressure Myanmar to end the alleged atrocities.

On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lashed out at Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi for defending the alleged oppression and persecution of the Rohingyas in her country.

The ASEAN statement also showed that regional security issues such as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and nuclear development on the Korean Peninsula continued to engage the attention of its member states.

The statement said the leaders "discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."

It also reiterated the "importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states...that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea."

It noted that they had agreed on a "single draft negotiating text" and were "encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion" of a Code of Conduct in the sea.

China claims rights to nearly the entire South China Sea -- with its self-declared maritime border known as the "nine-dash line" -- and has erected artificial islands with military infrastructure in the waters.

Among ASEAN, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have territorial claims in that sea.

On the Korean Peninsula issue, the statement urged all the concerned parties to "continue working towards the realization of lasting peace and stability on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula." (Kyodo)