BAGAN – Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Friday that Burma’s ongoing Buddhist-Muslim violence has ramifications outside of the country, citing attempts by Indonesian terror groups to attack Burma’s Embassy in Jakarta last May, a plot hatched apparently in retaliation for attacks on Muslims in Burma since mid-2012.
“While it is an internal matter, it obviously impacts all of us. There have been cases of terrorist activities driven by these developments elsewhere, so we have to be keenly concerned,” the minister told The Irrawaddy, speaking after the closing of a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers.
On Monday, a Jakarta court found militant Rokhadi guilty of “evil conspiracy” for plotting the bombing of Burma’s Embassy in Indonesia, while on New Year’s Eve, Indonesian police killed six alleged Islamist terrorists said to be hatching other anti-Buddhist attacks.
Elsewhere, in Malaysia, host to hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers and refugees, there have been several bouts of violence in recent months involving Burmese Buddhists and Muslims, as well as more recent fighting between Burmese and Indonesian migrant workers. Those clashes were again thought to be sparked off by Burma’s internal strife, in which the majority of the dead and displaced have been Muslims.
The comments came as reports emerged that one policeman and possibly dozens of Rohingya Muslims were killed this week in Burma’s Arakan State, the region worst-hit by sectarian clashes. The US Embassy in Rangoon said in posts on its Twitter account Friday it was “deeply concerned” about the allegations, “especially reports of excessive use of force by security officials.”
“We urge government to thoroughly investigate, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure equal protection & security under the law in [Arakan State],” the embassy said. “Government must do more to address roots of on-going violence, lawlessness and human rights abuses that continue in [Arakan] State.”
But Burma’s Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut has denied reports that Rohingya were killed in the latest incident, and told media at the Asean meeting that Burma’s sectarian strife—particularly cases involving the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group regarded by the Burmese government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—was a domestic matter.
“The Bengali issue is our internal affair and we will not discuss it in the Asean meetings, even if member countries ask for it,” Ye Htut, who is spokesman for Burma’s President Thein Sein, was quoted as saying.
Burma’s internal conflicts were not raised at the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Bagan, in accordance with the wishes of the host country.
“Today we did not delve into any particular situation,” Natalegawa said, echoing remarks made by his Burmese counterpart at the post-meeting press conference.
Wunna Maung Lwin, Burma’s foreign minister, told media that Asean’s “non-interference” maxim would be applied across the board during Burma’s first-time chairing of the bloc.
“One of the principles of Asean is that of not interfering in the internal affairs of member countries. So, what is happening in Thailand or Cambodia is their internal affair, so we do not comment about the internal affair of those countries,” said the minister.
Neither Thailand nor Cambodia sent their respective Foreign Ministers to the Bagan meeting, citing ongoing political strife in their countries, the latest round of which saw explosive devices thrown at anti-government protesters in Bangkok earlier on Friday.
Asked about deteriorating inter-religious relations in Indonesia, where there were incidents of discrimination and sometimes violence against Christians, Shia Muslims and Ahmadis during 2013, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that issues of tolerance would be raised at Asean meetings during 2014.
“Even from today’s discussion, the issue of religious tolerance is going to be very much an issue that will be very much discussed throughout this year’s Asean work, and certainly Indonesia will work toward this.”
Ye Htut and Natelegawa were both speaking at the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Bagan, Burma’s tourist-draw temple haven on the Irrawaddy River.
The meeting was the first to be held in Burma as part of its chairmanship of Asean. This year marks the first time Burma has chaired the bloc, after a previous turn in 2006 was blocked due to concerns that the then-ruling junta’s human rights record would prompt a freeze in relations with the United States and other Western countries.
Burma joined Asean in 1997, 30 years after Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and by far the biggest country in Southeast Asia, led the way in setting up the organization.
The just-concluded meeting of the region’s foreign ministers aimed to set some of the agenda for the coming year’s series of Asean and related meetings to be held in Burma, a year-long series of parlays that will conclude with meetings taking in leaders of Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the United States.
Burma’s chairing of the bloc comes at a pivotal time, with regional leaders hopeful of forging closer economic ties.
“The success of Myanmar’s chairmanship in 2014 will play a key role in deciding whether Asean can implement the community by 2015,” said Asean Secretary-General Lê Lương Minh, referring to the hoped-for establishment of an Asean Economic Community by the end of 2015.