Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine

December 12, 2016 1:55 am JST

Aung San Suu Kyi responds to regional concern over Rakhine with unprecedented call for ASEAN meeting.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, Contributing writer

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's de facto leader, State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for a special informal meeting with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Dec. 19 in Yangon to discuss international concerns over the situation in Rakhine state.

It is the first time that Myanmar has initiated a meeting with other countries to discuss the sensitive issue of its treatment of the Muslim population. ASEAN officials saw the move as a sign of concern within Suu Kyi's fledgling administration of mounting international criticism over the recent crackdown on the country's Rohingya Muslim minority.

Many governments and humanitarian organizations have expressed alarm at the harsh military response following attacks on Oct. 9 by Muslim militants on police posts along the country's western border between Rakhine State and Bangladesh.

Myanmar conveyed its decision to call a meeting during an informal gathering of senior ASEAN officials in Bali over the weekend. Originally, the Indonesian ​foreign ministry had planned at the Bali meeting to discuss the outlook for ASEAN in the changing global environment, particularly in light of policy challenges under the incoming Trump administration.

However, reports of the deteriorating security situation in Rakhine, including the exodus of an estimated 20,000-plus Rohingya refugees from Rakhine to Bangladesh in the weeks after the Oct. 9 attacks, figured prominently in some discussions at the Bali meeting. Reports last week of military abuses as well as refugee flows from Rakhine attracted blistering criticism from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy-led government.

Regional concerns

Among ASEAN countries, Malaysia as well as Indonesia - both with predominantly Muslim populations -- have registered particular concern about the plight of Myanmar's mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims.

On Dec. 6, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi flew to Naypyitaw at Suu Kyi's invitation to meet with her counterpart and convey Indonesia's strong concern about the situation in Rakhine State.

A senior ASEAN official said that Retno and Suu Kyi "openly discussed" the latest developments in Rakhine State, and that the Indonesian minister had emphasized the importance of restoring peace and stability to enable the implementation of inclusive development initiatives. Retno also urged Myanmar to facilitate flows of humanitarian aid to Muslim communities in Rakhine State, after the suspension of all food and medical aid in the weeks following the attacks.

During the Bali meeting, Myanmar's representative Myint Thu, director of the foreign ministry's ASEAN department, announced that Myanmar would call for a special retreat so that Suu Kyi could personally brief her fellow ASEAN ministers on the situation in Rakhine State. The meeting would take place in Yangon under the current Lao chairmanship of ASEAN, he noted.

According to one senior official, Indonesia does not want ASEAN to be dragged into a "diplomatic quagmire" over Rakhine, having learned from its experience in dealing with the pro-independence guerrilla forces in East Timor in the late 1990s. Indonesia eventually approached individual ASEAN members to contribute some troops for an international peacekeeping operation. Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore participated in the United Nations-backed operation.

The Yangon retreat will be the first time for Myanmar to discuss possible ways to engage ASEAN member countries in the Rakhine issue. Some ASEAN countries fear that any new initiative or mechanism that involves the region in Rakhine-related diplomacy or assistance would have implications for their internal affairs, particularly if they concern race and religious issues.

Surin Pitsuwan, the former secretary general of ASEAN, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Sunday that the Rakhine issue had the potential to destabilize the entire region. "It warrants serious reflection on the part of regional leaders. In my view, it needs a collective response, and a regional approach. At the very least, the ASEAN leaders should consider inclusive humanitarian assistance."

Thailand - which like Myanmar has a majority Buddhist population -- has expressed strong support for Myanmar saying that Rakhine's problems are an internal affair and arguing that Suu Kyi should be given time and space to deal with the issues.

A senior Thai official told the Nikkei Asian Review that Thailand stands ready to provide "any assistance" that Naypyitaw might request. About 40,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Thailand, many who arrived in 2015 and earlier after fleeing Myanmar by boat.

At the Dec. 19 meeting, in addition to Suu Kyi's planned briefing to ASEAN ministers, there could be some announcements about Naypyitaw's proposed next steps in Rakhine State, said an official who attended the weekend meeting.

In October 2012, ASEAN, under Cambodia's chairmanship, called for a special ministerial meeting to discuss the Rohingya refugee crisis but the proposal was immediately turned down by Naypyitaw. However, Thailand managed to persuade Myanmar and other ASEAN countries to take part in an international conference to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in May 2015.

The conference did not refer to the Rohingya directly by name, due to the objections of Myanmar, which insisted they were referred to as "irregular migrants from Indian Ocean." An action plan was agreed on to address causes of the problem - including clamping down on human traffickers who were seen as part of the problem. While regional authorities have moved against trafficking networks, little has been done to address the plight of Myanmar's estimated Rohingya population of about 1.3 million people.