The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims was left off the agenda as leaders from Southeast Asia gathered in Nay Pyi Taw for the ASEAN Summit this weekend. The failure to discuss the issue drew criticism from rights groups, who called for a more active stance on human rights issues.
U Aung Htoo, deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Myanmar Times on May 11 that the issue was not raised during the foreign ministers meeting the previous day because ASEAN’s Charter calls for non-interference in other member countries’ internal affairs.
“We did not discuss the [Organisation for Islamic Cooperation] or the Rohingya issue,” he said.
“ASEAN has a non-interference agreement over the internal affairs of other countries.”
He added that there was not enough time at regional meetings to address all of the issues facing the 10 ASEAN members.
About 140,000 Muslims have been forced from their homes in Rakhine State due to clashes with Rakhine Buddhists over the past two years. Many now reside in IDP camps in Rakhine State without access to adequate healthcare.
International aid groups, many of which provided humanitarian aid and healthcare to the Muslim population, were expelled from Rakhine in late March after their operations were targeted by angry mobs.
Myanmar has insisted that the issue is an internal matter, despite thousands of Muslims fleeing Rakhine State by boat and landing in neighbouring Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Others fall victim to human trafficking rings that operated between Southeast Asian countries.
On May 9, a day before the two-day ASEAN Summit got underway, Malaysian state media reported that about 100 Muslims thought to be from Myanmar had arrived in the country by boat and were detained by security forces.
Myanmar government spokesperson U Ye Htut, who is also a deputy information minister, said that despite this latest development the issue remains an internal affair for Myanmar.
He also expressed skepticism that the group was from Myanmar. He said people from other countries, particularly Bangladesh, are using the conflict in Rakhine State to gain refugee status in other countries by claiming they are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
U Ye Htut said that when many of the individuals who have previously arrived in Malaysia were questioned by officials from the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur they were unable to provide information about where in Rakhine State they came from.
“If you are coming from [R]akhine State you have to name your village. That is a problem – most cannot do that.”
The reluctance to raise the persecution of the Rohingya, who are officially referred to in Myanmar as Bengali, at the regional meeting was not unexpected.
At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Bagan in January, Minister for Foreign Affairs U Wunna Maung Lwin said Myanmar would not allow it to be thrust onto the ASEAN agenda.
While the United Nations and the United States have both recently increased the pressure on Nay Pyi Taw to take steps to address the problem, including pushing for a full resumption of humanitarian aid in the state, ASEAN members have remained largely silent.
“ASEAN countries have never taken an active stance on regional human rights abuses and that needs to change if the region is going to grow in economic and political influence,” said Matthew Smith, executive director at the Thailand-based Fortify Rights, a human rights organisaiton that has documented alleged abuses against the Muslims of Rakhine State.
“ASEAN countries stand to benefit from an end to the refugee crisis. Effective and coordinated pressure would decrease the reputational costs certain countries are facing and would send a message to the world that the region is serious about human rights.”
The ASEAN Summit agenda has instead been dominated by an escalation in tension in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN member states Vietnam and the Philippines.
Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said that these increased tensions had put Myanmar, as a first-time chair of ASEAN, in a difficult position but could also help deflect unwanted attention from other issues, such as Rakhine State.
“The regional and international media will focus less on Myanmar's internal problems given the flare-ups in the [South China Sea] – a silver lining if you are the Myanmar government,” Mr Cook said.