Rakhine conflict changes Myanmar’s game
Myanmar’s de facto leader makes plea for ASEAN solidarity over conflict
GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor and KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN, Contributing writer
SITTWE/YANGON, Myanmar In an unusual display of diplomatic outreach, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi called a special “informal” meeting of regional foreign ministers in Yangon on Dec. 19 to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the country’s western Rakhine State. The move, unprecedented within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, came amid growing international protest over her government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims.
International aid agencies estimate that more than 30,000 Rohingya have been displaced, about 30,000 others have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and at least 160,000 people have been cut off from vital food and medical aid in a military crackdown after Muslim militants attacked police border posts on Oct. 9 in northern Rakhine. The numbers add to an estimated 120,000 already living in makeshift camps in the state after bouts of sectarian violence in 2012 and 2013. The government has said that nearly 100 people have been killed and about 600 detained in military operations against suspected militants since then, but has strongly denied reports of torture and destruction of homes.
Satellite imagery issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch, however, shows that about 1,500 homes in the region north of Maungdaw, the largest town in northern Rakhine, have been destroyed since Oct. 9. About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims — commonly called “Bengalis” by Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population — account for about one-third of the state’s population. They are denied citizenship although many have resided in Myanmar for generations.
ASEAN FAULTLINES International outcry over the crackdown highlighted a glaring rift within ASEAN, between member countries with majority Buddhist and Muslim populations in the 10-member group. In early December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak broke with ASEAN tradition by publicly castigating Myanmar over its treatment of the Rohingya community and accusing Suu Kyi’s government of presiding over the “genocide” of Rohingya Muslims. Najib also called for ASEAN to review Myanmar’s membership.
Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, resisted Najib’s urging to publicly condemn Myanmar, choosing to play more of a mediator role by sending its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to talk with Suu Kyi. It was after their Dec. 7 meeting that Myanmar issued its call for an informal ASEAN ministerial meeting.
The public spat with Malaysia, the shuttle diplomacy and the Dec. 19 meeting itself broke with ASEAN’s long-held principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs. But tensions between Muslim and Buddhist blocs within ASEAN could have long-term consequences for the group’s cohesion.
The Rakhine crisis has also damaged Suu Kyi’s international image, leading to international campaigns for the withdrawal of her Nobel Peace Prize and criticism from the U.S., EU and the United Nations secretary-general’s special adviser on Myanmar, who urged Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine and see the problems for herself. A stream of media reports from late October prompted protests in cities including Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi about alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar’s military.
The escalating protests could also stymie her country’s so-far successful emergence on the world stage, particularly if Western countries consider attaching conditions on aid to Myanmar. For governments that earlier rallied to support democratization and reform in Myanmar, the Rakhine conflict has become an embarrassment and a potential diplomatic minefield. For Japan, which rarely raises human rights issues in its diplomatic dealings, any move by the U.S. or large Western countries to attach conditions to aid could be awkward. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assiduously courted Suu Kyi and staked much — including billions of dollars in aid and assistance — on Japan’s new relationship with her government.
Reinforcing Naypyitaw’s anxiety, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told Security Council members at a closed-door meeting on Nov. 17 that Suu Kyi’s government was not equipped to handle the situation in Rakhine, and also called for an international probe into alleged military abuses.
Myanmar officials have also expressed worries that the incoming U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will pursue tougher action over Rakhine, given concerns he raised with the previous President Thein Sein about the plight of the Rohingya when he was U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2012.
Source by: http://asia.nikkei.com/