Asean Foreign Ministers Pledge Aid to Arakan State

By Moe Myint 19 December 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi convened an informal meeting with Asean foreign ministers to discuss the conflict in Arakan State at Rangoon’s Sedona Hotel on Monday morning.

The gathering was the first of its kind since the National League for Democracy government came to power earlier this year. An estimated 100 journalists attempted to obtain updates outside the hotel, but officials from Burma’s Foreign Affairs Ministry—which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also heads—remained mum on the details of the three-hour meeting, including the agenda.

The State Counselor’s Office released a statement on Monday afternoon emphasizing the need for “time and space” in handling the issues facing Arakan State, the importance of strengthening Asean unity and settling disagreements in the region through diplomatic consultations.

Also released on Monday was an updated report by international rights group Amnesty International on the Arakan State crisis, entitled, “We Are at a Breaking Point.” It outlines a series of abuses perpetrated by Burmese security forces against Rohingya Muslims, which the organization says “may amount to crimes against humanity.” The incidents are documented as having been carried out since an attack on three border police outposts by militants in October. It also criticizes neighboring Bangladesh for treating fleeing Rohingya as “criminals.”

Only after dozens of journalists blocked the hotel exit did some of the Asean foreign ministers briefly answer reporters’ questions.

“Everybody was happy with the meeting. So, everybody is leaving Yangon with satisfaction today,” Thailand’s foreign affairs minister Don Pramudwinai told members of the press.

He added that the meeting was held in order to give Asean members the opportunity to listen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s explanation of how her government has been addressing the conflict.

“This is a complicated issue that requires time and space to handle. The Myanmar government is trying its best to solve the issue,” Mr. Pramudwinai said.

Burma’s State Counselor also held a separate closed-door meeting with Indonesian foreign affairs minister Retno Marsudi.

“We had a very transparent and honest exchange of views during the meeting,” Ms. Marsudi said.

She told reporters that there were two important outcomes of the talks: Burma will regularly update Asean member countries of developments in Arakan State, and that Burmese government representatives expressed appreciation for offers of humanitarian assistance from its Southeast Asian neighbors.

“I think all of the Asean member countries offered to assistance for Myanmar to […] restart peace and stability in Rakhine State,” Retno Marsudi said.

Malaysia’s foreign minister, Anifah Aman, participated the discussion but did not speak to the reporters on Monday. Reuters reported that a transcript of Aman’s speech at the meeting described the situation as one of “regional concern” and noted that an estimated 56,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma’s Arakan State and now reside in Malaysia.

In early December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a massive protest in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, echoing accusations put forward by international rights groups that Burma was committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State.

Burma’s President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay criticized the Malaysian leader for his role in the protest, saying that it breached Asean protocol and was undiplomatic.

In November, several similar demonstrations were held in Malaysia, Indonesia and in Bangladesh, calling on the Burmese government to end extrajudicial killings, arson and rape in Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township. The government rejected allegations that such abuses were occurring.