The head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) raised the issue of the Rohingyas with the top diplomats of Burma and Bangladesh on Friday, vowing to monitor the Muslim ethnic group unwanted by both countries.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has taken “a personal interest” in the Rohingyas and had spoken directly to Burmese and Bangladeshi representatives during a meeting of the grouping’s foreign ministers in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh this week, according to the ASEAN website.
Both Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and his Bangladeshi counterpart Dipu Moni agreed to cooperate and keep ASEAN informed on the status of the ethnic group following deadly ethnic violence between Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in western Burma in June.
"We will keep our eyes and ears on the plight of these unfortunate people," Surin said on completion of the ASEAN meeting and talks between ASEAN ministers and their foreign counterparts.
He said he appreciated the concern of the ASEAN people for the “sufferings” of the Rohingyas, who number around 800,000 in Burma and are considered to be some of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Aside from Burma, Rohingyas also live as migrant workers in many of the other ASEAN states—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Burmese President Thein Sein had requested the United Nations refugee agency this week place Rohingyas in refugee camps or send them out of the country. His request was immediately refused by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Many of Burma’s Rohingyas have lived in the country for generations, but Thein Sein said that the ethnic minority is made up of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and that “we cannot accept them here.”
Bangladesh, where an estimated 300,000 Rohingyas live, has turned back boatloads of the oppressed group arriving on its shores since the outbreak of the unrest.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also in Phnom Penh this week attending the ASEAN meeting, met with Thein Sein in Siem Reap ahead of a U.S.-ASEAN business forum and raised the issue of the Rohingyas with the Burmese leader, officials said.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Clinton stressed Washington’s willingness “to be supportive of help with internally displaced people (IDP),” referring to the Muslim ethnic group.
The official said that Thein Sein had not responded directly, other than to say that the general situation with regard to the Rohingyas had been “very dangerous for the country” and that Burma “needed continued help and support with IDPs.”
“They talked about the situation … He talked about how difficult it had been. She offered that if more support was needed with IDPs that we could be supportive,” the official said.
Violence between Rohingyas and the Rakhines that flared in June has left some 78 people dead and 90,000 displaced and living in camps, according to government statistics.
The clashes were sparked after an ethnic Rakhine woman was allegedly raped and killed by three Rohingya men in late May. On June 3, a group of Rakhine vigilantes attacked and killed 10 Rohingyas on a bus they believed were responsible for the woman’s death.
On June 8, thousands of Rohingyas rioted in Maungdaw, destroying Rakhine property, burning homes, and causing an unknown number of deaths. In the aftermath, Rohingyas carried out similar attacks on Rakhines elsewhere around the state.
ASEAN foreign ministers had earlier tasked the ASEAN Secretariat to monitor the situation of the Rohingyas and keep them updated after thousands were turned away from countries where they sought asylum.
According to the UNHCR, around one million Rohingyas are now thought to live outside Burma, but they have not been welcomed by a third country.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.