Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly personally addressed Myanmar’s ongoing Rohingya crisis at a closed-door meeting of south-east Asian leaders, asking for help from Asean nations with humanitarian relief and Myanmar’s capacity to recover from the conflict.
At a meeting of leaders at the Australia-Asean summit in Sydney, Suu Kyi addressed the issue “comprehensively [and] at some considerable length”, the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said.
“Aung San Suu Kyi ... seeks support from Asean and other nations to provide help from a humanitarian and capacity-building point-of-view. Everyone seeks to end the suffering.”
More than 650,000 of the Rohingya ethnic and religious minority have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since August, fleeing systemic violence from the country’s military, including murder, rape and the deliberate torching of villages.
The UN has said the persecution “bears all the hallmarks of genocide” but Myanmar has vehemently denied the allegations, insisting the military’s operation was in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.
Suu Kyi has spoken little publicly about the conflict – and pointedly refuses to use the word Rohingya, which is not a minority recognised by the Myanmar government.
“It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility,” she said in a speech last September. “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.”
Asean has a declared policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states but the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has said that the ongoing persecution of Rohingya is of international concern.
“Because of the suffering of Rohingya people and that of displacement around the region, the situation in Rakhine state and Myanmar can no longer be considered to be a purely domestic matter … because it has the potential of developing into a serious security threat to the region.”
He said thousands remained vulnerable in Rakhine and over the border.
“People who see no hope in the future will be a fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment by Isis and affiliated groups,” he said. “We must be vigilant and increase our collaboration, because the collapse of Isis territories in Iraq and Syria has forced it to go underground and re-emerge elsewhere, especially in crisis zones where it can grow and operate.”
The Asean chairman – Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong – said instability in one Asean state held ramifications for all.
“All of us in the region, we will be anxious if there is any instability, if there is trouble in any of our member countries,” he said. “We are also concerned as human beings if there’s a humanitarian situation which has developed and people’s welfare and lives and safety are at stake. And we do our best to help the governments to re-establish stability and tranquility in the situation.”
Lee said he was not aware of specific security threats posed by the ongoing displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar.
“I do not have any specific intelligence on what’s happening in Rakhine state, whether there are terrorist groups as has been suggested,” he said. “These are possibilities which you cannot rule out and which you must keep on the watch-out for.”
Turnbull said the issue of the Rohingya crisis was “discussed constructively” and that Australia and Asean member states were ready to assist.
“Everyone seeks to end the suffering that has been occasioned by the [conflict and the] displacement of persons. Our goal is to support the peaceful and speedy resolution of the humanitarian ... disaster that has resulted from the conflict,” he said.
The Australian-Asean summit has been avowedly focused upon trade liberalisation across the region and increased counter-terrorism co-operation between states’ security agencies.
In a pointed riposte to the United States’ new steel and aluminium tariffs, Turnbull said of the Asean meeting that “there were no protectionists around the … table”. The region is working on a regional comprehensive economic partnership to facilitate free trade between all members.
Australia and the Asean nations have also committed to closer security ties and information-sharing between agencies, in a bid to counter transnational terrorist organisations and the influence of returning foreign fighters from conflict zones.
“Nowhere is far away from anywhere when it comes to terrorism, and none of us can tackle this alone,” Turnbull said.
But the unspoken focus of the three-day summit has been China’s growing influence across the region, in particular its capacious claims to territory in the South China Sea.
The Sydney declaration from the summit maintained Asean’s position that the sea – in particular its lucrative shipping lanes – must remain open.
“We reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region,” the statement said. “We emphases the important of non-militarisation and … the need for states to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Negotiations will begin this year on a binding declaration on the conduct of the parties in the South China Sea between China and the 10 Asean states. The precursor, a non-binding declaration on conduct, was finalised in 2002 but the framework, so far, for the new agreement remains focused on general principles, without specific binding commitments.