UPDATED at 4:08 P.M. EST on 2016-12-19
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with 10 foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Monday in Yangon to brief them on the situation in troubled Rakhine state where controversial security operations have been in place since deadly attacks on border guard posts in early October.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as state counselor and foreign affairs minister, informed the ASEAN ministers about the government’s efforts to provide assistance to both the Rohingya Muslim community and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist communities affected by violence in the wake of the attacks, according to a statement issued by the State Counselor’s Office.
“The retreat was initiated by the Government of Myanmar with the aim of apprising fellow members of the ASEAN family of Myanmar’s efforts in ensuring peace, security, and development in the Rakhine state,” the statement said. “It was also intended to strengthen ASEAN unity and solidarity.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who called for the meeting, said the government is committed to resolving the Rakhine crisis, but needs time, and stressed the importance of clearing up differences among ASEAN members through friendly consultations, it said.
Following the security crackdown to find attackers believed to be Rohingya militants, reports about Myanmar army soldiers committing extrajudicial killings, torturing villagers, raping women and burning down homes in Rohingya communities have sparked protests by Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, as well as accusations of human rights abuses and possible ethnic cleansing by some international organizations, Western governments, and the United Nations.
The government, which has denied the allegations, has a few backers among the international community.
Priscilla Clapp, a retired U.S. diplomat who was the chargé d'affaires at the American embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, questioned the veracity of the accusations by outside nongovernmental organizations and others.
She told RFA's Myanmar Service on Dec. 12 that those who support such charges "don't known what the situation is."
"They don't understand the language, and people make things up," she said. "They make things up just to spread rumors."
Most urgent matter
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman of Malaysia, whose leaders have been critical of Myanmar’s handling of the Rakhine dispute, called on the regional bloc to coordinate humanitarian efforts to assist people uprooted by violence in Rakhine state as well as establish an independent body to probe allegations of human rights abuses in the area.
“[T]he most urgent matter is the humanitarian conditions of the people in the affected areas,” he said.
“Like others, we call for unimpeded humanitarian access to the affected areas,” he said, in a reference to security forces barring international humanitarian groups from entering northern Rakhine to deliver aid.
“We further propose that ASEAN coordinates the humanitarian assistance to Rakhine state, as we did during Cyclone Nargis in 2008,”Anifah said, referring to Myanmar’s worst natural disaster in its recorded history.
Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country in Southeast Asia, irked officials in Myanmar after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak participated in a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 4 during which he called on the United Nations to end “ethnic cleansing” targeting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Anifah proposed that ASEAN establish its own independent group of experts or eminent persons to investigate and verify the situation in Rakhine and provide recommendations to the foreign ministers about how the situation should be dealt with.
He also called on Myanmar to uphold the rights of all people living with the boundaries of the state in the western part of the country.
“[M]yanmar must take steps to build confidence and reassurance among the local population, and to also protect all residents regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, or status,” Anifah said. “Although Myanmar may not recognize the Rohingya as its citizens, we must not forget that they too deserve basic human rights.”
An inclusive approach
Retno L.P. Marsudi, minister of foreign affairs of Muslim-majority Indonesia, echoed the sentiments of her Malaysian counterpart.
“Human rights protection and respect for all communities, including Muslim communities in Rakhine state, must be done by using an inclusive approach,” she said at the meeting.
“I urge all members of ASEAN to continue to constructively support and assist Myanmar in addressing the complex situation in Rakhine state,” said Retno who will travel to Bangladesh for bilateral talks about the Rohingya issue on Tuesday.
The meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers came just days after international rights group Amnesty International released a report on the Rakhine crisis about what it calls the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, the neglect they face in Bangladesh, and abuses that may constitute “crimes against humanity.”
In the Dec. 16 report entitled “We Are at a Breaking Point,” Amnesty International says it has found that government security forces did commit atrocities against Rohingya villagers in Rakhine based on mostly phone interviews from outside the country with 55 victims, eyewitnesses, human rights monitors, humanitarian workers, journalists, and Rohingya leaders in October, November and December.
The violence in northern Rakhine state has forced more than 27,000 Rohingya to flee to southeastern Bangladesh since early October.
Border guards report that Bangladeshi authorities turned back 306 boats carrying Rohingya across the Naaf River, which separates the two countries, between early October and Dec. 15.
On Monday, border guard officials told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that they had turned back another 40 Rohingya as they tried to cross the border at Ukhia and Teknaf, two subdistricts in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service and BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.