Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday hewed to the group’s practice of reaching the least provocative consensus possible in discussions of such divisive issues as Myanmar’s Rakhine crisis and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
A two-day Foreign Ministers’ Retreat was the regional group’s first meeting since Thailand took over its annual chairmanship.
The host’s summary of the meeting emphasised the humanitarian role ASEAN members could play in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where more than 700,000 members of the Muslim minority fled across the border to Bangladesh to escape a brutal government counterinsurgency campaign.
Standard ASEAN practice is to avoid criticising what are considered each country’s domestic affairs. But Myanmar’s Rakhine crisis is also a regional problem, because of the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has generated, justifying discussion by the group.
ASEAN plans to send a team to Rakhine, but Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at a closing news conference said its mission had been delayed because of a stalemate on the ground. “Once things are cleared, then you will be seeing more visibly the presence of the collective ASEAN efforts in Myanmar and Rakhine State,” he said.
Don said the group suggested that Myanmar should “address the root causes of the conflict” and create “a conducive environment” so that affected communities can rebuild their lives.
Myanmar has previously acknowledged similar suggestions but done little to act on them.
ASEAN offered to act as a coordinator with UN agencies on the planned future repatriation of the Rakhine refugees currently sheltering at camps in Bangladesh, Don said.
Many of the refugees are reluctant to return without more guarantees of safety and the prospect of obtaining citizenship, which is generally denied to them.
The ministers also claimed progress on concluding a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, long touted as a way of avoiding volatile confrontations in the disputed waters.