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Regional MPs lament inaction at Yangon meeting, call for stronger ASEAN response to Rohingya crisis

JAKARTA — Southeast Asian parliamentarians today expressed disappointment at the outcome of yesterday’s meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon focused on the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

While acknowledging the positive precedent of an ASEAN ministers meeting called on short notice to discuss a critical, but sensitive, regional concern, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said it was unfortunate that the meeting ended without any firm commitments of action. The collective of Southeast Asian lawmakers called for a stronger regional response and urged member governments to comply with their obligations in the ASEAN Charter to protect human rights.

“Through continued inaction, ASEAN risks failing the people at its center. This meeting should have been an opportunity to take decisive action to protect vulnerable civilians and hold the Myanmar government and military accountable. Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, it seems it was largely an act of political theater,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

“Sadly, ASEAN foreign ministers caved to Aung San Suu Kyi’s sweet talk and have seemingly put the Rohingya issue on the back burner. That’s bad news for the tens of thousands of Rohingya still trapped without aid access in Rakhine State, and it’s bad news for the region, which will ultimately pay the price for Myanmar’s inability or unwillingness to properly address the situation. The bottom line is that evidence and scores of reports of abuses fell on deaf ears.”

The meeting, which was called by Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, ended on Monday without clear commitments from the Myanmar government beyond a pledge to keep ASEAN counterparts updated on developments in Rakhine State. ASEAN foreign ministers offered humanitarian assistance but largely shied away from questioning the Myanmar government’s actions in the context of the crisis.

One notable exception was Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman. In his comments during the meeting, which were shared with the press, he expressed “grave concern” over “reports from many sources alleging arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings including of children, rape by soldiers, burning of Rohingya villages as well as destruction of homes and places of worship.” Invoking the 2015 regional refugee crisis, he also declared that the situation clearly constitutes a “regional concern.” He called for immediate humanitarian access to Rakhine State, as well as for ASEAN to establish an independent group of experts to investigate the situation there.

“It was encouraging to hear that the Malaysian minister highlighted alleged abuses and raised the prospect of an ASEAN investigating team made up of independent experts. Yet it appears this call too fell on deaf ears in Yangon. That’s unfortunate because such an inquiry, if truly independent, would contribute to revealing the truth and ensuring that abuses are not met with impunity,” Santiago said.

In a statement following the meeting, the Myanmar government expressed its “readiness to grant necessary humanitarian access,” but failed to outline a specific plan for doing so after weeks of similar promises to remove blocks on aid to tens of thousands of Rakhine State residents. The government statement also emphasized the need for “time and space” to resolve the situation.

“It is beyond disappointing to see Aung San Suu Kyi, formerly revered as a democratic icon, sit before her ASEAN counterparts and plead for ‘time and space.’ The Rohingya civilians facing the brunt of the onslaught in northern Rakhine State don’t have the luxury of time and space,” said Walden Bello, an APHR Board Member and former Member of Congress from the Philippines.

“Certainly there are complex long-term issues to be resolved in Rakhine State. But that complexity should not be used as an excuse to allow for the wholesale slaughter and abuse of civilians. What these people need right now is protection. Regional leaders must step up and not hide behind the usual ASEAN diplomatic niceties.”

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